The fall and rise of user experience

A transcript of my closing plenary at the IA Summit 2011 in Denver, Colorado. An audio version is available on the IA Summit website.

My user experience career began in 2002, when my government employer asked me to organise its hefty information stocks, and look for ways to publish them on its lousy website.

I started hunting for inspiration and, like many others, found it in the polar bear book. It was a hallelujah moment. At last, I’d found people who thought the way I did, and who shared ambitions that stretched far beyond my peers’ limited vision of the web.

As the only IA-curious person in my company and perhaps even my entire city, I led a lonely professional life. Denied the comfort of like-minded souls, I lived vicariously through blogs, Boxes & Arrows articles, and write-ups of events like the IA Summit. It meant that I knew many of you before you came to know me; and I thank you all for helping me survive and grow as a solo practitioner. Your advice paid off handsomely, and people have now been paying me to do what I love for nearly a decade.

So I feel a tremendous warmth toward the community that helped me so much back in my formative years. But I still think of myself as a relative newcomer to the global UX community. This is just my third IA Summit. I’ve been an outside observer to the history of IA and the Summit itself. The politics, the folksonomic uprisings, and the definitions arguments were read-only experiences for me. I had my hands full forging a path of my own.

Today, I work as a consultant, advising corporations, startups, and non-profits alike how to thrive by putting people at the heart of their thinking. My fellow consultants will recognise that one of our most powerful advantages is the naive viewpoint. We can ask dumb questions and give our honest opinions on how things look to the untrained eye, before we become embedded within the politics, language, and mindset of our client.

That’s the angle I take today. Working in a different country and being part of a different community, I’ve faced similar but different challenges to many of you. So I hope I can offer a fresh perspective on things: the view from my neighbouring hill.

I’d like to talk about the fall and rise of user experience.

The mainstream

User experience design has reached the mainstream. Senior executives who used to view design suspiciously – something practised by tall Europeans with thick glasses – now hear about user-centred design in publications like BusinessWeek and the Harvard Business Review, and at events such as TED and Davos. Now the economic clouds seem to be thinning, companies are looking to design to provide competitive advantage. Seeing the success of design-led products and the failure of those that neglect it, executives naturally want a piece of the action.

Apple is the poster child, of course. It has been voted Fortune readers’ Most Admired Company for the fourth year running, and thousands of businesses want their products to “be the next iPhone”. Although there’s still a substantial gap between aspiration and execution, business leaders are at least now talking about the right things: experience, prototyping, design strategy, innovation.

Public awareness

Public understanding of design is also growing. Customers see and use the same desirable products, and can now use the power of their networks to learn about a product’s true quality before they part with their cash. This means the public increasingly appreciates the value of usability and user experience, although they would never use those terms.

Ten years ago a struggling usability test participant would say she didn’t understand the system; but today she will give up in exasperation and lay the blame firmly at the feet of the designers. Many people now base technology choices on user experience, and choose long-term service providers based on their customer service.

Taking advantage of this new design literacy, some companies now promote UX as an important selling point. Recent British TV ads from technology companies, banks and price comparison sites all feature user experience above all; a welcome change from boasting about feature overload or relying on glamorous brand associations.

Catalysts of change

The world also increasingly sees information and technology as catalysts of change. Both are making a impact on global business, law, privacy and government. The costs of mass action have plummeted. Today’s connected youth are adept at using technology and the instant propagation of information to address what they see as flaws in the world. As we’ve seen in the first few months of 2011, networks are beginning to demolish hierarchies.

These are boom times for those of us who work at the intersection of technology, information and experience. The job market for people well-versed in UX and IA is bullish; even the world’s top tech companies can’t find enough high quality employees, and recruiters are becoming desperate with their flattery. It’s a candidates’ market, and if you aren’t in the job of your dreams, perhaps it’s time to consider leaving.

Trouble ahead

But there’s trouble ahead. I think the next couple of years will be tough for the user experience community. Partly this is a natural correction to our success, partly it’s a result of our expansionist tendencies. Either way, we’re slipping toward the trough of disillusionment.

