Cargo-Cult User Experience? There’s an App for That

By Peter Hornsby

Published: February 20, 2012

“People are hardwired to make connections between cause and effect and, in some cases, to infer connections that do not actually exist.”

During the Second World War, the USA established bases on a number of islands in the south seas. Having previously had little contact with the outside world, the islanders saw American aircraft landing that were filled with valuable materials. After the war ended and the Americans left, the islanders wanted the aircraft to continue to come and bring wealth to the island. So, they built imitations of the things that they perceived as having brought the aircraft. They laid fires alongside the runway, constructed a wooden hut where a man would sit with wooden pieces on his head like headphones, had someone stand on the runway waving wooden paddles, and so on. Yet, despite all of this effort, the planes did not come.

While this cargo cult may appear foolish to modern eyes, people are hardwired to make connections between cause and effect and, in some cases, to infer connections that do not actually exist. (See, for instance, the classic work by B.F. Skinner on operant conditioning.

I recently saw a job advertisement for a UX designer. It asked for all the usual things, but there was one curious phrase: “You own an iPhone and an iPad and live and breathe Apple design.” It’s worth noting that the company was not Apple, nor was it affiliated with Apple in any way. It was actually a design company in the south of England, looking for a UX designer to work on Web design, in a domain without any apparent connection to Apple.

While there may be stereotypes of designers—jeans, turtleneck, ponytail, glasses—and UX designers—for whom you should add iPad, iPhone, MacBook Pro, Sharpies, and Moleskine—anyone can buy these accoutrements. Anyone can use the language of design and talk about the need for a user-centered design process—user research, design, usability testing—but this, in itself, does not produce good design results. Asking for someone who will “live and breathe Apple design” is of value only inside Apple.

“The cargo cult in UX design relates to applying any aspect of design without having the understanding you really need to make proper use of it. And the problem is that the cargo cult appears to promise a shortcut to something most people find very hard to achieve: critical thinking.”

The cargo cult in UX design relates to applying any aspect of design without having the understanding you really need to make proper use of it. And the problem is that the cargo cult appears to promise a shortcut to something most people find very hard to achieve: critical thinking. Here’s something that works, the cargo cult says. If you do this, too, you’ll experience the same success! By emphasizing the Apple connection in the job advertisement, the company was expressing a desire to imitate the success of Apple in user experience. There is nothing wrong with that, but I pity the poor UX designer who took the position. I imagine a company that would expect Apple-like UI design regardless of its appropriateness to the company’s products, customers, or broader customer experience.

While I’ve described an extreme case, for any field, there is a set of knowledge that people regard as received wisdom, but may not have any real basis in research or reality. In talking about user experience, people often use terms like user friendly and intuitive. These have become powerful, persuasive terms, but are, in fact, poorly defined. (I’m pleased that user friendly seems to be dying out, but intuitive seems to be filling the void.) The problem is that using terms like these is lazy: using them demands no evidence; no thinking about the relationship between task and user. User experience isn’t alone in this: every field has its own jargon, and people often use buzzwords to gloss over their own lack of understanding. But when organizations who come to designers for help define requirements in these terms—regardless of whether the work would ultimately benefit customers—they make the designers job much, much harder.

“For any field, there is a set of knowledge that people regard as received wisdom, but may not have any real basis in research or reality.”

The first step in tackling this mindset is to start challenging received wisdom and understand its limitations. Or, as a colleague once rather prosaically put this, to become a cynic. Some types of received wisdom still rear their ugly heads despite their being overwhelming evidence to contradict them—“below the fold” and “three clicks maximum” being prime examples. One approach to expanding your horizons is to become mindful of those things that you have accepted as “just good design” or “just good practice” and start exploring their implications, understanding why they work when they do and what their limitations are.

For instance, the golden ratio. For someone like me, without a strong graphic design background, the golden ratio is fascinating. It’s essentially a mathematical formula for beauty, by way of geometry—and incidentally, an example of why the separation of art and science is frankly ridiculous. While the use of the golden ratio has direct links to UX design—for instance, in the design of Twitter and even a golden ratio calculator—spending time getting outside your comfort zone and thinking about the application of received wisdom—for instance, in the domain of physical design—can be more beneficial, because the mind needs to deal with a whole new set of design variables.

The book Design for Hackers: Reverse Engineering Beauty, by David Kadavy, provides an excellent explanation for many of the areas of UX design that many designers may feel, but do not fully understand. I would, however, recommend your spending some time thinking about these ideas in advance of picking up the book!

“In user experience, … accepting received wisdom may seem to be the safe path. … However, by spending the time to reflect on when and why something works and what its limitations are, you’ll become a better UX designer….”

In my previous life as a computer scientist, my supervisor once suggested that I try coding a graphic user interface (GUI) in LISP. While this is possible, thinking about how to apply a declarative language to a GUI is not for the faint hearted. However, in trying to address the problems that I encountered in attempting to do this, my understanding of the GUI, how it could work, and LISP itself increased far beyond what one would typically expect if one stuck with conventional approaches. As a mental exercise, it was good for my soul.

In user experience, as in other fields, accepting received wisdom may seem to be the safe path. If a client is saying they want everything above the fold or a maximum of three clicks away, pushing back in a way that the client can understand can be hard. It’s harder still to push back if the received wisdom happens to be accepted by your peers in user experience. However, by spending the time to reflect on when and why something works and what its limitations are, you’ll become a better UX designer—without succumbing to the delusions of the cargo cult.

2 Comments

Thank you. One of my favorite articles in a while. Intuitive has truly become the buzzword of the day. There is still a temptation, I think, to avoid the work of testing and adjustment in favor of in-house expert reviews with new terminology at the ready. Sadly, this often results in looking at the project again, soon after release.

I take issue with the premise that a company’s ask that the ideal candidate would “live and breathe Apple design” is of value only inside Apple.

As UX people who, presumably, value the idea of personas, couldn’t it be argued that the job description was really a persona trait? Wasn’t the company really asking for a candidate who was steeped enough in design to understand that what was really required was an Apple-like commitment to elegance, simplicity, and usability? I’m quite sure that the company wasn’t just trolling for a Johnny I’ve wannabe who specs Trebuchet and aqua buttons on every design.

I both get and agree with your larger points here, but to suggest that the minimalist ideals and, yes, success that Apple strives for is, in some cases, a bad thing is perhaps a bad example.

Full disclosure: I didn’t post that ad for a UX professional that you’re referring to, but I did write this response on an iPad—because the battery on my MacBook Air is way low, and I have a hard time typing long posts on my iPhone, especially when I’m being distracted by my Apple TV… ;)

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