The UX identity crisis (and what we can do about it)
4 minutes read
A few weeks ago, I was made redundant from a fintech (financial technology) start-up that I’d joined just 3 months prior. As you can well imagine, this came as a bit of a shock to me. I’d been brought in to head-up and build a new UX team. However, behind the scenes it seems that the investors had put the squeeze on, and the fledgling UX team were first in the firing line. First in, first out I guess in the cut-throat world of business. Never mind that it’s people lives and livelihoods at stake. Anyway, it means that I’m back on the job market and have been scouring the various job sites for potential UX roles. As it turns out, this is easier said than done.
You see, you wouldn’t believe the number of different job titles that are used to describe the work of a UX professional. Here is just a selection:
- UX designer
- UX researcher/designer
- Interaction designer
- UI/UX designer
- Experience designer
- UX engineer
- UX architect
- Experience architect
- Usability engineer
- Usability specialist
- UX specialist
- Product designer
- Digital designer
That’s 13 different job titles. Sure, there might be some slight differences in the type of role, like more of a visual design focus for a digital designer perhaps, but fundamentally we’re talking about the same sort of role. Namely, someone who designs a predominately digital product or service using a user-centred approach. This proliferation of titles is systematic of the identify crisis that I believe the UX industry is increasingly suffering from.
The problem with ‘UX’
Ask 100 people to tell you what ‘UX’ means, and you’ll get 100 different answers. Ask the same 100 people what someone working in UX does, and you’ll also get 100 different answers.
To some UX means the entirety of the user’s experience, but then others will say that no, that’s ‘CX’ (customer experience), not ‘UX’. Some think that UX really just equals the UI (user interface), a thorny topic that I’ve covered before in my article – UX – So much more than just the UI. Some will say that ‘UX’ purely refers to digital products, but then others will say that a user’s experience encompasses all touchpoints, digital and non-digital. Some will say that UX is primarily about usability, others will say that UX is more about user emotions and feelings. It’s all very confusing. Is it any wonder that if you put ‘UX’ into Google, these are the first results you’ll see?
The term ‘UX’ has become an increasingly meaningless label to be attached to anything and everything that involve users and technology. There’s now Mobile UX, Agile UX, Lean UX and Enterprise UX. Usability testing somewhere along the way has become UX testing. The need to label everything with UX is also true of roles. A web designer is now a UX designer, or a UX/UI designer even though they’re no doubt doing exactly the same thing as before (but perhaps with the expectation of getting a better salary).
This dilution of brand ‘UX’ is damaging because it makes it harder for those outside of the industry to understand what ‘UX’ is all about and what a ‘UX’ professional can bring to a project. It also makes it harder for UX professionals to communicate what it is that they do, and to differentiate themselves in the marketplace.
So, what can we do about this? How people use language, terms and labels is of course fluid and will naturally change over time, but I certainly think that there are a few things that we can do to help build more of a clear identity for the industry. Here are 3 for a start.
1. Stop overusing the term ‘UX’
Firstly, we should stop overusing the term ‘UX’ ourselves and should try to use it in the context in which it was originally intended. When Don Norman first coined the term, it was intended to be shorthand for the User’s eXperience (I guess ‘UX’ sounds better than ‘UE’) with a system (i.e. computer). As Don Norman has said:
I invented the term (UX) because I thought human interface and usability were too narrow. I wanted to cover all aspects of the person’s experience with the 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 starting to lose its meaning.
Interestingly the term ‘HCI’ (human-computer interaction) actually predates UX, but never really caught on and is largely only used in academia. Using this meaning and context it doesn’t make sense to talk about Agile UX or Lean UX. It doesn’t make sense to talk about UX/UI because they are very different things. We shouldn’t talk about UX as a practice or methodology because it’s not, it’s short hand for the User’s eXperience.
2. Protect the ‘UX’ brand
It’s become very popular to attach UX to job titles, or indeed rebrand roles such as Web designer, or graphic designer to UX designer. We now have UX/UI designers, UX developers, UX copywriters, UX business analysts, even UX data scientists. The thing is, unless a designer with ‘UX’ (or ‘Experience’) in their title is carrying out user-centred design, at best they are misappropriating the term, at worst they are imposters. Someone with ‘UX’ in their title that has never interacted with users, that are not user-centric in everything they do, really shouldn’t be using that label. We need to reclaim and protect the ‘UX’ brand and call out those misrepresenting it. Perhaps we even need to think about focusing on a different brand altogether…
3. Focus on ‘UCD’, not ‘UX’
The tech industry has spent the last 20 years overusing the term ‘UX’. Rather than try to reclaim brand ‘UX’, I believe that we need to revive and focus on an older brand which I’ve found to resonate much more strongly with people. Not HCI, or usability, but UCD: User-Centred Design (or human-centred design as some folk like to call it).
User-centred design perfectly encapsulates what a UX professional does, or at least should be doing. Namely, using user research and the consideration of user needs and requirements to inspire, influence and steer a design. Whenever I’ve run introduction to UX courses, and believe me, I’ve run a lot of courses, I’ve always seen lots of blank and confused faces when I talk in general terms about ‘UX’. Even whipping out the big guns in the form of a UI, UX, CX and BX diagram doesn’t do the trick. I know, crazy eh!
However, when I start to talk about UCD, and about how at its core UX design is about taking a user-centred design approach I see people’s eyes light up. It’s a proposition they can quickly grasp and understand.
UCD is also our key differentiator in the marketplace. It’s our secret sauce, our unique selling point. We should therefore be clearly communicating this through our brand. Rather than talking about UX as a practice, I encourage you to talk about UCD. Rather than talking about UX research, I encourage you to talk about UCD research. If you’re a designer working in UX, then I encourage you to refer to yourself as a user-centred designer. Build brand ‘UCD’, rather than further diluting brand ‘UX’.
What do you think?
So, what do you think? Does UX have an identity crisis? Is the term ‘UX’ being overused, even abused? Is ‘UCD’ a better brand than ‘UX’? I’d love to hear your views and comments below. Now if you excuse me, I really must get back to my job hunt. If you know of any user-centred designer roles (contract or permanent) in the Cambridge area (UK), then I could be your man. I’ll even bite my tongue and consider any UX/UI designer roles going!