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What Is Proper UX Anyway?

Selling UX

A unique perspective on service UX

A column by Baruch Sachs
October 9, 2017

Recently, in speaking with various members of my team, as well as UX professionals from other companies, the expression proper UX has come up a lot. A common refrain is: “I did not get to do proper UX at my last company, so I left.” Everyone nods knowingly, offers words of encouragement, and we move on to a different topic.

But what exactly is proper UX practice? How should we define that? There is a lot of information out there about exactly what proper UX practice is. However, almost everyone’s conception of proper UX practice suffers from one glaring omission: flexibility.

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User Experience, as a profession, has become so rigid that it is affecting our ability to fully understand the value we can bring to projects, design solutions, customer engagements, and companies. All too often, we get caught up in doing the proper design activities that an organization or our education has taught us need to happen if we are to be considered true experience designers. Many talk about our UX design process as being transformative when, in reality, it often resembles a wash-rinse-repeat cycle that produces a lot of sameness.

As UX professionals, it is in our nature to want to do great things, but we don’t always have the patience necessary to see through every detail that adds up to greatness. For those of us who embrace the strategic aspects of our profession, in doing so, we sometimes fail to see that tactical things we do every day are what help us to achieve our larger goals. It is actually our ability to be flexible in our process and perceive what next steps will lead us to our goal that lets us achieve greatness.

The Elusive Perfect Experience

The WalkMe blog post “The UX of a Banana: Understanding What UX Design Is All About” provides an excellent description of what a user experience should be. For those of you who have not yet read it, it’s a short, worthwhile read. Basically, the post makes the assertion that a banana exemplifies what Mother Nature would think of as the best possible user experience. (That is, of course, if we are willing to believe that Mother Nature thinks of such things.) If she does, she probably spent considerable time thinking up the banana peel. She gave it visual cues us to inform us of the banana’s ripeness. The makeup of a banana peel makes a banana quite sturdy in transport, while at the same time, the peel serves as the perfect packaging to prevent a mess. In short, the banana peel is a clever example of how most of us would describe the perfect experience.

The post omitted one fact and perhaps this was on purpose: the same thing that makes the banana a great experience is also what could potentially result in a tragic experience for someone else—if someone eats a banana then carelessly discards the peel. Banana peels are particularly slippery. Many cartoons have depicted one or more characters slipping on a banana peel. In such cases, the very qualities that are inherent in the peel may make it seem like a design mistake.

In crafting a real-world experience for people to consume, we can make our very best effort to create a great experience and still fail. The best UX research, the prettiest wireframes you ever created, and implementation by a technology team that gets user experience could all culminate in an experience that fails to meet its mark. This happens every day—and, understandably, professionals working in the experience design world get super bummed out about it.

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The Best Approach: Being Flexible

So what magical ingredient would enable such designers and product teams to get back up and try again? Flexibility. We must understand that, when we build something for another group of human beings to use, we will often get it wrong. When we work in an organization that lacks maturity and disregards the importance of design thinking or misunderstands it entirely, we have to think very strategically. When we work with a client who just wants us to make a user interface pretty, we must not take such desired outcomes on their face, but recognize that, as UX professionals, we have a bigger remit than just making something pretty.

Designers and developers who are on my team often tell me about the engagements they are working on. Sometimes they voice their concern that what they are doing is not truly representative of what they could do. I always point out that, in the enterprise world—even in seemingly nimble, agile enterprises—nobody can be just a UX designer or UI developer. We also have to be part organizational change agent.

Even if you feel you’ve succeeded only in making a layout cleaner or a color scheme less garish, depending on your organization’s UX maturity, that could be a huge first step. As our profession has grown in popularity, many UX professionals believe that any company that is serious about being successful with their product offering or service absolutely must view the user experience as a critical component. I believe that is very arrogant on our part. Chances are that the organization actually does already know that. It’s the how that trips them up. This is where our role as organizational change agent comes in.

The best folks on my team are not the ones who stay within the designated channels their job descriptions allocate to them. They are also not the ones who blow those channels out of the water. In fact, either of those approaches would likely guarantee their client showing them the door and our company losing those engagements. The best people on my teams are the ones who understand that change-agent role.

They solve any tactical problems while making progress toward the larger strategic goal. Maybe changing the color scheme won’t enable you to achieve it, but working with a business stakeholder an getting the support of a decision maker will help you in your next endeavor. Perhaps fixing a couple of UI bugs won’t help you realize the customer experience maturity model you want, but it will demonstrate that you actually understand how the functions within an experience work and affect the daily lives of customer or users. Or maybe trying to fix those bugs shows that the design so lovingly crafted—either by a colleague or yourself—does not scale. That is such a valuable lesson, and we often miss such learnings in our pursuit of proper UX.

Conclusion

So remember to be flexible in your pursuit of valuable user experiences, and don’t get so hung up on what practices you were taught are proper. It has taken me a number of years of experience as a UX professional to begin to understand that what is proper is contextual. I’ve realized that, when I’ve achieved proper UX practice, it’s almost never happened as a result of properly executing some practice I was taught, but rather because of what I have learned working in the profession. 

Senior Director, Technical Solutions and Global Design, at Pegasystems

Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

Baruch SachsWith over 12 years of experience leading and participating in successful efforts to improve user experience across various industries, Baruch has a developed a wide range of skills in the areas of interaction design, user interface development, and product management. For the past 5 years, he has developed and led the global user experience team at Pegasystems and serves as the principal end-user advocate for the Pegasystems Services organization in the delivery of user interface design and user experience to customers and partners.  Read More

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