By Whitney HessJan 09, 2009
When I tell people that I am a user experience designer, I usually get a blank stare. I try to follow it up quickly by saying that I make stuff easy and pleasurable to use. That’s the repeatable one-liner, but it’s a gross oversimplification and isn’t doing me any favors.
The term “user experience” or UX has been getting a lot of play, but many businesses are confused about what it actually is and how crucial it is to their success.
I asked some of the most influential and widely respected practitioners in UX what they consider to be the biggest misperceptions of what we do. The result is a top 10 list to debunk the myths. Read it, learn it, live it.
User experience design is NOT…
1. …user interface design
It’s not uncommon to confuse “user experience” with “user interface” — after all it’s a big part of what users interact with while experiencing digital products and services. But the UI is just one piece of the puzzle.
“Interface is a component of user experience, but there’s much more,” says Peter Merholz, founding partner and president of Adaptive Path. Christian Crumlish, curator of the Yahoo! Design Pattern Library, explains that design “isn’t about cosmetics, pixel-pushing, and button placement. It’s holistic and it’s everyone’s concern, not just the realm of ‘artistic’ types.”
Dan Saffer, founder and principal at Kicker Studio, agrees that it’s common for design to be mistaken for being solely about decoration or styling. “I’ve had clients tell me not to worry about what their strategy is,” he says, “because why would a designer care about that? UX is more than just skin deep.”
2. …a step in the process
It is the process. In order to create a great experience for your users, not just design something that we’d like to use, we need to keep listening and iterating. It doesn’t have to be a rigid process, but it does need to exist.
“User experience design isn’t a checkbox,” says Liz Danzico, an independent user experience consultant and chairperson of the new MFA in Interaction Design program at the School of Visual Arts. “You don’t do it and then move on. It needs to be integrated into everything you do.”
Dan Brown, co-founder and principal at EightShapes notes, “Most [clients] expect experience design to be a discrete activity, solving all their problems with a single functional specification or a single research study. It must be an ongoing effort, a process of continually learning about users, responding to their behaviors, and evolving the product or service.”
3. …about technology
User experience isn’t even about technology, says Mario Bourque, manager of information architecture and content management at Trapeze Group. “It’s about how we live. It’s about everything we do; it surrounds us.”
faucetLike a painter uses paint to communicate concepts and emotions, user experience designers use technology to help people accomplish their goals. But the primary objective is to help people, not to make great technology.
“User experience design is not limited to the confines of the computer. It doesn’t even need a screen,” argues Bill DeRouchey, director of interaction design at Ziba Design. “User experience is any interaction with any product, any artifact, any system.”
Really, a user experience designer could help to improve a person’s experience with just about anything — a doorknob, a faucet, a shopping cart. We just don’t typically refer to the people using those things as “users,” but they are.
4. …just about usability
“People often think that [UX design] is a way to make products that suck into products that don’t suck by dedicating resources to the product’s design,” says Chris Fahey, founding partner and principal of Behavior. Making stuff easy and intuitive is far from our only goal. In order to get people to change their behavior, we need to create stuff they want to use, too.
David Malouf, professor of interaction design at Savannah College of Art & Design, explains that “while usability is important, its focus on efficiency and effectiveness seems to blur the other important factors in UX, which include learnability and visceral and behavioral emotional responses to the products and services we use.” Not everything has to be dead simple if it can be easily learned, and it’s critical that the thing be appealing or people might never interact with it in the first place.
“Usability is not a synecdoche for UX,” asserts Will Evans, principal user experience architect at Semantic Foundry. He points to Peter Morville’s UX honeycomb, which in addition to usable, recognizes useful, desirable, accessible, credible, findable, and ultimately valuable as the essential facets of user experience.
5. …just about the user
consumerRuss Unger, experience design strategist, likes to say that the biggest misconception of UX design is the “U.” “There are a set of business objectives that are needing to be met—and we’re designing to that, as well,” he explains. “We just can’t always do what is best for the users. We have to try to make sure that we are presenting an overall experience that can meet as many goals and needs as possible for the business and the users.”
As user experience designers we have to find the sweet spot between the user’s needs and the business goals, and furthermore ensure that the design is on brand.
Every project requires a custom-tailored approach based on the business’s available resources, capabilities, timeline, and budget, and a whole slew of real-world constraints. But that doesn’t always mean that it needs to be costly or take forever.