Pollution

Our most pressing problem is that of pollution. The user experience discipline has become so broad that anyone can now legitimately claim to practice it. Literally every designable object or service engenders an experience. However, its most common interpretation is narrower. “UX” is fast becoming the latest synonym for “web design”.

The explosion in our industry’s influence, pay and respect is devaluing our chosen term and causing looming quality problems. Since demand far outstrips supply, web agencies and freelancers alike have created a landrush to the UX term. The skills that underpin the work have often been left aside in the melee.

Some truly ill-informed companies and people now provide truly mediocre services under the label of user experience design. I’m embarrassed by some of the nonsense that these UX cargo culters spew, and I struggle daily to decide whether to bear my teeth to it, or accept it as The Way Things Will Be From Now On.

Don’t misunderstand me; I welcome genuine entrants to the field and have mentoredsmart, dedicated people over several years. However, even among the brightest newcomers I see a worrying trend. User experience converts are typically drawn to the glamour of interaction design on shiny technology, and the amateur psychology that helps them sound authoritative about their approaches. Most lack knowledge of basic information architecture, design theory and elementary programming skills.

The pollution of our field was entirely foreseeable, and user experience design is by no means the first community to face it. The mainstream transforms any idea it seizes, much to the chagrin of the pioneers, who grumble on the sidelines that they’ve been misquoted.

There aren’t any easy solutions. Chartership crops up every now and then, but here I must disagree with Jared: I think it’s a non-starter in our field. No organisation is suitably placed to offer it, it would introduce a huge overhead to an industry founded on accessibility and simplicity, and it could mark an unfortunate return to the ivory-towerism that plagues our more elitist tendencies.

Backlash

The backlash is coming. Some of our colleagues and prominent members of the tech community now decry the user experience label, claiming we simultaneously promise the earth yet overpromote novice staff into roles they can’t handle. Our abstract vocabulary makes for a particularly soft target. Let’s be candid: “user experience architect” is as conceited a job title as the century can boast.

 

To our detractors, user experience design is nothing more than the latest fad, a trivial exercise of listening to users and giving them whatever they ask for. We refute their claims of course, but like Hydra, a new head soon grows in its place. Even some of the people we should be closest to – content strategists, business analysts, visual designers – have begun to feel squashed by the UX juggernaut. They’re forced to defend their territory: “No, we’re not part of UX”.

Factions

One natural reaction to overexpansion and external threats is to retreat into groups. This offers some benefits to the group, particularly around the gestation and discussion of deep concepts. It can also be abused for personal gain; simply plant a new flag and proclaim yourself king.

I won’t dwell on the factions within user experience, as it’s a well-trodden path, but suffice to say, factionalism has done more harm than good. It has created politics and power struggles, not to mention the ludicrous situation where three professional organisations vie for the attention of virtually the same people. And territorialism doesn’t reflect real design; you can’t divide such a slippy, amorphous thing into neat boxes. IA challenges, for instance, are almost always bundled up within larger design challenges that involve interaction design, visual design and technical execution. Swearing an allegiance to just one discipline limits one’s ability to see a problem through to its conclusion.

Stagnation

Instead of driving specialisation, fragmentation actually promotes stagnation. If the IAs dig into the IA trench, and if interaction designers retreat to their interaction design bunkers, both become weaker. Interbreeding magnifies flaws as well as strengths. In fact, I level the same accusation at the entire user experience field.

In my early teens, I started listening to bands like My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive, who’d started to form a strong alternative music scene. These bands stuck together, attending each others’ gigs and playing on each others’ EPs. The British press gave them the droll label “shoegazers“ for their habits of staring at the floor and not acknowledging the crowd. But later, a more unkind label emerged: The Scene That Celebrates Itself.

User experience design risks becoming the scene that celebrates itself. True, every burgeoning movement needs cheerleaders, but in our eagerness to revere our comrades we can overlook what really matters: do we matter? Have we released that world-changing album? Are we as important and effective as we think? I’m not so sure. Forrester’s #1-rated firm in customer experience – Borders – just went bankrupt. Admittedly, it’s wise not to take Forrester’s word as gospel, but there are dozens of factors that affect business success. User experience is an important one, but a crisis in cashflow, pricing, or hiring will overwhelm it.

