I recently saw a job advertisement for a UX designer. It asked for all the usual things, but there was one curious phrase: “You own an iPhone and an iPad and live and breathe Apple design.” It’s worth noting that the company was not Apple, nor was it affiliated with Apple in any way. It was actually a design company in the south of England, looking for a UX designer to work on Web design, in a domain without any apparent connection to Apple.
While there may be stereotypes of designers—jeans, turtleneck, ponytail, glasses—and UX designers—for whom you should add iPad, iPhone, MacBook Pro, Sharpies, and Moleskine—anyone can buy these accoutrements. Anyone can use the language of design and talk about the need for a user-centered design process—user research, design, usability testing—but this, in itself, does not produce good design results. Asking for someone who will “live and breathe Apple design” is of value only inside Apple.
The cargo cult in UX design relates to applying any aspect of design without having the understanding you really need to make proper use of it. And the problem is that the cargo cult appears to promise a shortcut to something most people find very hard to achieve: critical thinking. Here’s something that works, the cargo cult says. If you do this, too, you’ll experience the same success! By emphasizing the Apple connection in the job advertisement, the company was expressing a desire to imitate the success of Apple in user experience. There is nothing wrong with that, but I pity the poor UX designer who took the position. I imagine a company that would expect Apple-like UI design regardless of its appropriateness to the company’s products, customers, or broader customer experience.
While I’ve described an extreme case, for any field, there is a set of knowledge that people regard as received wisdom, but may not have any real basis in research or reality. In talking about user experience, people often use terms like user friendly and intuitive. These have become powerful, persuasive terms, but are, in fact, poorly defined. (I’m pleased that user friendly seems to be dying out, but intuitive seems to be filling the void.) The problem is that using terms like these is lazy: using them demands no evidence; no thinking about the relationship between task and user. User experience isn’t alone in this: every field has its own jargon, and people often use buzzwords to gloss over their own lack of understanding. But when organizations who come to designers for help define requirements in these terms—regardless of whether the work would ultimately benefit customers—they make the designers job much, much harder.