User Experience: Finding Its Level

The rise of user experience (UX) in the 2000s was the culmination of more than a decade’s scrappy growth since Don Norman normalized the term as a professional at — ironically — Apple Inc. That growth was about formalizing and professionalizing the shift from engineer as designer, and visionary and/or designer as senior genius, to a systematized process with various specialties and a myriad of actors. Over the past 10 years, UX has shifted from being the clear unifying field of the software design intelligentsia to a ubiquitous concern that even CEOs will ask for by name. Yet, still fledgling in the greater scheme of things, it is only now, in 2014, that educational organizations that seem able to be sustainable for the long term are bubbling up in the United States to offer certification-style UX courses outside of academia.

During this same timeframe, UX became a synonym for “design” in the realm of digital design. In many cases it has replaced design: “We need UX!” is a common turn-of-phrase in software organizations. To what degree design is articulated within a software organization, it is usually framed as being UX. Design is reduced to the graphic design component that is part of a larger train of activities ranging from research to content organization to interaction architecture to user testing. In the process, design is relegated to the most tactical of concerns amidst a process which, even while now legitimated, exists on the fringes of business compared to more traditional and left-brained considerations.

How unfortunate! That the rise of a more procedural approach to design would reduce “design” to something so un-Jobs-ian or un-Ive-ian!

What is called design, and what the tasks happening around the intersections of science, engineering, and design are going to be called, I really have no idea. They will percolate up from those convergence points in serendipitous ways and have some meaning native to their context or the people responsible for them. UX will be a second-order priority and most likely broken into some pieces. For example research, a discipline often relegated to UX-like parts of an organization, is a highest-order priority, with application from the boardroom down to the most menial of concerns. As knowledge and insight become increasingly important to every aspect of a company, research will be elevated and expanded. With design coming from places far afield from the UX function, we will return to a more standard and sane conception of design relative to other priorities.

For its part, the most valuable long-term impacts of UX are likely to be procedural. The injection of design and UX into the core product process was a lubricant for engineering and product organizations broadly shifting to Agile development methodologies. Also, the model for assembly-line design as frequently practiced within UX will prove essential in the much larger and extended design teams of the future that synthesize more complex digital products. The lessons of how engineering and UX work together; how research, information architecture, and interaction design create synergy; how people with very different skills and ways of thinking can coalesce in cross-disciplinary ways to contribute to something far larger than would otherwise be possible. And even though UX should continue filling a functional role at the intersection of what is being created and the users of it, no one reading this should be surprised if “design” in a broader sense lives in a very different place.

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