The Role of UX: Learning from Sustainability

By Antonia Anni

Published: December 19, 2011

“It has become increasingly difficult to describe who UX professionals are and what they do.”

?In recent times, it has become increasingly difficult to describe who UX professionals are and what they do. As a new entrant into this profession, defining who I am and presenting the skills I possess as something that is valuable to any organization has been an uphill task.

When looking out for suitable roles, I have come across job titles that ranged from Heavyweight User Experience Architect to Champion User Experience Rock Star. These titles just left me puzzled about what the hiring company might expect of me or another UX professional.

From the varied definitions of user experience I have stumbled upon in various blog posts and articles, I have felt a sense of discord among those in the UX community regarding our profession. While I already had my own perception of what user experience entails, I wanted a concrete definition to build on as I began my career. Through my search, I came to realize that focusing on titles and definitions of user experience was not very valuable. Too many words and too much time have been lost to never-ending arguments on the meaning of user experience.

Still, there are a couple of things UX design professionals do agree on: design is good, design is essential, and people should benefit positively from their interaction with any design. So I began to focus on what people actually do rather than what their title says, because titles don’t get design done, people do.

Parallels Between Sustainability and User Experience

“Sustainability, like user experience, is an important aspect of our lives that society has neglected for decades. Both people and companies are beginning to realize how necessary it is to focus on these elements.”

Not long afterward, I started an internship at an agency that focused mainly on sustainability and corporate communications. The digital team, of which I was a part, got to attend an in-house training on sustainability to gain a better understanding of why it is the company’s focus and how the work of other teams fits into that overall goal. As the talk progressed, I began to see clear parallels between sustainability and user experience. It was as though they were interwoven with one another. This helped me to appreciate the importance of UX professionals much more, the areas we ought to occupy, and the roles we need to play. But this had nothing to do with titles.

Sustainability, like user experience, is an important aspect of our lives that society has neglected for decades. Both people and companies are beginning to realize how necessary it is to focus on these elements. But when we look at them in a corporate context, sustainability and user experience are functions that should neither be stand-alone organizations nor run as add-ons. We must embed them into a company’s ethos, values, and actions. This, in turn, creates the need to have certain people to take on the responsibility of overseeing, directing, and managing these elements. In forward-thinking organizations, sustainability officers and UX professionals take on these responsibilities.

More important, given that these two elements have just begun to get traction, there are strategic roles that every sustainability officer and UX professional ought to play—regardless of their titles or how or where they are employed. One person need not take on all of these roles, but each of us should play at least one of these roles to which he or she is well suited. The roles and responsibilities sustainability and user experience share include the following:

  • educator
  • innovator
  • disruptor
  • partner

Educator

“The responsibilities of the Educator role include mentorship within the UX profession, writing, and speaking at conferences.”

Every one of us goes through some form of education, whether informal or formal, and we can all agree on the importance of education. We should target education on user experience toward both UX professionals and those outside the profession. The responsibilities of the Educator role include mentorship within the UX profession, writing, and speaking at conferences. The more people learn about user experience, the more likely they are to change their mindsets toward it.

I have benefitted immensely from being educated through mentorships, workshops, and the articles I’ve read. I have also seen companies implement education internally. At the end of each week, the UX team or others would give a presentation to other teams about the projects they had worked on, some of the key activities they had taken part in, and how they related to every other team and the company’s bottom line. Educational activities need not be elaborate. The Educator role is one that almost anyone with a passion for user experience can take on.

Innovator

“UX professionals taking on an Innovator role implement designs that show others what a great user experience can be like.”

An Innovator leads by example. UX professionals taking on an Innovator role implement designs that show others what a great user experience can be like. A classic example is Steve Jobs of Apple, who showed in so many ways what design is capable of. Apple products are certainly useful for their designed purposes, but the great experience of using Apple products is their most important differentiator. Wherever UX professionals work, they should aspire to walk the talk and do great design.

Disruptor

“Disruption is a more radical form of innovation. UX professionals taking on the Disruptor role cause things to change at a faster rate.”

Disruption is a more radical form of innovation. UX professionals taking on the Disruptor role cause things to change at a faster rate. We see this when a person comes into an organization or a company comes into a domain and changes how things get done—forcing people to think more deeply about how they’re doing things and setting a new system in place that offers greater benefits.

This can happen on a small scale—for example, changing a team’s current design process to something more streamlined and agile—to a larger industry-wide scale. At that level, Facebook is one such company that has changed the social media game. Netflix is another example of a company that has built its business model around a perceived user challenge and caused a shift in thinking about video rentals. Skype has changed the way we communicate online. While disruption may not happen very often, it is something we should aspire to. Most UX professionals want to foster changes in people’s behavior for the better.

Partner

“UX professionals in a Partner role should build partnerships with other like-minded professionals—both in academia and in practice.”

UX professionals in a Partner role should build partnerships with other like-minded professionals—both in academia and in practice. These people build relationships and tackle the big issues, which goes a long way toward promoting and strengthening the ideas behind user experience, while creating great designs. Partnerships also help us to break down barriers between disciplines, creating a culture of openness, which is important for innovation. We should be at the forefront, facilitating collaboration, improving collaboration spaces, and fostering collaborative communities in the workplace.

In Conclusion

The roles that UX professionals take on are not limited to these four. If it is, indeed, our collective vision to have a world where endeavoring to make even a simple, everyday action like opening a door pleasurable and as important as sending aid to the less privileged, these strategic UX roles are crucial. Our profession is multidisciplinary, so we must not allow ourselves to fall prey to building barriers instead of bridges to other disciplines. It is up each and every one of us to take on these responsibilities if we want to improve and enjoy our world.

2 Comments

Great article! I’m currently researching issues of sustainability for the Web and virtual worlds. Besides sustainability in energy and resource use—for example, pages that grind the CPU—there is a sustainability of experience, which pretty much is another name for UX. For some clients, it might even help to describe UX as a way to ensure sustainability of product.

Nice article, Antonia. I’d be interested to hear where you are now and if you have any further thoughts / experiences to add on this topic. I have been weaving together my knowledge and love of UX with my passion for sustainability for the past 5 years. The real intersection between UX and sustainability is Behaviour Change. I believe human decision-making and modification of choices through better design is key to both a successful user experience (digital) and human experience (sustainability). Interested to have another’s take on it.

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