True Death of UX? Being Jaded
Published: April 24, 2012
There has been a lot of talk lately about the so-called death of user experience. Through having been an active UX professional for the past 13 years, I have found that one of the true dangers to user experience is when the people practicing the craft get jaded.
I recently read an article from Forrester Research that discussed their results from conducting 1500 Web site usability reviews. After reading through the findings, I found myself chuckling a bit in disbelief. It took 1500 reviews to find out things any quality UX professional knows after mere months on the job? The article highlighted a few of the findings, including one with which every UX professional is familiar: they found the same problems over and over throughout those 1500 reviews. That kind of news could be depressing for any UX professional. We all like to believe that we are making a difference with what we do.
Variety Is Truly the Spice of Life—but in the End, Variety Is Still Just a Spice
In a services consulting role, you might find yourself visiting multiple customers a week. Sometimes, in a week, I visit three to five customers in various industries. Inevitably and in a very short time, you see the same things over and over again. There are rarely new problems or unique situations where you are unable to draw upon your experience to suggest solutions. Reaching this level of expertise is somewhat of a mixed milestone. On the one hand, it means that you are a seasoned professional who is unflappable and has the experience to back up your decisions. On the others hand, it is also an indicator that you are ripe for becoming jaded. Acknowledging both of these points is the first step toward ensuring that you will continue down a UX path that not only gives you personal satisfaction, but also allows you to provide the best possible service to your customers and users.
One of the biggest challenges that I face professionally is being able to sit through multiple days of contextual inquiries with clients. When we engage with a new client or project, we like to do operational walkthroughs and examine the current applications that people are using. We talk with both the business and end users and are thus able to identify their goals for a new system or redesign. Customers are usually excited by this opportunity to talk with us and share their hopes, dreams, and of course, complaints. Their excitement is contagious and should serve as an energizing force that helps focus the work we are doing with them. Yet, oftentimes, I find myself wanting to wrap these sessions up quite quickly because it seems that we are seeing the same things over and over again.
Working with various industries helps, but what it also solidifies is that, whether you are working in the telecommunications, financial, healthcare, insurance, or another industry, there is a single constant: you are working with human beings and flawed systems that pretend human interactions are not important. When there is such a constant, central theme throughout your work, it becomes all too easy to try to apply the same solutions to every situation that crops up. In the field of UX, that is one of the most dangerous things you can do.
The Dangers of Becoming a Jaded UX Professional
User experience folks tend to have quite a lot of empathy by nature. It is certainly one of the strengths of the profession, and the best UX professionals have that trait in common. I would rather have a UX professional on my team who has limited formal education and strong empathy than the other way around.
Being jaded is absolutely like venom to empathy and kills it quickly and directly. For someone in a services consulting UX role, lack of empathy is a sure way to guarantee that you will not have radiation among your existing client base and will fail to attract new clients.
Admittedly, when you are trying to showcase that you know what you are talking about when it comes to UX solutions, while remaining excited and engaged with new clients, this is a tricky path to follow. You want your clients to simultaneously recognize that you know exactly what to do to solve their problems, but are also able to look at their issues with fresh eyes and come up with new ideas that will set them apart from their competitors. But getting to the point where you exude confidence to clients often means that you might have a certain jadedness about you.
The ironic thing is that UX professionals often see exactly the same level of world weariness in the very people they are trying to help. Almost every single customer I have visited has had a project with at least one user who has “seen it all.” The word transformation just does not exist in their vocabulary anymore. It used to be that these types of users were pretty similar with a company in terms of age and tenure. However, since the advent of accessible and robust consumer applications, I am seeing such jaded users grow younger and more junior within clients’ organizations.
A UX professional has only to take a moment to look at this type of user to recognize the dangers of emulating them. This is one case where empathy is certainly needed, but be careful about putting those shoes on. Instead, the empathy you have for this user should act as a lesson about how you should continue in this line of work and remain positive and energized. Look at how these people’s colleagues act and respond every time they put down ideas or act as a blocker to adopting a new approach. Feel their lack of energy and their world-weary attitude. Then ask yourself if that’s how you want people to perceive you whenever you walk into a room. Know that, if you are jaded, people will perceive you in exactly that way.
So What Do You Do?
There are a number of strategies and concepts that I keep in mind when I face the prospect of becoming jaded, and I want to share three of them with you.
1. Remember, you are not alone.
Talking with my various colleagues, I have found that they also struggle with keeping what they do exciting and new. But this is an issue that rarely gets discussed. It’s almost as if you do experience it and talk about it, it becomes real, and there is no turning back. Thinking this way is is a mistake. Our professional relationships, whether with UX people or those outside the world of user experience, help keep us grounded and give us new perspectives on age-old issues.
2. Look outside of UX for inspiration.
As popular as user experience has become, there are still plenty of people out there who know nothing of what we do in our field—and never even think of what it might mean to craft or design an experience. These very people can often provide great inspiration for how to address a problem space.
You do not have to look far to gain inspiration. I often look to colleagues within my organization and observe how they solve issues and deal with people from the viewpoint of their area of expertise. Whether your colleagues are in Marketing, Sales, or Operations, they all have lessons that you can learn and apply to the field of user experience. In an age when no one has time to keep up with all of the latest trends and research, one of the worst things that you can do is to confine your limited reading time to only UX publications. I subscribe to blogs and magazines outside of my area of professional expertise just so I can glean lessons from other professions and apply them to the practice of user experience.
3. Find and take strength in your empathy.
An empathetic outlook will ultimately keep you focused and energized. It’s a commitment you must make to yourself—much like eating healthy food or exercising regularly. And like those commitments, it is one that requires daily resolve to accomplish. Phoning it in is never an option in our field. When you find yourself getting to that point, it is time to take a step back and reexamine what it is that makes you get out of bed in the morning and happy to practice your craft, whatever flavor of user experience that is. By having empathy for the people for whom you are designing user experiences, you can remain confident that you are not becoming jaded.
It is okay that you see the same problem over and over again. It is not okay to disregard the unique perspectives your target users are bringing to a problem. People are smart. They recognize cookie-cutter approaches and will resent you for them. Or at the very least, they won’t reengage you when their next project comes along.
Being a services consultant in the field of user experience insulates you somewhat from the daily grind. But seeing the same problems, products, companies, and types of people can easily wear you down. However, despite the variety in UX work, a certain amount of routine and repetition can cause the exciting rituals of user experience to become habitual. When that happens, you can lose the excitement of the work, and jadedness can set it. It is vital that, as UX professionals, we re-examine not only what we are doing, but how we are doing it. Keeping our activities fresh is not only good for our professional aspirations, but in the end, serves the best interests of our customers.