I increasingly believe that the UX community has had at best a modest impact on our most common medium: the web. The world’s most successful sites are mostly those with great business models, good marketing, or critical mass. Some are well designed. Plenty are not. Instead of user-centred design causing innovation to spring forth, commoditised and patternised sites dominate specific verticals like e-commerce or news. We’ve even reached the point where research suggests the public expects mobile apps to be easier to use than the desktop web. That’s an astonishing revelation, since the inherent constraints of largely immature mobile devices present substantial impediments to good experiences.

Global outlook

Finally, I feel we’re not only too inward-facing, but too local-facing. The UX community is still sadly US-centric. I’m told I’m the first non-US citizen to close or keynote the IA Summit – a tremendous honour of course, but one that shouldn’t have taken twelve years.

The global community may not have thrown up big names to rival those the US can boast, but the work is strong. Some European nations in particular are doing great things, and as is her custom, Europe has been doing things her own way. Professional organisations, for instance, have had little impact in Europe. In the UK, all new community activity has been down to private organisations and passionate individual activists: London IAUX BrightonUX LondonUXCampLondonDesign JamUX BristolNorthern UX.

Remember that just 90 years ago my nation was the dominant force in the world. Power changes with time, and we can no longer afford to look only at our closest neighbours. A truly global practice will teach us a huge amount about new ways of seeing the world and our discipline.

The way forward

Clearly, we face problems. Fortunately, we’re natural problem solvers, so let’s look at how we can negotiate the territory ahead.

‘Labelism’

First, it’s time to abandon of one of our most harmful addictions: labelism. As if our definitions weren’t complex enough – usability, IA, interaction design – now user experience is joined by service design and customer experience, which are identical on all but the most pedantic levels.

In Memphis, Jesse James Garrett gave an adaptive pathology of the IA disease and proclaimed the end of the Information Architect label. I’ll go one further and predict that the User Experience Designer label will also cease to be useful within a couple of years. It’s been a decent epithet to rail against short-sighted, user-hostile practice, but its shortcomings are becoming all too apparent.

But I don’t advocate any specific replacement. A label is a personal choice about one’s boundaries and comfort zones. I’m not saying we should choose sides. I’m saying we should stop playing the game.

We shouldn’t feel threatened or sentimental about labels. The disciplines within UX design are here to stay, and have gained sufficient maturity to become a competency within all forms of design, not just the domain of one group of practitioners. Our skills will always matter, and we will always design good experiences. So I don’t care what you call yourself. The work is what matters. The label is just metadata.

Focus on delivery

Rather than explain our expertise through process and terminology, we should point at our output. If we are indeed worthy of the praise we’ve been receiving, our outputs had better be demonstrably better than others’. Otherwise, perhaps our detractors are right.

Putting this kind of faith in our work takes dedication. It means we should stop fetishising trivialities – the ideal iPad stylus, “gamifying” our interfaces – and replace them with unwavering focus on the end product.

Of course intellectual curiosity is healthy: it helps us refine our philosophies and add new tools to our armoury. I also appreciate the irony of using a keynote speech to denounce pontification. But there are glaring problems right under our noses that demand attention. Managing digital identity. Helping people control privacy in a connected world. Finding ways for people to take their digital lives with them between devices. Address those and we’ll truly deserve our praise.

This focus on delivery must underpin everything we do. It’s understandable for designers to want strategic roles, as we encounter tactical limits. But in claiming the territory of design thinking, we must never forget the design doing, where true craft and talent turns thought into results.

Consider ethics

If we focus on our work, we must also focus on the value our work has to society. As the user experience field has matured, it’s saddened me that our discussion of ethics has been so flimsy.

We’ve had great success recently by framing UX as a way to influence users to do things our employers like: buy more things, sign up for things, and come back more often. The idea of using psychology to persuade is hardly new. Advertisers have been doing it for years, and it’s a hot topic within the public sector.

Some of the cases for persuasive design are convincing, particularly where the desires of both user and persuader overlap with clear mutual gain – energy use, financial prudence, weight loss. But there are questionable applications, and some so-called UX designers use persuasive design solely for the benefit of the company they work for. It’s a terrible waste of our potential. Of course we need to please the people who pay us, but we must also examine our impact on the world.

