The Personal Disquiet of

Mark Boulton

On defining UX

– September 6th, 2010 –

Well, what a week that was. Off the back of a wonderful dConstruct came a timely discussion (either well-timed, or ill-timed depending on your point of view) between Ryan Carson and the UX community (rebuttals from Andy Budd and Cennydd Bowles).

As usual, it’s polarised opinion. But now - a few days later - more thoughtful discussion is beginning to take place.

It all started with one tweet:

UX Professional’ is a bullshit job title. It’s just a way to over-charge naive clients. All web designers should be UX pros
http://twitter.com/ryancarson/status/22885968975

Admittedly, I think Ryan’s timing was a little off given Clearleft had just advertised they were looking to hire a Senior UX Designer. That said, this discussion does continue to bubble up the surface every now and then. Last year, I tweeted:

Since when did good web design suddenly get called ‘UX’? Everywhere I look now, good UI design is called ‘UX’, good type = ‘UX’, Colour? UX.
http://twitter.com/markboulton/status/2567887109

Jeremy followed it up stating why he doesn’t care about UX:

If someone claims to be a web designer but isn’t considering the user experience, they are deluding themselves. UX, like accessibility, should be a given, not a differentiating factor. And that’s why I don’t care about UX.
http://adactio.com/journal/1596/

I think this is what Ryan was getting at. In fact, it was confirmed in an update to a post over at Think Vitamin:

I still strongly believe that if the lead web designer on a project needs someone who specializes in UX because they don’t have a good understanding of solid UX principles, then they shouldn’t call themselves a web designer. Web Design and UX are not two separate disciplines, and UX is not something you add to a project because you have a large budget.

I don’t agree with the first bit. I fall in that category of designer; I work with UX professionals every day. Researchers, Information Architects, Interaction & UX Designers. And I get UX. I work with other people to provide a better service to my clients. I’m not an information architect. And, if you’ve ever worked with a good one, on a project that required it, then you’d probably agree with me. Understanding the principles of something can in no way replace an experienced professional.

To me, this is a discussion of semantics. Let me explain my point of view.

UX is a few things:

  • It’s an overarching principle and practice of web design. ie. you should design for your user’s experience and that should just be part of what you do.
  • It’s a profession. Information architects, interaction designers, researchers, academics. They are all UX professionals and not necessarily involved in the broad process, but are a cog in the machine.
  • A buzzword. Like many things that started out new in this industry, the practitioners promote it, differentiate themselves, this gains traction with clients and then the term is popularised and diluted. As Cennydd says, this worries some people as it undermines their value and expertise. Incidently, as I recall, this happened to ‘graphic design’ in the 80’s, ‘web design’ in the late 90’s and now it’s happening to UX. In some industries, it’s why professional bodies are put in place. To ensure a level of professional association with a term given to both someone’s job and an industry.

What we’re seeing is a maturing of a term that represents different things. It represents something different for our clients, to the web industry as a whole and to the subset of professionals who have been practicing user experience design for the past 20 years.

Just like the debate about whether designers should be able to write HTML, this discussion is just not as black and white as everyone is making out. There’s a whole lot of grey in there.

Filed in: markboulton-co-uk.

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