Steve Baty, principal and user experience strategist at Meld Consulting, combats the fallacy that UX design adds too much time to a project. “Sometimes a fully-fledged, formal UCD process may not be the best thing to try first time,” he says. “It’s extremely important – and totally possible no matter where you’re working or when you arrive on a project – to make small improvements to both the project and the product by introducing some user experience design techniques.”
“People cling to things like personas, user research, drawing comics, etc.,” notes Saffer. “In reality the best designers have a toolbox of options, picking and choosing methods for each project what makes sense for that particular project.”
Just because we know how to conduct some cool and useful activities and you know your business really well doesn’t mean that this whole process is a breeze. And cutting corners on some important steps is a recipe for disaster.
Saffer maintains that a misconception “as common among designers as it is among clients, is that there is one secret method that will solve all their design problems.”
A trap that a lot of companies fall into is in thinking that they are their own end users. Erin Malone, principal at Tangible UX, finds that both product managers and programmers believe they will create the experience as they build it. “UX designers are caught in the middle trying to speak the business language and the developer language to justify why we need to do our jobs and why it’s important to success.”
If you make assumptions about the people you expect to use your product or service — who they are, how they behave, what makes them tick — you’ll probably always be wrong. But take the time to get to know them, and hire the appropriate person to facilitate the process, and you can ensure you’ll get it right.
8. …the role of one person or department
workspaceUser experience designers are liaisons, not subject matter experts, doctors or any type of magical beings. We don’t have a set of best practices that we can robotically implement, nor do we have all of the answers. Our greatest skill is that we know how to listen. While we can help evangelize the most effective process within your organization, it’s ultimately up to all members of the business to make it a success.
“User experience isn’t just the responsibility of a department or a person,” says Livia Labate, principal of information architecture and user experience at Comcast Interactive Media. “That compartmentalist view of UX is evidence that it is not part of the organizational culture and hints to teams not having a common goal or vision for the experience they should deliver collectively.”
Malone highlights the fact that there are many different breeds of practitioners that fall within the user experience umbrella. “We, as an industry, have not done a good job of separating out specialties and roles with enough unique language so that clients and businesses get that they need to hire (on staff or consultant) different types of people at different points in a project lifecycle.”
9. …a single discipline
The truth is that we’re all still very new at this. Louis Rosenfeld, publisher at Rosenfeld Media, publishing books on user experience design, and co-author of the seminal 2002 book Information Architecture for the World Wide Web argues that user experience may not yet even be a discipline. “It may not even be a community just yet,” he asserts. “At best, it’s a common awareness, a thread that ties together people from different disciplines who care about good design, and who realize that today’s increasingly complex design challenges require the synthesis of different varieties of design expertise.”
We have proliferation of nebulous titles: information architect, user experience architect, interaction designer, usability engineer, design analyst, and on and on. And they don’t mean the same thing to every person or company.
Different people specialize in different parts of the process. Some UX practitioners focus on a specific technique, like Indi Young and mental models, or a single challenge, like Luke Wroblewski and web forms, or a focused activity, like Steve Krug and usability testing. Just like you wouldn’t go to a cardiologist to heal your broken foot, don’t expect any professional in the realm of user experience to accomplish everything you need.
10. …a choice
For those of you who think you don’t really need a user experience designer, keep this in mind: “Nobody wants to believe that what they are offering is of poor-quality or deficient,” says Kaleem Khan, an independent UX consultant, “because nobody sets out to achieve a bad design as a goal. It’s always a risk. Bad designs and bad experiences happen.”
Jared Spool, founding principal and CEO at User Interface Engineering (UIE), the world’s largest usability research firm, has done extensive investigation on the qualities of the satisfied and successful product teams. Simply put, the most common flaw he has found is that companies think “good experience design is an add-on, not a base requirement.”
Josh Porter, formerly of UIE and now principal at Bokardo Design, echoes Spool when he says, “The biggest misconception is that [companies] have a choice to invest in their user’s experience. To survive, they don’t.”
There are plenty of amazing practitioners who can help right in your local area. Check your local chapter of the Information Architecture Institute (IAI), the Interaction Design Association (IxDA), or the Usability Professionals Association (UPA), or just find someone on LinkedIn.
2009 is going to be a year of scaling back, but let it also be a call for pragmatism. It’s time to adopt more streamlined, smart, progressive and effective practices. We’ve reached a level of technological maturity where functional just isn’t good enough.
It’s how we engage people and the respect and value we provide to them that will separate the wheat from the chaff. Which side will you be on?