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March, 2015:

Stop Saying User Experience

“It’s a great time to be a UX Designer” is how Jared Spool opens his trademark talk. And he’s right. 15 years ago it was important to be online, embracing the technological changes that captured our attention with the internet. 10 years ago being innovative was all the rage. Everyone had to find a new way to do the things that had all been dully doing by hand in the real world. About 5 years ago or so, the UX “revolution” really picked up steam. We started celebrating each others’ successes as a community. We extolled the benefits of good interaction design. We started correcting people on the difference between UX and UI. We demanded a seat at the strategic table to establish the importance of being user-centered, validating product features with testing and introducing Design as a problem-solving facet of the software-development lifecycle.

And it stuck. People started seeing the importance of User Experience design. Management roles gave way to Director roles. Directors became VPs. C-level Design titles started appearing at companies that were not agencies. We did it. We’d arrived. Most days it feels like there are more available roles in UX than there are qualified individuals to fill those roles. Most of the time our biggest problem is establishing how to bring in junior level folks under the UX umbrella. A problem that gives way to part of our problem.

We’ve been so successful in shouldering our way into “the conversation” that we’ve firmly established what amounts to a suite of hard skills, disciplines, under a single umbrella as a buzzword. Yes, the entirety of what we strive to make better day to day is part of buzzword bingo. Damn it. We must have screwed up somewhere.

Probably not. We got everyone’s attention. Seriously…everyone. Now that we have their attention, we do stand the risk of failing our organizations, our teams, and ourselves if we don’t take the next important steps. The folks at Nerdery and a handful of other great places are already doing what needs to be done in order to establish better ways of introducing apprenticeship and learning the craft into the field. Jared Spool and Leslie Jensen-Inman are doing their part with making UX education more available. Schools around the nation are maturing their education programs to provide better UX foundations to young professionals entering the job market.  The United States government has even realized the importance of User Experience.

But now we’re plagued. We have a slow creeping virus spreading throughout our organizations. Let me put it this way:

“But that’s a bad user experience.”
“Because this will be a good user experience.”

I’m grateful for the folks in our community who have contributed to making what we do a respected, legitimate vertical in the professional world, but if we don’t start changing how we talk about what we do, we’re in danger of being misappropriated to the point of uselessness. Too may people have become comfortable with the idea of establishing their opinions as a good or bad “user experience”, or even worse, simply “UX”. For the sake of clarity, I’m definitely not saying people shouldn’t contribute and their opinions don’t matter; in fact I believe in the process of creating good software, websites or interactions as a highly collaborative process. However, we’ve allowed ourselves and others to fall back on referring to User Experience in a way that’s as subjective as whether or not we care for a particular painting.

While there is room for subjectivity in some of our content and aesthetics, there’s objectivity to a great deal of what we do that is rooted in psychology and science. There’s clear direction that we generate out of our quantitative analysis and usability research. There’s clearly established patterns in interaction design that tell us why it makes sense to use a checkbox versus a radio button. Library Science lent us a whole field of categorization and taxonomy that allowed us to make sense of all that text. There are hundreds of years of color study and decades of choice theory that inform what we do. When we, User Experience professionals, talk about our work, we should be doing so from an objective, almost scientific approach. Being emotionally engaged in your output is healthy, but communicating why you’ve made your decisions rooted in what you believe will be a “good user experience” is as damaging to your end result as saying that you wanted to paint everything in a cubist style to “try it out”.

This extends to when others are giving feedback and critique on your work. I’m not saying be a jerk about it, but when someone says that it would be a “bad user experience”, it’s on you as the solution-provider to explore why. Don’t accept it at face value. Find out what isn’t resonating with the marketer giving you feedback. Ask the developer why they think it will be bad. Is it the drop-down? Does the interaction feel strange? Did the CFO expect a different page to load when she clicked that button? Chances are high you would ask those kind of exploratory questions (and patiently) if you were conducting a usability session… so do the same as part of your everyday communication around your solutions and work. It’s part of being a responsible UX professional.

So here’s my call to action. Stop saying User Experience. Stop saying UX. Teach others what UX is. Teach people how to explain what it is they’re seeing. It’s okay. They’ll still make room for you at the table. It’s time to make UX more than an ambiguous, subjective term able to be called upon at any time like Thor calling for his hammer to endorse or destroy the work of a team with a single phrase pre-pended with a positive or negative qualifier. We were able to shoulder our way in and show everyone that it made sense to have it as a legitimate part of business strategy, but if we don’t follow through by explaining what it actually means and how to incorporate it into both process and organizations, we’ll have failed ourselves, and ultimately, our users.

#StopSayingUX