Between the head and the hand there must be User Experience

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At the Web Professional’s Book Club on Thursday night, the conversation took an interesting turn. Some of my cohorts professed a lack of faith in “UX” or “User Experience” professionals, casting them alongside “Search Engine Optimization experts” in the lower, more laughable tiers of the web professional trades. I was shocked. In all my career, I have always looked up to UXers as a sort of glowing stag in the forest of the Internet. We are surrounded by bad design and clumsy interfaces. I always imagined user experience designers as the people behind the bright spots on the Internet, a force to be respected and emulated.

So naturally I was a bit bewildered. What’s so bad about UXers? The reasoning went that good web design should naturally equate a good user experience, and that the user experience as a whole consists of more than what happens when you press x, y, or z. While it is great that we all feel responsible for the user’s experience, I feel this approach is flawed in two ways:

  1. This argument assumes that UXers work within a very limited scope that does not encompass the entire system. While it is true that some specialists, like Information Architects, User Interface Designers, User Researchers, do limit the scope of their work, these people usually only live in larger design and development ecosystems which can afford specialists (DBA's, copywriters, and others included). Many user experience designers/engineers draw on all these job descriptions to offer a broad range of skills in a more affordable package.
  2. It also assumes that designers should take full responsibility for the wireframing, testing, user research, interviews, and information architecture that UXers customarily take upon themselves. By these standards, 98% of all current web designers are inadequate. So what should we do with them? Retrain them? Give them new job titles? Tell them to get out of the swimming pool and go back to print? I know plenty of fantastic, stunningly talented web designers who have no competency or interest in the sorts of tasks UXers perform. I personally cannot imagine telling them they are unqualified to do their job.

Perhaps, the user experience as a whole should be decided upon by the web site’s team. But it’s hard to imagine an entire team creating and testing wireframes, interviewing and researching users, hashing out the IA–I’m sure it can be done, especially on small projects. But as soon as you start looking at anything with more than 10 users or with any app-like qualities, you need someone to own this stuff or it will go to pot.

Designers, especially green ones, aren’t usually designing for users–they design for themselves or for the clients. The clients aren’t thinking about users. They’re thinking about their goals, budgets, and themselves. Developers just want to make the thing work so they can get on with it! There is no one representing the user in this model. And even if magically all parties had a consensus about what was best for the users and diligently tried to make that happen, they would still make a lot of newb mistakes that a seasoned UXer would sidestep.

Design is the hand. Development is the head. Between the head and the hand, there must be the heart, the advocate for the user. That’s what “UX” is about. It’s not a buzzword to be tossed around lightly, although many do. It’s a calling. It’s a fight. It’s an obligation. By all means, if you’re a designer or developer who wants to learn more and start with a users-first attitude, bully for you. But remember that there’s a lot more to it than good intentions and a few articles on UX Booth.

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