I’m Not a UX Designer Anymore

By Peter Hornsby

Published: August 19, 2013

“Although people working in user experience often come from a broad range of established professional backgrounds, user experience, as a discipline, often appears rather unsure of itself.”

Discussions about the use of language and, in particular, the question “What is user experience?” are surprisingly common themes on UX forums. I say surprisingly because, although people working in user experience often come from a broad range of established professional backgrounds, user experience, as a discipline, often appears rather unsure of itself. In this column, I’ll look at some of the common discussions about user experience and the use of language within the UX community.

What Is User Experience?

Discussions about the term user experience generally focus on its scope, highlighting the fact that designing what is on a computer or device screen is only one part of a user’s total experience. Good UX practice comprises many things, including user research, usability testing, and iterative design and development, but many UX designers get involved in aspects of the product development process that are outside of design, including requirements definition and functional testing.

More importantly, their work may influence other customer touchpoints, ranging from ensuring that customers can interact with elements whose design is consistent—for example, visual consistency across online and offline components—to influencing broader business processes. UX designers are often able to take a broader view than colleagues who are working on just one aspect of a problem or process and, therefore, are able to identify the need for change and positively influence change across their organization.

“UX designers are often able to take a broader view than colleagues who are working on just one aspect of a problem or process and, therefore, are able to identify the need for change and positively influence change across their organization.”

To illustrate this, let’s think about an organization’s contact information that appears on a Web page. At a superficial level, a UX designer chooses to present the information in a way that makes it easy for a user to find and understand. At a slightly deeper level, the designer might choose to align the visual presentation of this contact information online and offline to achieve greater brand consistency. Going deeper still, the designer might ask questions of stakeholders within the organization to understand whether the contact strategy that the organization is adopting is the most effective way to address the problem and might test alternative solutions with users to build a business case for or against the strategy.

As user experience has become an integral part of the way more and more organizations work, designers are now applying much the same mindset that they bring to the design of user interfaces to other customer touchpoints and organizational processes—all under the banner of customer experience or, more recently, service design. These design disciplines typically take a broader view of the ways people interact with organizations—with the product or service user interface being just one small, though important element.

The Origins of User Experience

My own journey into UX design began in 2007, when I was looking to continue doing something that I’d enjoyed doing at my soon to be previous employer: designing user interfaces for software. I became aware that what I had always understood to be one application of human factors had become a specialization in itself—particularly in relation to Web sites and applications. Terms such as human‑computer interaction and the older man‑machine interaction had long since become regarded as too academic, and the term user experience had taken hold in the field.

“The term user experience originated with Don Norman….”

At the time, user experience was the term in common use, but the terms user interface designer or, more infrequently, interaction designer were also common parlance. The term user experience originated with Don Norman, as Peter Merholz documented on his blog and Pabini Gabriel-Petit, who was working at Apple when Don Norman introduced the term to the company, wrote about on UXmatters. Don Norman himself said that:

I invented the term because I thought human interface and usability were too narrow. I wanted to cover all aspects of the person’s experience with a system, including industrial design, graphics, the interface, the physical interaction, and the manual.

Since then, the term has spread widely—so much so that it is now starting to lose its meaning.

There may be prior art, circa 1986, from Brenda Laurel, who referred to the “user’s experience” in “Interface as Mimesis,” from Norman and Draper’s User Centered Systems Design. Nevertheless, it is clear from Norman’s definition that the original concept was broad: “…all aspects of a person’s experience with a system….” This, in turn, brings me to the term user. Is it somehow demeaning to our target audience to refer to them as users? Should we instead say human experience or, if our concern is with digital products, digital experience? Some prefer customer experience even though that term now refers to another field of work?

At their heart, such discussions about language are discussions about systems thinking: where do we draw the boundaries around our fields of work? Stripping away the terminology that has grown up around the subject and become infused with meaning, our role is to make people’s interactions with systems positive experiences. While some systems are purely digital in nature, others have a broader scope. So systems range from the online experience to the product experience to the organizational experience. Defining the boundaries of the system defines the scope of a designer’s role, which may extend to designing everything with which a user interacts, as in Norman’s original definition of user experience

In Conclusion

“The term user experience isn’t going to go away. There is too much momentum behind it.”

The term user experience isn’t going to go away. There is too much momentum behind it. But as the scope of design broadens to encompass touchpoints beyond the digital experience, I am personally inclined to follow the example of a friend and simplify the problem by removing any qualifiers—whether user, customer, Web, or interaction—and rebranding my own role as experience designer. Free of the perceptual baggage of these qualifiers, I can focus on the good stuff: making life better for the people who use the systems that I design.

7 Comments

This reminds me of an article from a UX designer several months ago who also claimed “not to be a UX designer” anymore, but from another perspective. It was mainly because, in his own day-to-day work, he wasn’t doing any user research, surveys, iterative usability testing, etc., because of internal culture, lack of time, and lack of support from his management.

I understood him just as I understand you, though I still believe in the qualifier, just to avoid a “one-title-fits-all” description, and because I really think there is a distinction between a Web designer and a User Experience Designer or between a User Experience Designer and a Customer Experience Specialist, for instance. Not only in terms of wording, but also in terms of skills or even educational background.

Nice try, but the obvious problem with experience designer is that many other kinds of experiences can be designed—for example, travel experiences, shopping experiences, parenting experiences, and so forth. What about systems experience designer? You say you are designing systems, so why not use that word as a qualifier?

Elizabeth, Ivan: True, many other kinds of experiences can be designed. And anything that is designed delivers an experience, so arguably even experience is redundant. But removing that, too, felt like a step too far. I quite like “systems experience designer,” but that felt like a restatement: “I design things that involve systems. What’s a system? It’s a thing that … does stuff.” So like Ivan, I feel that some sort of qualifier is needed, and experience designer felt like the simplest, clearest approach.

How about just designer?

I use interaction designer because (a) an experience happens only inside someone’s head, and (b) it includes all kinds of interactions, whether person-thing or person-person.

If one’s experience design responsibilities are specific to a medium, it makes sense for a more specific qualifier to describe the role in context to one’s responsibilities in a design project.

Mobile digital experience design seems to be a significant catalyst for a need to better define user experience roles. Digital teams are being given more responsibility at many companies to work through solutions for mobile experiences, including an evaluation of business and user requirements that help define project scope. Native mobile apps have unique experience elements such as data access and interactive design capabilities, which a Web experience can’t.

Hybrid mobile app and Web user experiences are increasing in popularity and blurring the line of what a Web or mobile designer does.

I wrote about this a few months ago on my blog and even designed a 3D logo depicting the term in its most minimalist form, implying Lean XD. Follow this link and be sure to click the video to see the spinning logo. Yes, it’s real steel.

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