The Vandalisation of ‘UX’

2 January 2019
Max Taylor

Author: Max Taylor

The original promise of UX — How UX subdisciplines cause oversight — Reductionism vs. Holism — The case for a multi-disciplined approach

Etymologists have long been aware of the effect known as semantic drifthow the meanings of phrases can change over time. For example, mouse and bookmark now make sense as concepts in computers as well as their root meaning.
Semantic drift has happened to the term and profession ‘UX’ (user experience). ‘UX’ in its original textbook definition [1] no longer mirrors what is being blogged about today. Judging from job descriptions, UX practitioners are tasked with increasingly narrow scopes and are asked to ignore the wider matters of concern outlined in the original UX scripture.

“[UX] is everything. It’s the way you experience the world […] It’s the way you experience the service […] it’s the system that’s everything” – Don Norman

But, this point is somewhat inaccurate. ‘Semantic drift’ sounds like it is a passive actor; as though it were simply linguistic osmosis. In fact, the drift around ‘UX’ is very much active, with people’s agendas playing a key role. Indeed, ‘UX’ has been vandalised.

To understand why – some quick UX history.

The ‘UX’ story is a bit like the current theory of the universe

First there was nothing

This is the dark age. User Experience used to be determined by the developers, but was rarely considered at all. As long as it was functional, it was good enough…which was also terrible.

Then, the big bang

The human-computer interaction (HCI) renaissance! Early practitioners were very smart and multi-disciplined. They had a variety of skills in cognitive psychology, design, ergonomics and computing. High levels of strategic thinking and a good level of taste in design.

The original holy UX books are written and Don Norman coins the term ‘User Experience’. Most importantly, UX is defined as the product AND everything around it; including how a business aligns itself to deliver the best experience around the product [1]. For example, not only does UX encompass the interface, but also how it feels to press the keys, plug it in, discover it, look at it, order it online, go through customer service, unbox it – and so on. UX as a practice is meant to consider the full end to end experience; everyone and everything involved in – basically the whole enchilada!

 

In summary, UX was defined as an evidence-based human-centered research and design loop, interlacing objectivity and creativity to deliver optimised experiences based on needs. It is a full service approach that considers every level that consequently effects experience.

Map of the levels for which a UX practitioner is responsible. All levels have consequences to a users experience and therefore must all be addressed in a UX project. If UI, interaction and product levels are overlooked, the service design level does not fill the vacuum – there is simply a hole in the users experience. The order of priority is dependent on the project.

The reason for this cocktail of holism and reductionism is because if there are any inconsistencies in quality on any level of the experience journey, it’s going to cause a barrier. You don’t just wash the front of your car and call it a day, the rest of the car is going to look even worse now. UX practitioners need to look at the problem through these different lenses and shift gears where necessary.

The danger of UX subdisciplines is their predisposition to silo the thinking of the practitioner. These focused views undermine the foundational philosophy of ‘UX’ — to take all of these levels into account.

The danger of UX subdisciplines is their predisposition to silo the thinking of the practitioner. These focused views undermine the foundational philosophy of ‘UX’ — to take all of these levels into account.

Is there any point in releasing a great product via a poorly designed service, or a great service around a poorly designed product? No, you need both. Your business is only as good as the worst designed element. To avoid this limiting factor, service design, interaction design, product design and interface design need equal attention, and they all come as part of the UX package. In other words:

Case Study — Destiny (video game service)

Destiny 1 & 2 are the most expensive video games ever made. To justify the cost, the game was intended to be a live service operation, with continuous updates and new challenges to its player base. The ROI is that the player base will continue to purchase add ons for the game (similar to buying more chapters for your book), which increases the life cycle of the game and creates a prolonged stream of income.

The game has cutting edge interface, product and interaction design and is highly revered for its rewarding and smooth gameplay. Yet a glance at its Youtube community will reveal that most of the fanbase feel disenfranchised and no longer recommend buying it. So why is there so much fanbase dissent?

They overlooked the user experience of the games service design. The game made the players choose between achieving their goals via gambling their real world money or through time consuming in-game grinds. The service puts monetisation schemes before the players desires. Naturally, a service design lens would flip this paradigm; finding a balance between monetisation and the players feelings of being manipulated.

This is testament that it is not enough to get everything else right in the hopes the vacuum left by oversight will be filled.

This is testament that it is not enough to get everything else right in the hopes the vacuum left by oversight will be filled.

