We Are All User Experience Designers

Trends come and go, people become excited about new concepts and old ones become old and boring. Much like fashion the trends of the web seem to resurface delighting some and aggravating others. I am often inclined to ignore the low-level trends as they are short-lived and don’t impact the web in a measurable way. So when I see out of context wooden backgrounds making a come back (they were the rage in 1998) I just nod and keep moving on. Superficial trends are not worth dwelling on, but some trends really do impact the way we design the web.

In the early 2000’s usability and user experience was on the upswing. The web was changing at a rapid pace and we had new ways to look at crafting websites. There was a focus on the holistic approach of using standards, being accessible and caring about the user. This trend left us with some valuable insights that have been adopted into common practice, but the widespread passion died down for “sexier” topics like jQuery and Social Media.

User Experience Design is an Emerging Trend

It hasn’t become “mainstream” yet but I have started to see evidence of user experience trends. As a community we are becoming greater experts in the topic allowing us to divide it into more specific categories such as content strategy and conversion optimization. While this is different from the first UX boom as we are now focusing on the outcomes of users experiences it is still UX none the less. Ultimately there are a growing number of blogs, articles, tweets and discussions around the topic of user experience. Just looking at Google Trends shows a huge upswing in the amount of news stories that discuss user experience in the last half of 2010.

In many ways this is a good thing as with any form of design the people who are using what we create are most important. The practice of design is creating something that people will use, as such the use of our creation is what is most important. I gladly encourage putting more focus on the user and less on business objectives. Putting more focus on what the user wants will ultimately lead to successful business objectives anyways. A happy user is much more likely to purchase a product or fill out a contact form. A user that feels manipulated or that the site is attempting to control their experience is just going to leave.

All of that said I do have some growing concerns about user experience becoming “popular.”

Everyone is a User Experience Designer

A few weeks ago I came across a blog post in which Cennydd Bowles has elegantly described how user experience has become such a broad term that almost anyone working on the web is a user experience designer on some level. From developers to visual designers, copywriters to the marketing department… everyone plays some part in the experience of the user.

Segmentation is Ineffective

Great design is not achieved through several groups of people with different specialized skill sets passing the work from one stage to the next. Yet this is the way so many agencies are setup. The UX team focuses on their deliverables and passes it off to the graphic designers, the graphic designers focus on their deliverables and pass it off to the developers and the developers create it. Decisions that the UX team impacts the effectiveness of the visual design and the developers need to understand UX and visual design well enough to effectively complete the vision. This almost never happens, so much is lost in this segmented process.

We Need to Understand User Experience

The broader awareness of user experience is great for this reason. Everyone from the visual designers to the developers should have a basic understand and respect for the user’s experience. Inevitably everyone will have to make design decisions that impact the experience, those decisions should be made with the user in mind. In this sense regardless of training this is how we have all become user experience designers.

So What’s the Problem?

Yet there is trouble brewing ahead for the user experience discipline. Because almost everyone involved in the web is now realizing they play a part in the user’s experience there has been a huge upswing of individuals claiming to be “user experience designers” in the classic sense. It seems that because literally everyone has an opinion on what they think would/wouldn’t be usable they are now qualified to be a full-fledged user experience designer. The problem is that awareness is not education. Being aware of the importance of usable design does not qualify anyone to be a UX practitioner. Cennydd explains this perfectly in his post:

…even among the brightest newcomers I see a worrying trend. User experience converts are typically drawn to the glamour of interaction design on shiny technology, and the amateur psychology that helps them sound authoritative about their approaches. Most lack knowledge of basic information architecture, design theory and elementary programming skills.

I have encountered many that justify their self titled “UX” label based on the fact that they use the web and know what is or is not usable to them. The obvious problem is that you are not the user and everyone is different. With out sound education in how people interact with computers you are making generalized guesses based on your own preferences and experiences which are not shared with others. Using a guessing approach is just going to lead to bad user experiences in the name of good UX. Unchecked this trend could lead to a situation where user experience design is devalued.

Where Does That Leave Things?

We all need to be realistic about what our core skills are. I am advocate of learning as much about the entire web design process as possible from programming to visuals. By all means you should continue to broaden your understanding so that you can make better design decisions for the users, for the development of the site and for visual aesthetics. That being said understand your skills and don’t over promise. If you are interested in user experience, great! There are many venues of learning the practice including universities, to a handful of great books and internships / mentoring. It will become clear when you can give yourself a new title.