Question value

Nearly 50 years ago, a group of graphic designers led by Ken Garland wrote a manifesto called First Things First. In this piece, they bemoaned the design industry’s focus on advertising trivial goods, and its neglect of other fields that included education, book design, and wayfinding.

It’s time for a similar reappraisal within the digital design community. I’m not just talking about advertising; I’m talking about questioning the value of everything we create.

At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, manufacturers unveiled 20,000 new products, including some 80 tablets. In the words of Helen Walters, who reported on the event, that’s not innovation, “it’s vandalism“.

The world doesn’t need another Groupon clone or more Snickers bars. They add no value to the market or the people that make up that market.

Instead, the world needs fewer, better things. Things that work beautifully. Things that are humane and reliable; that help people to do things they never thought possible. That’s our natural territory.

You may argue – and many will – that a UX designer can still have a meaningful career creating more marginal services or advertising commonplace products. That’s your call, but I ask this – which eulogy do you prefer: “They really shifted more units” or “They really made a difference”?

Gaining influence

So let’s talk about making a difference. The first step is of course to design the best products and services we can. But this is mostly going to have a local effect; grand ambitions require influence.

This is a familiar concept to both the community and the Summit. JJG predicts that a UX designer who rises to the level of CEO will be unstoppable. Last year, Whitney Hess urged us to look outside our community and engage with the business world.

Attempts to date

To date, we’ve mostly tried to gain business influence by adopting (or at least simulating) a business mindset.

We talk about design as a way to improve customer loyalty, garner referrals, and reduce risk. Learn deeply about the customer first and you’re more likely to get it right. We present design as something that can be analysed, controlled and adjusted through iteration, A/B and multivariate tests, usability testing and so on. We try to quantify our efforts, so businesses can see we’re not just hand-waving “creatives”.

Design and science

I trained as a scientist. I’ve studied a great deal of mathematics and statistics. I know their extraordinary power and beauty. But I also know their limitations. Numbers are valuable advisers, but tyrannical masters. Design is an act of visual prediction. Its nature demands investment with uncertain returns, and there’s no way to disguise the leap of faith that requires.

Design isn’t science. Repeat an experiment – a design approach – in different circumstances (different users, different year, different culture) and you’ll get different results. So numerical targets should never be the primary goal of design.

We aim to create things that are inherently unmeasurable: experience, utility, pleasure. There’s been lots of talk this weekend about measuring these things, but I’m afraid I think it’s largely wasted effort. The best we can do is to scratch a chalk outline around their shadows.

But do we really need to measure? The idea that “if it can’t be measured, it doesn’t count” is one of the most damaging delusions of our time. It gives us a world that rewards quantity, not quality.

Make metrics the core goal of your design and you’ll just end up with design that optimises those numbers, at the expense of other important qualities. The UK public sector has been paralysed by excessive goal setting, and the new right-wing coalition is using that as an excuse to gut the whole sector, claiming it’s not functioning properly. Of course it’s not functioning properly!

The numbers of capitalism are almost all short-term – profit, year-on-year growth, yield – rather than long-term and sustainable. No wonder the tantric joy of user-centred quality often loses out to the instant hits of promotion, discounting and resource depletion. The metrics make it so.

A new angle

There’s a serious risk that in trying so hard to please businesses, we lose what makes us different and valuable. Our understanding of intangibles and abductive reasoning, and our long-term vision are different, but hopefully complementary, to the deductive, analytical skills prized by MBA professors and economists.

I think the problem of getting business to understand design is better revised than solved. Systems thinkers will tell you that repeated patterns of behaviour are the result of the inherent structure and rules of the system. Economies expand and contract naturally because of their structure and rules. Bad companies produce shoddy products and services because of their structure and rules. So if we want to change how these companies work, we must change their structure and rules. Adding another UX designer to the team or switching to a more efficient wireframing tool is a weak point of leverage.

We need to change business, not become it. Rather than fit design into the current corporate model, we should build businesses in which customers are the focus, not costs. In which creativity beats control. In which we understand risk, not excise it. In which good questions are as important as answers. In which we make things that matter, not things that clutter.

