So what keeps us, as UX professionals, from really solving problems holistically and designing total-system solutions that deeply meet our target users’ needs? At least three barriers to this holy grail of UX design endeavors seem pervasive in corporate environments:
- We are rarely asked to provide holistic solutions.
- We don’t understand the big picture.
- Companies just are not set up to deliver holistic solutions.
1. We are rarely asked to provide holistic solutions.
Most often, UX professionals become mired in a series of short-term, narrowly scoped projects. Executing well against such limited expectations immediately demonstrates the value of UX professionals, and their output is on par with the bite-sized chunks their counterparts in engineering, product management, and business are typically able to digest. So there’s little reason to change the scope of your design solutions to keep your job: your organization already sees you as an important cog in the machine and can’t run without you.
But continuing to deliver at this level leaves us little time to come up for air to solve the deeper problems that would entail our coming up with a holistic solution. Few of the company executives above a UX team really care if the balance between tactical execution and strategic design is out of whack. They rarely see strategy as a UX professional’s responsibility anyway.
Does anyone think holistically? Sort of. Most companies have personnel who they expect to work at a more strategic level, and you’ll find these people under many titles and in many departments: corporate strategy, market research, business development, the C-level. They look for insights, stay abreast of industry trends, create partnerships and deals, or provide a vision of the future that inspires. Executives and others see—and pounce on—their favorite aspects of these visions for the future in whatever form strategists might present them. But while such visions can be strategic, they are rarely holistic. UX design professionals have great potential to think holistically, because by trade and training, they often work across company boundaries and see through the eyes of users. Ironically, despite their natural ability for holistic thinking, they are not often involved in strategic thinking.
2. We don’t understand the big picture.
So much of our training and experience, as UX professionals, centers on fairly granular units of analysis such as user goals, task analyses, and page-level interactions. Most of us don’t really know how to get our heads around the larger problems we should be trying to solve. Others have suggested that this problem stems from a lack of suitable frameworks that would better guide “total experience design” solutions, and that it’s time for an “end to decades-old frameworks that HCI, information architecture, and interaction design have been using for understanding users.”
I would say that it is not a lack of suitable frameworks, but rather that the frameworks experts have advanced thus far are simply too academic for most UX professionals to understand and use. Consider two prominent examples of underutilized HCI frameworks that potentially address total system design:
- In her 1987 book, Plans and Situated Actions: The Problem of Human-Machine Communication, anthropologist Lucy Suchman systematically showed the cognitive science and HCI communities that the tasks, goals, and states an expert system used to drive a copy machine’s user interface were entirely insufficient to enable effective human-machine interaction. While Situated Action—the explanatory framework she proposed—got a lot of press, I don’t commonly see it in use in modern-day design or research, even by professionals I know have read the book.
- Another very interesting framework that could potentially offer us help in understanding total system design is Activity Theory. Bonnie Nardi most prominently applied Activity Theory to HCI in her 1996 book, Context and Consciousness: Activity Theory and Human-Computer Interaction. Activity Theory also got a lot of attention for a few years, but ultimately, UX professionals have not really made use of this approach.
Why, then, haven’t these frameworks—and ostensibly, total system design—taken off? I think one answer has its roots in the following idea: we, as human beings, live in a world where context and culture have a tremendous influence on our behavior, yet we are hardly aware of it. In contrast, when we reflect back on our experience, we think of it, not as it was—that is, situated and in the moment—but rather in a retrospectively rationalistic way. This perpetuates the view of human action as goal-oriented and logical. Thus, you can see how it is difficult for many UX professionals to utilize frameworks that attempt to understand human activity as it happens rather than as people recollect it, because upon self-reflection, it is hard to see the frameworks’ validity.
I’ve tried to teach Activity Theory to UX professionals, but it seems to take repeated doses to sink in—although being Scandinavian or Russian seems to help. Despite the Marxists undertones, I have personally found some of the concepts from Yrjö Engeström’s version of Activity Theory very helpful when structuring ethnographic field study data and envisioning holistic UX design solutions. Unfortunately, it’s just too opaque for most UX professionals to grasp and use.
We’re at a crossroads: We need better frameworks that allow more UX professionals to understand the deeper problems and design holistic solutions, but who will develop them? Neither academics nor practitioners seem well suited or incentivized to do so.