It really was a dark and stormy night, and I had been, for too long, cruising the twitter feeds with blurry eyes. I was about to take a break from dodging the political flotsam of partisan outrage, and leaping over spectacular casino ads promising me instant riches, when I found myself tumbling into a UX thread chock full of opining UX younglings from all across the globe. The opening tweet is now irrelevant, but not far into the thread I saw how quickly the ball of design terminology unraveled into arrogance, argument, and confusion – long before it could even get itself rolling into healthy debate or knowledge sharing. I sighed, and scrolled on through the vitriol.
The arguments, as old as UX is young, were obvious, meaning I was not at all surprised by what I read. Here are some of the comments, truncated, for your enjoyment and possible stomach upset:
- What is User Experience design? (Yikes!)
- It’s not User Interface design, is it? (Umm… no?)
- UX and UI are not the same thing. (Hit the brakes)
- There are only four types of UX Design. (Dogma much?)
- FIGMA is NOT UX DESIGN! (True but…)
- Where do I go to learn UX, please? I am new. (Is it that mysterious?)
- UX Design is research, is case study, is survey. It’s not design. (This deserves some straight talk)
- UX is not technical. (X! Wrong.)
- UX is technical. (Ding-Ding! Winner winner, vegan chicken dinner!)
…and so on…
Not that I should gauge the health of social strata or an entire industry based solely upon what I find in the annals of the internet cesspool (Twitter). But, reading that very thread painted a clearly unpleasant image of our younger, up and coming designers. I saw them meandering like zombies through the murk of our discipline. Not knowing what to ask. Not knowing where to go. Suspicious of their tools. And not knowing whose brains to munch on to consume knowledge and thus grow. And how could they be anything but confused? Standards are loose — we call them best practices — and it’s not like there’s a national board of UX professionals establishing regulated criteria we must adhere to and be judged on. It’s still a subjective, budget-constraining, free-for-all miasma of stuff swirling around out there in the Wild Wild Remote World of UX Designers.
I can’t help but feel slightly ashamed, as an elder, for having grown up in the same spiraling gasses of the Great UX Nebula, while having very little impact on codifying the maturity of the craft (though I have mentored and given birth to some great UX Professionals in my horrifically storied and aged career). I suppose I left most of that structure and hierarchy business to the design heroes of our age, for whom I have only some regard - you’ll find no dogma here.
So, I will make the ghastly, anti-heroic attempt at clearing up this particular bout of confusion by sharing the mindset I have used over the years to land high yielding, performant results, and hopefully assist some of the newcomers with finding resources that help them along their journeys through the wonderful world of empathizing with users and their chronic woes.
Here we go…
“What Is User Experience Design?”
First, let’s break this down into its parts, contextually.
- User: Any entity, usually human, but not necessarily, that engages an interaction layer found somewhere between itself and its environment to accomplish necessary or desirable tasks.
- eXperience: Qualitative and Quantitative measures of subjective satisfaction and outcomes resulting from those interactions.
- Design: The active participation and execution of researching and developing evidence-based solutions that will improve the experience of users.
I realize this is an oversimplification of the vastness of experience design, but I wanted to break it down into its parts to demonstrate that the answer is in the language itself. Donald (Don) Norman, a cognitive scientist, coined this term at Apple in the early 1990’s to encompass all aspects of user experience architecture, because he knew, early on, that there was a need to organize the multifaceted requirements of his job into a singular succinct term. I believe this still holds true today, even though Don Norman might say the term has reached its expiration date. User Experience Design (UXD) is a discipline. But it’s also an action, and a toolbox of unlimited scope. It is an entire, ever-changing, expanding industry condensed down into a three-word term some people – I’m looking at you, kids – still do not fully understand. But that term means something, and we should honor it. I do so by rolling all that we know and do under its umbrella. Why? Because in a nutshell, User Experience Design is ALL THE STUFF we do to improve life for the user, therefore improving engagement with products and services. It really is…
EVERYTHING ALL AT ONCE-nce-nce-nce…
I know. That’s impossible. EVERYTHING? Well, without getting too philosophical, think about those words. User. Experience. Design. Many outside the dome will think web design. Others will think, “Like apps and stuff?” But because we prescribe living systems, be it animal, plant, or even an API, as the subjective matter in that equation, AKA the user, we should be aware that those experiences can be anything real or imagined. From lifting a hammer, to hydroponic lettuce towers, to credit card applications, to flying cars, to code connections, and who knows, maybe even one day to teleportation or time travel. There is an experience to be had in all of it. And everyday, all the things, especially the living things, are having vastly complex, interconnected experiences. Now, hold onto your Happy Socks – These experiences might not even be digital, and may never touch the digital space. I know. The world is a mysterious place. But even if that’s true for you, you are still, indeed, a UX Designer.