Obliquity

The economist John Kay claims that the world’s most successful people and organisations achieve complex aims through obliquity – that is, by pursuing something else. The most profitable companies don’t just try to make a profit. The most powerful people don’t just pursue power. They all pursue a greater purpose, be that serving a country or advancing a field.

Designers know obliquity well. It’s our watchword. We know that to get the girl you don’t follow her everywhere she goes. You get the girl by being an attractive person.

The single-minded pursuit of profit has given us economies of fraudulent fiction, in which some companies would rather forge their balance sheets through obscure accounting than make useful things. Even the governor of the Bank of England acknowledges that banks have imploded because they put short-term profit above customer interests. Some mobile operators now seem more interested in restricting customers’ bandwidth than building capacity!

Given the disastrous consequences of these approaches, let’s hope that the 21st century sees obliquity triumph. Let’s hope companies will again try to profit by creating valuable things, not just protecting their targets or the complex rules they’ve set themselves.

The golden rule of UX

This is where we can have true influence. Today, I propose a Golden Rule for our industry. The purpose of user experience design is to create personal value.

We’re not here to reduce risk. We’re not here to massage conversion rates. We’re here to make things that improve people’s lives. In doing so, our companies profit in both senses of the word. It’s insufficient to judge our industry by the ROI we generate, or our contribution toward GDP. We should judge our industry by the happiness we create.

Call me an idealist if you like. It’s easy to dismiss idealism as a flaw of youth; to think it’s something we grow out of. But idealism is obliquity, and without it the world would be a wretched place.

Beyond modernism

I don’t believe it’s such a far-fetched vision, and we’re seeing similar shifts across many domains of design and society. Modernism, with its growth, technology and speed, was the driving force behind the 20th century.

Now, we’re seeing the green shoots of another movement. One that puts humanity back into capitalism, and thrives on locality, diversity and service. It’s a movement that favours meaning and value to mere functionality, and prefers well-paced long-term investment to a fleeting return.

Michiel Schwarz and Joost Eiffers have put forward the name “sustainism” for this movement. An awkward title to be sure, and obviously I’m not terribly interested in the label, but perhaps a new approach does need new language. Because modernism isn’t going to help us navigate the next three decades. It’s clear that the mid-term future is going to be dramatically different to what went before.

The changing world

Millennials across the world are rebelling against the inequality created by the baby boomers. The new generation is of course notorious for wanting the world and its responsibilities today. The older generations tell them to wait their turn; but that defence isn’t going to hold for long. The world is becoming bottom-up, not top-down.

Power, capital, and influence will shift from North America and Europe to the BRICeconomies: Brazil, Russia, India and China. Shortages of energy and resources will mean that technology will be crucial to our survival, let alone our commerce and leisure. A great deal of the world will have to be re-engineered around the needs of communities and citizens. We can be central to this movement; in fact, I’d say it’s our moral obligation.

Subversive UX

It’s tempting to view the theme of this year’s IA Summit – “Better” – as a plea for incrementalism, but I think we need to be braver. Challenging accepted ideology takes courage. But to quote Marty Neumeier, “quality is an act of rebellion”. We need a new band of rebels.

We already meet the job description of the innovative business leader. We’re versatile, happy working with the minutiae of pixels and interactions as well as vision, strategy, and systems. We connect dots that others don’t, examining details across an entire experience. We can discriminate weak signals and hear unvoiced demands. And we have a foot in the multidisciplinary door, with years of experience as translators and arbiters between technologists, users, product teams, and marketers.

We should know how to play the corporate game, but also know when to subvert it. Sometimes we should make a rational case for why designing for users is desirable. But sometimes the correct answer is simply “Are you fucking kidding?”.

Because we ask difficult questions, some businesses will label us “difficult to work with” and resist our efforts. These are the companies that are ripe for disruption. To be blunt, some companies are not worth saving; their structure and rules are antithetical to creating good user experiences. But plenty of their competitors will welcome intelligent insight, something we can offer in abundance.

