Better Communication About UX Design

By Peter Hornsby

Published: April 7, 2014

“The way many designers talk and write about user experience leads to a perception that design is largely subjective and does not have the same level of rigor as other disciplines.”

I’ve recently found myself becoming increasingly frustrated by some of the language that the UX community uses in talking about design and in writing articles about design. As a community, UX designers are working hard to raise the profile of User Experience. Look around any UX site and you’ll see a stack of articles about how User Experience can do better, achieve more, and have greater influence within organizations. But the way many designers talk and write about user experience leads to a perception that design is largely subjective and does not have the same level of rigor as other disciplines. In turn, this leads to a reduction in the status of User Experience within organizations, making it harder to deliver good design in support of broader organizational goals.

Intuitive Isn’t

To my mind, the greatest offender is the use of the i-word: intuitive. This term often crops up in debates about Mac versus PC. Many Mac proponents use the i-word: “It’s so much more intuitive! It just works.” In reality, when debating Mac versus PC, my experience has been that the most “intuitive” system is the one a user is already familiar with. So, if you’re a PC user, you can be more productive on a PC because you already have a depth of knowledge about it. Similarly, if you’ve worked on a Mac for years, a Mac will be your tool of choice to get work done.

When we describe a design as intuitive, we’re using a word that means the direct perception of truth or fact, independent of any reasoning process. It’s with the lack of any reasoning process that the problem starts. UX designers who use this term are sending out hugely mixed messages. At the same time they’re talking about the need to understand users and put ourselves in their shoes, they’re using terms—like intuitive—that effectively dismiss the value of reasoning and rationale for design. They’re talking about design as something that “just works” or “works fine for me.” Designers are effectively saying, “I don’t need to think about it—nor should our users.”

“The greatest offender is the use of the i-word: intuitive.”

In the UX designer’s case, this is probably true: He has just spent weeks or months designing a product. He sees the product in his sleep and can remember every step of each process because he has lived and breathed the product and engaged in passionate debates with colleagues and stakeholders about the details of the design. On the other hand, using the word intuitive communicates that the journey that has led to the design has gotten pushed to one side, and this undermines people’s perception of the value of the design process. Even when UX designers use phrases like “intuitive to the user,” they are making a lot of assumptions about users and extrapolating wildly from test data.

UX designers do not carry sole responsibility for this: Project requirements frequently describe the need to create “an intuitive user interface.” Marketers may also use the term in marketing the product. At best, we may think of using the word intuitive as speaking the language of our stakeholders. Nevertheless, the word intuitive describes something that is not testable, so should never be a formal requirement.

Even though accepting the label intuitive may seem to be tremendously flattering to UX designers, doing so undermines all of the work that we do as UX professionals. Why? Because, when people view a design as something that just works, without considering the context of the target user and the rationale behind the design, people no longer see user experience as a professional design discipline that is based on an understanding of the user’s needs, the technology, the context in which people will use the product, and all of the other factors that underpin a good design. Instead, UX design becomes something that the designer “just does.” And, if the designer just does it, anyone else can just do it as well. This is bad for an organization and bad for garnering support for User Experience within the organization.

Other UX Terms with Negative Impacts

“Another term that has unintended negative consequences for UX Design within an organization is best practice.”

Another term that has unintended negative consequences for UX Design within an organization is best practice. Just as the word intuitive does, this term moves the discussion away from any need to understand the rationale for a design decision that you’re making—and in the worst case, away from UX designers really understanding their designs—toward a set of decisions that others have made. In some ways, this may seem to be a very safe term to use. Why, after all, would anyone question best practice? But this again brings us back to the need for UX designers to have a solid rationale for each and every design decision that they make—and the importance of avoiding the type of intellectual laziness that these terms encourage.

Although wireframing is not as detrimental a term as the other terms the I’ve discussed, it also has a negative impact on the role of UX Design within an organization. Wireframing helps to move a design from a sketch to something that is starting to take shape in the medium through which users will experience it, and can be a powerful way of communicating with users and stakeholders. But the term wireframing does’t carry any of this meaning—any more than writing a document carries the meaning of a business analyst’s understanding a business process to describe how it works or typing on a computer conveys the idea of a software engineer’s implementing a solution in code.

When we talk about wireframing, we are focusing on the task of communicating a design rather than the design process that underpins that task. Although it’s more wordy to say “wireframing a design” or “refining a design in wireframes,” these are slightly better ways of conveying what a UX designer actually does than using the shorthand of “wireframing.”

In Summary

When we talk about wireframing, we are focusing on the task of communicating a design rather than the design process that underpins that task.

Encouraging organizations to treat UX design with the same level of respect as other disciplines is an ongoing labor for many UX designers. If the everyday language that UX professionals use in discussing UX design does’t support the efforts that we make to raise the profile of User Experience, this can undermine all of the benefits of following a rigorous design process and promoting good design within an organization.

5 Comments

I totally agree upon your statements. “It works intuitively” should be followed by “…for me.”

You stated: “In reality, when debating Mac versus PC, my experience has been that the most “intuitive” system is the one a user is already familiar with.”

In case of comparing two systems—Mac and PC for instance—one system might actually be “so much more intuitive…” but then again: intuitive for that particular person.

Nice addition to this topic.

This article really highlights the greater problem the UX community has with establishing credibility. It is not easy to come up with simple solutions to complex problems. Unfortunately, the knowledge we have and the work we produce does not make this readily apparent to non-UX folks. I believe we can increase our credibility as a profession by making our processes more transparent, not by hiding them behind endless technical jargon and 100s of different job titles. Your article is a great start, I would love to see a follow-up article that provides actionable suggestions on ways in which we could improve our UX vocabulary.

You’re ranting about the right word, but for the wrong reasons. We should not use intuitive as a term of art because it is the wrong word. Instead, when describing an object—a thing like site navigation or a Web app UI—we should use the word intuitable. People can possess the mental faculty of intuition—forming expectations based on passive learning through accumulated, repeated patterns of experience—so people can be intuitive. Objects, on the other hand, do not have minds, so they cannot possess intuition. If a person can rely on their intuition to navigate a site, for example, the site navigation is intuitable for that user. Apple stuff is intuitable for Apple users; Microsoft stuff is intuitable for… er… someone, I’m sure. :-)

Lots of feedback, thank you! Stan—That’s a really good article, and the title he used was very similar to one I used in an early draft of this one!

Brian—Thanks for the suggestion—will see what I can do. And I absolutely agree: much of what we deal with are wicked problems where there are a lot of interdependent variables, not just within the problem space, but within the organizational context.

Bill—Interesting idea! I agree that the term is more accurate, but would probably tend to avoid even similar terms given the tarnish that intuitive has for me.

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