Oof. Let’s sober up and get our feet back on terra firma and put some design constraints around this nebula. While I could go on expounding the virtues of solving the world’s problems, I’ll tighten up the lasso and wrangle UXD into the contained perspectives of our most ubiquitous technologies – you know, like the interwebs and phones and stuff – and dive into the tweets of Skin Crawl City.
“UX And UI Are Not The Same Thing!”
This is true, but it’s also not true. Whaaa? Hear me out. User Interface Design falls under the umbrella term of User Experience Design. UI Design alone is a skill that walks the shadow realm between art and science. But without applying UX Principles to UI Design, it is nothing more than art and fanciful bias, a “best guess” by the designer, like the gorgeous Minority Report UI, or the HUD inside Iron-man’s helm, which would drive anyone without Tony Stark level intelligence insane, should they attempt to actually use it. UX works to ensure the experience of using UI is as right as it can be, given what is known: known about the user, the technology, the business needs, the environment, constraints, etc. To achieve this knowledge, we deploy many research and synthesis methodologies that have themselves been designed, tested, and refined by practitioners. And even these methodologies, which continue to adapt to environmental pressures like technology, are too numerous to list. See Luma Institute for more. But, with that, we should strive to keep in mind that UX Design is really about the interdependencies of the entire discipline. UI Design supports the decisions that come from that UX Design and Research.
So, logically, UI Design is UX Design, or at least a part of it. And to push this rationale even further, I will now attempt to categorize some of the more prevalent systems, components, and data sources useful to UX Design into their respective “buckets.” Keep in mind, these do not need to be exclusive, and the chunking is a symptom of how my brain works / or doesn’t work. (Wundt and Titchener are now rolling over in their jägerschnitzel gravies. If you don’t know who they are, look them up!)
- Formative and generative research
- Behavioral research
- Human factors
- Contextual inquiry
- Focus groups
- Data / Call center data
- Ethnography, psychographics, etc.
- Problem spaces
- Technology: performance, uptime
- Friction (good and bad)
- Business goals
- Problem spaces
- Problem solving
- UI design
- Interaction design
I think you get it. If you said, “Hey, these could all go under the “User” category,” you would be right. Like I said, they’re not exclusive. But UX Design, if an umbrella term, can be thought of in so many ways. This is just one. Maybe you want to replace the term with Human Centered Design, and park UX under that. Go for it. It’s far more relevant to understand the relationships between the methods than it is to organize them into a hierarchy. Anyway, we could conjure a card sort and debate ontology ALL DAY LONG, but I also have real work to do, and less time for metaphysics, so moving on.
“There Are Only 4 Types Of UX Design”
Meh. This tweet was a bizarre attempt to back UX, UI, IA, and IX into some sort of Pantheon of Design Roles. Homework: look those acronyms up if you don’t know them! But it couldn’t be further from the truth. There are many, maybe too many, “types” of UX Design out there. From leveraging basic design principles like structuring an affordance, to simplifying overly complex ecosystems with Service Design, UXD is unlimited in its scope. Why not include ergonomics? What about human computer interactions? What about industrial design? Chemistry? Branding? Aerospace? Process? See where I am going? EVERYTHING ALL AT ONCE - If you are attempting to improve the life experience, even if it’s the grip on a hammer and its weight to handle-length ratio, you are, indeed, a UX Designer. We are all pursuing the truth so that truth can be reflected in our solutions. It matters not, your field.
“Figma Is Not UX Design”
The user that tweeted this is not wrong. However, I am including it to clarify a few points. As UX Designers, no matter where you specialize within the toolbox, our approach should always be tool-agnostic. This doesn’t mean you should forgo learning the tools. It means you should be spending time learning to use the right tool for the job. Maybe you're freelancing for a company that uses Sketch, but you only know FIGMA. Well, late breaking story: You need to learn Sketch (while you no doubt plot your attempt to replace Sketch with FIGMA via a high stakes political game involving a few presentation decks). I am not saying you shouldn’t attempt to master any one, or many design (and other) tools. You do you. But make no mistake - you should be open and ready to learn whatever tools you have access to that gets your work done. Be Tool-Agnostic.