New galaxies start to form — subdisciplines

UX practitioners used to be generalists, needing to keep an equal eye on both design and research to understand how they wrap around each other as part of a flowing process. But this paradigm was deliberately shifted.

What happened next is still going on now. New people from visual design backgrounds started gravitating towards UX to chase pound coins. This isn’t the sole reason — many visual designers sincerely did want to help with design strategy instead of just beautifying interfaces. But the key difference is that this intake was largely disinterested in psychology, ergonomics and computing. So the path of least resistance was to not learn those elements and just carve out a space from UX design called UI/UX.

A UX career is not out of bounds for anyone. With enough drive, knowledge and spark in the right areas you can make it. But UI/UX seems like a half measure, and simply doesn’t hold the same market value. From what I see in their forums [2], they focus on creating aesthetic yet suboptimal interfaces in design tools. There seems to be some tip of the iceberg knowledge of what UX is — but that’s obviously not the same level of strategic thinking you get from the average UXer, who should have a deeper understanding of how science informs the design.

After the goldrush, the definition wars really kicked in — everyone wants to plant their flag in the ground and coin the next big design term; to be the next Don Norman. They start blogging incessantly and throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. All the community blogs follow a pattern of nonsensical reinventions of the wheel: ‘WHAT IS empathetic system design’, ‘WHAT IS person engagement design’, ‘WHAT IS doing and thinking design’ and of course ‘UX is dead’.

This is the vandalisation of UX — the community actively shifted its definition as everyone attempted to draw out their own territory from it. I am not the first to notice how aesthetic focused “UX” causes design oversight- see, for example, ‘the dribbblisation of design’ [5] and ‘visual design is not a thing’ [6].

You might think as a human-centered evidence-based design community, we would put aside our personal branding ambitions and keep a consistent and accessible definition. In the name of retaining market value, you might also think we would set more rigid guidelines outlining prerequisite skills as border control.

But no. Hiring managers remained confused and bought the most colourful portfolios with their eyes and the most strident and aggrandising design mythos with their ears. Others insisted on ramming untrained graphic designers into UX-type roles. The floodgates were opened, and the rapids scarred the landscape into an unrecognisable form.

Redshift — the subdisciplines continue to drift apart

Now the subdisciplines are ostensibly becoming increasingly siloed. Subsequently, they are splitting into different directions. Reacting to the new landscape, there is an industry push for a design and research split, as though they are mutually exclusive skills that aren’t interlaced. Another split appears to be people shifting towards exclusively granular lenses like UI/UX, whilst others are going for a solely holistic approach like Service Design.

The problem: the field of UX was intentionally responsible for both.

While the term ‘UX’ has been conceptually narrowed thanks to semantic drift, people turn to Service Design to fulfil the original promise of UX. It’s the new hope. But it’s facing the same battle to define itself sufficiently.

I have seen blogs from the Service Design community proclaiming that UX has a narrower scope than service design [3]. In other words — they suggest Service Design has drawn a bigger circle around UX (which they erroneously insist is interaction design) and therefore takes the most into account. Based on what they might see from the UI/UX community, it’s no wonder they would make that assertion.

There is a widespread misunderstanding that UX is exclusively interaction or touchpoint design. A cursory glance at the term ‘user experience’ should reveal the contrary; it’s an inclusive term, concerning anything that consequently affects a users experience.

I have also seen Service Design blogs concluding that there is a big UX shaped hole in the service design process, and the two disciplines must intertwine[4]. It’s like the inevitable collision of the Andromeda and Milky Way galaxies. Again I can’t say that Service Design is outside the scope of real UX, but nonetheless I second their motion.

Service design is a holistic view, but it also an exclusive view, which comes at the cost of looking at the problem from a 30,000 ft view through frosted glass. Conversely, interface and product design become so focused and reductionist that they lose sight of the rest of the business ecosystem beyond their field of view. The beauty of the true definition of UX is its propensity to shift lenses, encourage lateral thinking and apply its transferable principles across all levels. For example, the poor performance of an interface touchpoint could have its roots in a misunderstanding based on an unmet service level need. But a holistic approach might miss the interface issue whilst a reductionist approach could miss the service level issue.

An ironic holistic level oversight. Whilst the book makes a good read, the latest Service Design book does not fit on anyone’s shelf thanks to its unconventional shape. Indeed, the preface highlights that this book was itself a service design project…

An ironic holistic level oversight. Whilst the book makes a good read, the latest Service Design book does not fit on anyone’s shelf thanks to its unconventional shape. Indeed, the preface highlights that this book was itself a service design project…

What now?

