Pragmatism, not idealism

I’m currently taking a short break before starting my new job (more to follow on that).

Obviously I’m relaxing and enjoying the weather, but I’m also brushing up on XHTML andCSS so I can ditch Visio wireframing and start creating live prototypes. I had planned to use this blog as my sandbox, but to do the job properly would require PHP knowledge I neither have nor want, so I’ve dropped in the WP Premium theme with a view to perhaps revisit at a later date.

I’m rather overdue in making the switch, since Visio is increasingly obsolescent for modern user experience work. Aside from its limited functionality, the page-based format makes rich interaction design hard to document. Much like with Blogger (see earlier posts), I only stuck with it to delay the productivity dip I’d get from ditching it, so this seems the perfect time.

One effect of the move to HTML is that, although I’ll still remain a user experience specialist, I expect to become a little more hands-on and versatile. This is in line with the way I personally want to develop, and I’m sure it’s the way to create better websites. Iain Tate talked about his company’s ideal hire being a “creative mini-CEO – perhaps this is analogous, if miniaturised. Clearly designers are more useful when they talk the same language as developers and business people; think the T-shaped model but stretching out on the z-axis too.

However, as I make this move, I do notice some tendency in UX for people to drift in the other direction, and claim the high ground of hyper-specialisation. Particularly this is the case with newcomers and HCI graduates. The more I interact with them, the more I realise they clearly know the right theory, but there’s an astonishing lack of knowledge and interest in living, breathing web design. HTML seems to be a dirty word, something left to the developers.

This can’t be right.

User Experience folks are already accused (mostly behind our backs) of a certain prima donna quality, stuck in our ivory towers of cognitive psychology, user testing and LIS. We certainly don’t need more of this. Perhaps it doesn’t help that Jakob is still very much the poster child for the academic HCI community. Much as I respect some of his work, he seems to be the sole gateway drug, as witnessed by neophytes swearing fealty to all he says, to the point of dogmatism.

It seems daft for designers to reject the basic language of web standards and development. As an analogy, take reading music. As a member of a band, it helps to have an understanding of what it’s like to play other instruments; you don’t want to write parts that no one can play. And isn’t that a perfect crystalisation of the user-centred approach anyway? Understanding our customers’ environments so thoroughly that our solutions are naturally harmonious?

I’ve talked to a number of people about this issue, whilst mulling over the change. Developers in particular seem to love the idea (for natural reasons: it brings them closer to designers, and vice versa). But I also think the leaders of enlightened web companies are increasingly looking for people who have the flexibility, the breadth of understanding to help them adapt. The future needs specialists, sure, and we can still fill those roles – but more than anything the future needs specialists with extra strings to their bow: midfielders with an eye for goal, singer/songwriters, designers who can get down and dirty with the rest of the web.

Cennydd Bowles