Leadership

Influence and leadership are within our grasp, if we can be bolder. The path of least resistance is to wait for companies to see our value and create new executive roles – Chief Experience Officer, Chief Customer Officer. But every discipline thinks it’s entitled to a C-level slot. Despite what Forrester may say, it won’t happen at any scale any time soon.

 

o if we want to rise to positions of senior influence, we should be open to alternative routes – product management, marketing, even technology – in which we can use design as a lens to innovate, and spread the infectious message of user-centricity from department to department.

Know our limits

Advocating a higher purpose is rousing keynote stuff, of course. None of us needs to be told to do good and make a difference. We’re already wired that way. Our values and attitudes are largely what’s drawn us to this field.

But we must also know our limits. The humility and pragmatism of today’s practitioners is an important reason for our increasing influence. It would be a disaster for the UX community to believe its own hype and succumb to arrogance.

As we step into new territory, we must retain some humility. We should know when to disrupt and when to simply listen. We should acknowledge that other great minds have tackled these issues, and respect the professionals and thinkers who have paved the way before us.

What’s next?

Today I’ve urged our community to transcend trivial commercialism, but cautioned about the danger of hubris. So I suppose I’m advocating the middle ground. Rational radicalism. Ambition with humility. How terribly British of me.

For me, the future of UX is multidisciplinary and pluralist. User experience design can co-exist with other disciplines. It need not subsume them, although it should definitely subvert them.

Instead of building walls around our domains, we should chase problems and their solutions where they lead, defying the disciplines. Along the way, we’ll encounter other people who think the same way and share our oblique mindset.

These partners, whatever their discipline, will prove just as valuable allies as our friends in this room. When we hit problems that design can’t solve – and there are plenty of them – we’ll have allies who can help us navigate around them.

A possible future

I’ve painted a picture of the user experience leader, but I know that’s not a role that will excite everyone. Practitioners are the heart of the discipline. So allow me to close with some speculative fiction; a view of all levels of our industry in a few years.

The phrase “user experience” still has currency, but it has become a frame of common reference rather than a job title. The principles of UX have seeped into the bloodstream of every competent designer.

Some of us ply our trade outside the digital domain, designing entire services in eclectic domains. Others prefer to scope their work to specific products and media: digital, web, and so on. However, any gap between the two approaches is diminishing. The distinction between products and services is breaking down, and most non-trivial products have a digital service component. Very little exists purely offline.

It’s likely we’ll look back with a wistful eye at today, the heyday of the UX community, before its scope and scale became too big for cohesion. And many of us will look back fondly at the free, open web, created by visionary geeks to encourage free information flow. Instead, we’ll see a landscape in which the walled garden has returned, the web browser has failed in its quest to become the One True Platform, and regulation and privacy abuses by governments and corporations are more dangerous than ever. But digital technology will have finally come of age as its own true medium, straddling devices and channels, and seeping into people’s daily lives in hundreds of ways.

The most interesting and complex problems of this era involve information architecture. The promises and theory of ubicomp are finally starting to become real, in their own nascent, clunky way. As the world’s devices, data and people become ever more linked, there’s a huge amount of IA being practised. Not many people are calling it IA, but that’s ok. The work matters.

Is there an IA Summit? I don’t know. But there is still a thriving community of people tackling these challenges, and amid the frustration and head-scratching there will be genuine breakthroughs that help people construct, understand and inhabit information spaces in exciting ways.

As the practitioners explore the frontiers of the industry, somewhere, a passionate UX designer in this room today – or perhaps in another nation, oblivious to these words – has risen to be the CEO of a company other than a design firm. And they are systematically kicking their competitors’ arses. They’ve pulled together overlapping fragments of customer understanding into holistic, well-understood bodies of knowledge, just as Louexplained yesterday. They’ve tried to create personal value rather than profit, and are now being rewarded with both. Few people outside their specific vertical are paying much attention right now, but before long they’ll be swamped by people wanting to know their secrets. A global swing to the mindset of human-centred, sustainable business is underway.

Close

Despite the difficult territory ahead, this community makes me optimistic for the future of technology and even the world. It’s a thrill to be among such deeply intelligent, passionate people and to share my thoughts on the future of our industry, and I thank you all for this opportunity.