What Is It That You Do Exactly?
Published: March 25, 2014
When you work in user experience or one of its many subsets, you tend to hear questions about what you do a lot. UX professionals often get this inquiry from parents, prospects, neighbors, friends, or casual acquaintances. Inevitably, the topic of conversation goes to what your job is. When I get asked this question, I usually say that I am involved in the design of software. People are suitably impressed. But when I say “user experience,” I get asked, “What is it that you do exactly?” By now, in 2014, most people have heard of user experience, everyone has experienced good and bad user experiences, and you’ll find more people who actually know someone who has a job in user experience. However, in general, people’s depth of knowledge about user experience is still pretty low.
I subscribe to Google Alerts on a variety of topics as one of the ways that I keep abreast of the goings on in various industries. Not surprisingly, one of my keywords is user experience. But what is surprising is the number of articles that use that term in their title. It seems that the concept of user experience is everywhere these days, and people want to apply that idea to everything. If you just followed the Google Alerts on this keyword, you might tend to believe that companies are improving the user experience of everything from traditional technology products to the Easy Bake Oven every day. Furthermore, more companies seem to be opening User Experience Centers of Excellence as McDonald’s has done. This development would seem to alleviate the need for this inquiry that people always make of UX professionals and perhaps might do away with it completely.
Popularity Begets Knowledge? Maybe.
With the prevalence of user experience articles and blogs, I figured they would raise the visibility of our profession and give people a better understanding of what it is that we do. If user experience has gone mainstream, surely people that I meet at parties would stop asking me what I actually do for a living. Saying “user experience” would be no more unique or mysterious than plumber or hedge fund manager.
Unfortunately, this question does not stop just with people in our personal lives. Too often, I get the same level of confusion from clients, people who are actually paying me to provide user experience services. While, in a social setting, we can laugh off people’s lack of knowledge about or misunderstanding of the role that we play, when we encounter this lack of understanding in a professional environment, it can become quite dangerous to our ability to be effective.
Clients who don’t exactly get what user experience is tend to fall into two camps: those who believe that I swoop in and tell them what colors to choose and those who believe that I do everything from end to end without needing to talk to anyone, ever. Their impression in that I am basically a magician who, with a wave of my wand, can either brighten up a color palette or create the next App Store—no matter what data or process I need to have.
In a lot of organizations, user experience has become a commodity. Others see user experience as something that can be done to an organization in a nice, neat, little two-day workshop package. These issues have been around for a long time, and as user experience has matured both within and outside of organizations, we have seen a greater appreciation for and sophistication around user experience. More organizations now understand the full UX lifecycle, and because it is becoming ingrained in their design and development processes, they can more easily see and take advantage of its benefits.
So, with the prevalence of UX marketing materials that are out there, surely this should help my professional career as a UX consultant. One might think that I wouldn’t have to explain myself nearly as much anymore. Unfortunately, this is not the case. If anything, our jobs as UX professionals are getting harder. As the term user experience goes more mainstream, people’s appreciation of the complexities of actually doing this job is diminishing.
User Experience Is a Great Leveler
Already, UX professionals go into a client or a project at a major disadvantage. We touch an area of a product, application, or widget on which everyone from the CEO to the most junior user believes they are an expert. Furthermore, since user experience is so emotionally charged, none of these people recognize expertise in this area. Talk to a good technical architect, and you’ll walk away from that conversation feeling that they have control of the situation, so it is best to leave it to them to figure out. After talking to a good UX expert, you should feel the same way.
However, because of the nature of what we do, it is very difficult to find this type of acceptance as a UX professional—at least, at first. Respect for UX design expertise is earned—as many would argue that it should be, and I would agree personally. What I have seen with the rise in the popularity of user experience—and as the ranks of our professional community swell—is a grab for expert status. I tend to believe that UX professionals are really only as good as their last project. For example, I can be outstanding on one project and just good enough on another. Context and domain and culture and the participants in a project all play a role in how effective you can be as a UX leader.
My intention is not to write a column to commiserate with a sympathetic audience. It is to call attention to the fact that we should see the surging popularity of our profession as a demand for us to step up our game. We need to earn the respect that true expertise deserves and, given our profession’s area of focus, we need to recognize how important it is be clear about our role in the design process. We are at that precipice where we could either take the route of arrogance or take the path that really seeks to ingrain user experience into the larger development process. There are those who decry the fact that ours is no longer seen as a specialty profession that is needed only for those really critical projects for which user adoption is key. But, in fact, some organizations now see user experience not as a nice-to-have, but as a must-have. That is what we should be striving for as a profession because, once all the buzzword nonsense around user experience dies down, we’ll still be able to create great products—without having to resort to magic tricks.