I pioneered UX design. What I see today bothers me

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When User Experience Design broke out of research laboratories and into a full-blown industry 20 years ago, the future looked so bright. UX went from the obscure interest of a handful of practitioners to a burgeoning industry that seemed to require thousands of new recruits overnight. And since then, the story has been one of more success, greater influence, and, above all, happier users.

I’ve been there for some large parts of this story. In 2001 I co-founded the design agency Adaptive Path, which turned out to be the pioneer of a great wave of change for digital products: the introduction of user experience and user-centered design. Many of the tools and concepts we developed became a standard part of the many UX programs that have emerged since then. Nowadays, as a coach for UX executives, I have continuous conversations with them about the direction of the field. And again and again I hear the question: What did we do wrong?

That might sound strange, because in some ways it has never been better for UX. The field is huge and growing. And much of the actual design work is of a higher quality than ever. But for those who have been in the field for a while, there’s a cloud behind all of these silver linings.

For many of us, the implicit promise of UX was a burgeoning philosophy of management through inquiry and insight, in which new creative explorations would lead to new questions of human behavior, which in turn would advance the definition of new product and value opportunities. The UX culture also seemed to require a certain amount of respect, compassion, and plain humility towards the people who use our products and the way their lives and experiences shape their behavior in a way that strongly differs from ours differs. More exposure to this type of thinking, the theory goes, would lead to a higher demand for this thinking, and the rising tide of human-centered design would pave the way for human-centered businesses.

To be perfectly clear, that did not happen.

Rather than challenging teams to expand their thinking to meet deeper and more subtle user needs, product design practices are becoming less and less insight-oriented. UX processes in many organizations today amount to little more than “UX theater” (an idea developed by Tanya Snook in 2018): To create the semblance of due diligence and a patina of legitimacy just enough to seem like a robust design process to uninformed business leaders and hopeful UX recruits.

Too many UX leaders have seen the language and ideas of the industry adopted and corrupted by outsiders who never knew or cared about the principles underlying the practices. We thought we’d win hearts and minds, but we really prepared for the exploitation as companies picked the UX parts that were best compatible with their existing agendas, avoiding the parts that could lead to awkward questions, which is more than the color of a button on a screen.

One such agenda is that of “Agile Transformation”, which promises to redesign companies in order to optimize their processes for the efficiency of developers. This is a win for developers who are tired of companies not being able to articulate what they want, but perhaps more importantly, it is a win for companies trying to wrest maximum productivity from their growing armies of engineers. However, in the rush to transform, something has been lost.

What was lost was a view of UX as something deeper and more significant than a step in the software delivery pipeline: an approach that bases product design on a broad contextual understanding of the problem and goes beyond the individual requirements of the individual components. Along the way, many of the more holistic and exploratory practices that enabled UX to deliver this fundamental value were also lost.

Talk to any seasoned UX practitioner these days, and most will have a favorite method or practice that they’d like to see revived (or returned to its former glory). Research-driven personal development. Concept models. Cocreation sessions. Task flows. These things weren’t cut out of UX processes because they were unnecessary. They just didn’t fit into a development process that calls for clear accountability for every activity and has no room for groundwork that cannot be predictably packed into two-week units.

The success of Agile at the expense of UX is just a manifestation of a deeper truth: Companies want to scale. And basic UX work is not scalable. It doesn’t lend itself to predictable, repeatable processes and generic cookie cutters. It can’t because, by definition, it has to do with unknown, slippery, hard-to-define problems that make an organically evolving company head start.

The same things that make Agile a great solution for scaling up engineering work – regular sprint pace; clearly articulated results to be achieved; Breaking down the complex, unfolding experience of users into tangible elements that code can tie together – the very things that make it great for basic UX work. The holism required for basic UX is in contrast to the assembly line parts of agile user behavior.

Focusing on UX at the production level allows companies to tick the “UX” box without having to deal with the clutter that sometimes arises when you hire people tasked with asking questions that have never been asked – Questions that executives may or may not know the answers to. The factory floor prefers interchangeable, interchangeable parts.

Foundational UX is where people really care about UX: the human insight, the collaborative exploration, the creative experimentation. For people entering the field, the divide between dream and reality can feel like a terrible bait and switch. Sold at school via UX as a noble and creative occupation, they are rushing into the job market to find roles where every opportunity for nobility and creativity has been exhausted and cleared away in the name of the mail order product.

It would be fair to say that the blame for the current state rests directly with the UX practitioners themselves, who have been slow to clear the space for basic UX by failing to tell a compelling story about the value of that work and build the credibility needed to fund it. If UX failed to deliver on its promise to deliver more than production-level value, it may have been a bad promise in the first place. In other words, what if – just listen to me – what if we are all wrong?

Or the current malaise of UX could simply be the product of the collective mid-career burnout of the first generation of practitioners who may have underestimated how slow and chaotic a grassroots revolution can be. Annoyance seems to increase the longer someone is in the field: the more experienced and experienced a UX person is, the more likely they are to ask themselves whether it is even possible to realize user-centered values ​​under capitalism. These are definitely questions worth asking and conversations worth having as a community.

Interestingly, what nobody says is that UX has problems because all the juicy problems have been solved. Despite the piling up of standards, best practices, and conventional wisdom that comes with every growing field – not to mention the constant pressure from businesses to make UX practices easier and more digestible – the messy complexities of humanity continue to challenge us. And the organizations that are looking for more than just UX theater are still creating new opportunities there.

For those new to the field, it is certainly unsettling to see the elders wrestling over his direction, like an airline pilot announcing that Albuquerque might not be the best destination for this flight after all. But it is a sign of the health of the field that questions about its values ​​and intentions are being asked even from within. An actual erosion of the field values ​​would be marked by significantly less self-confidence.

The truth is that UX is far too big now to be viewed as a single community, or even a single set of methods or practices. It used to mean something about an organization that even had a UX team. Now it can mean all or nothing. UX now means whatever companies mean by it, for better or for worse. For those who are still fighting the good battle of hearts and minds, the centerpiece of the challenge now is to influence the definition of that meaning.

Jesse James Garrett is the co-founder of UX consultancy Adaptive Path and wrote the book The elements of the user experience. Today he privately coaches UX executives in building more resilient and more focused teams. Garrett can be found online at jessejamesgarrett.com.


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