‘When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them’ — Martin Luther King, Jr.

Practitioners are most valuable when they can cross over research and design but also when they can adjust their lens to see the same problem as part of a wider eco-system and as part of an interface. I would encourage a reunification of subdisciplines and a return to the fundamental definition. Lets help non-practitioners understand our craft without breaking the community into mono-think silos. It’s the projects that determine the right lenses to apply, not the job title.

The principles of human-centered design will always be the same.Unchain your minds from your job descriptions and proactively shift the application of your skill set to where it is needed most. Realise service, interaction, product and interface are all our responsibility under the flag of user experience. Unity is our strength.

Take Home points

  • Think of UX as a checklist approach for any proposition.
  • Ensure you optimise the experience across all levels (UI/Product/Interaction/Service) to avoid user disappointment.
  • Subdisciplines have emerged or have moved in for a slice of the UX pie e.g. UI/UX, Interaction design, Product design (sometimes), Service design. These blurred lines aren’t helpful.
  • Subdisciplines are part of UX, but run the risk of focussing on their designated area which causes oversight.
  • Oversight, even in just one area, is bad. It becomes the limiting factor in a user’s experience. Therefore, applying the full UX spectrum is the safest bet for any product/service.
  • Everyone thinks UX is interaction design. This is only one puzzle piece of a user experience.
  • You will likely enter the UX industry strong in a narrow area (e.g. research, interfaces, services). Work on expanding your skill set to cover more ground.
  • UX is difficult to define because it’s so encompassing. Attempts to remove ambiguity have actively oversimplified and narrowed the responsibilities of ‘UX’ over time.
  • UX subdisciplines will often and unnecessarily define themselves as separate from UX.
  • The combination of subdisciplines distancing themselves from ‘the UX’ and attempts to redefine UX as ‘narrow’ create a positive feedback loop of semantic drift — overwriting the genuine definition.
  • The future of UX, UI/UX and Service Design is either: a merging into a more full service discipline (hopefully, for the user’s sake) OR increasingly specialist and niche disciplines will continue to emerge from the husk of UX (the worst timeline).

In anticipation of criticism

“But everything is too much for one practitioner to consider. In focusing ourselves to specialise on specific levels (UI / product / interaction / service / business) and splitting ourselves in to either researchers or designers we can realise our full potential. T-shaped!”

Is that worth the cost of overlooking entire affectors of user experience for any product/service?

Is that worth the cost of hiring 4 expensive practitioners (Interaction designer, service designer, user researcher, UX/UI designer) to range across the same levels as a generalist practitioner?

Is it true that the underlying principles, skills and methods are sufficiently different between a service designer and an interaction designer? Is it true that someone with a design background can’t learn the relevant psychology (if they are truly interested) and vice versa?

If anything, the T in T-shape isn’t a deep dive into a specific UX sub discipline, and its not to stay within the confines of either research or design. The skill you most want to T shape is the ability transfer the principles of good design across these factors. This is why the broad UX lens is perfectly positioned to engage the ambiguity that comes with design. After all, why put a cap on your abilities? We all have a ceiling but don’t put one there yourself.

Its true, we can’t wear every UX lens at once. But consider the visual system where the eye is only looking at a fraction of the environment at any one time, yet the brain creates a workable image of the environment around it. Aim to build the clearest image of the product and everything around it that you can.

Understandably, we all come into this industry strong in some areas and comparatively weaker in others. But it’s not in anyone’s interest to keep those areas weak. Do not skip leg day at the gym / do not skip service level issues when looking at interactions.

References

  1. Design of Everyday Things — Don Norman
  2. UI/UX Forum — https://www.facebook.com/groups/205756059526207/
  3. SD blog proclaiming UX is narrow — https://medium.theuxblog.com/when-is-user-experience-ux-and-service-design-the-same-thing-c739c3773bf5
  4. SD blog discussing the UX hole in SD — https://www.koosservicedesign.com/blog/bridging-the-gap-between-service-design-and-scrum-why-ux-is-key/
  5. The Dribblisation of Design — https://www.intercom.com/blog/the-dribbblisation-of-design/
  6. Visual Design is not a thing — https://themanual.org/read/issues/2/mark-boulton/article
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