Better Communication About UX Design

Innovating UX Practice

Inspirations from software engineering

A column by Peter Hornsby
April 7, 2014

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.

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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.”

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. 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

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. 

UX Manager at Distribution Technology

Reading, Berkshire, UK

Peter HornsbyPeter has been actively involved in Web design and development since 1993, working in the defense and telecommunications industries; designing a number of interactive, Web-based systems; and advising on usability. He has also worked in education, in both industry and academia, designing and delivering both classroom-based and online training. At Distribution Technology, Peter is responsible for the user experience of Web and mobile apps; working closely with analysts, testers, and developers; and developing a research program. Peter has a PhD in software component reuse and a Bachelors degree in human factors, both from Loughborough University, in Leicestershire, UK. He has presented at international conferences and written about reuse, eLearning, and organizational design.  Read More

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