This also means that you carry your discipline within you and should never be reliant on a tool to exercise your craft. There’s an old saying that a bad worker blames his tools. In fact, you don’t need any tools other than your brain to do UX Design. But they are a tremendous help to getting your thoughts communicated, and your solutions out into the wild. Until, you know, iTelepathy becomes a thing.
BONUS: some more homework. Research these terms, practice them and try to integrate them into your work. They are some of the tools you will carry within you:
- Abstract Laddering
- Jobs To Be Done
- Convergent & Divergent Processes
- Hicks Law (AKA Hicks-Hyman Law)
- Fitts Law
- Neomorphism / Skeuomorphism
“Where Do I Go To Learn UX, Please?”
So, you want to be a Jedi Knight of the UX Design Order, but don’t know where to begin your training? Have no fear, Padawan, for fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering some poor UX Design decisions and common mistakes. So let’s get you oriented on the right path. Below we have included some links to resources you should explore in no particular order, so please feel free to muck about in whatever chronology you so choose. What are some good UX Resources you’ve found to be useful along your journey? Please share in the comments below!
Nielsen Norman Group
Service Design Network
BONUS: My strong advice for anyone looking to get into UX or is new-ish to UX, User-Centered Design, Service Design, etc.: GET A MENTOR! I can’t stress this one enough. Go to UX meetups in your area. Steep in the glory of your fellow constituents. Become the space… Mentors can really help you dodge early misconceptions and mistakes, and having mentors and allies is a great way to start building your network. Try ADP List and Meetup to start!
“UX Design Is Research, Is Case Study, Is Survey. It Is NOT…Design”
This one floored me. Quite a bit, actually. I know many great, thoughtful UX Researchers, and their job is a critical one. While many times the UX Designer must wear many, if not all the hats, specializations permissible by budget and culture do occur. And, if well organized, it’s fabulous when they do. Fortunately for all, as more companies “understand” and adopt UX practices into their org, this need for specialization tends to increase. UX Writers, UX Researchers, UX Designers, UX Engineers, and Facilitators, are only a few who have carved out unique propositions for themselves within the larger context of UX Design. And those specializations will continue to sprawl out into their own unique trajectories. A big UX Blob of pulsating specialization! …gross…
However, while it’s true that research, developing case studies, and surveys are all parts of UX Design, and may not be, in and of themselves, classic “design” exercises, they are indeed design. Every input that goes into design execution is as important as the output. Think about the bigger picture here. You are what you eat. Eat good research, gnash the data, chug down a few gallons of high octane insights, or your designs will never grow into the mature and beautiful experiences they are meant to be.
“UX Design Is Not Technical / UX Design Is Technical”
Again, I am on the floor. The X in UX stands for eXperience. Please, pretty please, with a cornucopia of cherries on top, and for the love of whatever god or object you worship, PLEASE understand that UX Design is highly technical - especially in the context of, well, technology. Your infrastructure architect, your performance engineering team, your coders… Those people are the backbone of User Experience. You can craft the best journey, the clearest path, and a UI that would make the muses cry, but it will not matter if it takes 10 seconds to load a query, is only available part of the time, crashes often, isn’t secure and trusted, and so on. Please keep in mind the critical relationships intertwined within the holistic UX journey. UXD can be extremely technical in nature, and in the context of technologies, it must be.
Going back to the hammer, that most analogous of tools, you (UX Designer) design it and someone (Technical team) builds it. The build process, the machining, the materials, its color, its tactile feel, its brand…all of this goes into the User Experience.
In The End
Golly, look at the time. In closing, I just want to say to all the newbies out there, the young and energetic ones, and even the older, somewhat tired ones… We are all just trying to figure it out. What we think is right today might not be right tomorrow. There really is no absolute and dogmatic, correct way to get these things done. There are some guidelines you should follow, such as those found in your basic design principles, or ADA compliance, but even then you are open to exercising your genius and solving problems within those frameworks. My advice is to always look for ways to improve. How can you become more efficient? What can you commodify? Don’t reinvent the wheel, but take from the community and use what others have done, then grow it into something else. This is how the discipline grows and grows stronger. Use best practices, and make them better. Know the basics, for all the secrets are there. And study those principles of design. Humankind has been designing since the age of stone tools and tunics. We’ve learned a thing or two since then. I suggest you go out there, find out what it is, and use it to improve the greater world experience.
Please comment below and share your thoughts on how you think User Experience Design as a discipline could be structured. Please don’t forget to like and share for more content. Sharing is caring! And for any other general inquiries, please reach out to Bellese and say hello! We would love to hear from you.
Best of Luck!