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The User Experience Community is Thinking Too Big

December 17th, 2004 by Kevin Cheng :: see related comic

Two weeks ago, I had the privilege to give a presentation for the UXNet London launch event. The title of the presentation was “The User Experience Community is Thinking Too Big” (PowerPoint) (PDF).

As I’ve mentioned before, I generally try to use my slides to present and reinforce a point rather than be the point itself. Consequently, the slides may not make a lot of sense on their own. With that in mind, I’m providing some quick notes on the main points of my presentation.

Basically, I had three major reasons I felt the community was thinking too big. In each case, I’m defining “big” in a different way. I borrowed John Kerry’s “Wrong War, Wrong Place, Wrong Time” as a way to organize those points.##Wrong War
By now, most people will have read Dirk Knemeyer’s Digital Web article, The End of Usability Culture. My biggest beef here is that Dirk, and many others, are taking arms in what seems like a battle of design vs. usability or information architecture vs. usability or interaction design vs. information architecture, etc., etc.

That’s completely the wrong war. We’ve made tremendous progress in penetrating organizations and helping them understand why each and everyone one of these disciplines are important to the success of a product but we’re hardly as well accepted as we should be. Discussions of ROI and convincing management are still rampant and this leads me to believe that we need to continue to push that front, instead of pointing fingers at each other and telling people “you need less usability, they’re causing your sites to look ugly.”

So in this case, “big” meant fighting at a level and scope that’s rather detrimental to all the disciplines.

##Wrong Place
The question that was asked in the UXNet/BayCHI event with Don Norman was, “Who Owns the User Experience?” The fact that this question is still relevant troubles me. It’s true that many people are now realizing Peter Morville’s idea of Big IA is dated and that Big IA is in fact User Experience but not everyone is there yet.

Each discipline have guilty parties. Usability has claimed they own the experience, IA certainly has and I can think of some mailing list discussions which lead me to think participants believed they, too, owned the experience.

User experience doesn’t belong in any one of those places. There is no “umbrella”, only a roof. Stop thinking of your discipline as bigger than it is.

##Wrong Time
Jesse James Garrett is fantastic at concise, representative diagrams. One example is his Elements of User Experience (pdf). I find very little debate exists in the contents of this diagram. Most people believe that those are all elements required to make a successful project.

The problem comes when people draw parallels of these disciplines to what Tom calls the social boundaries. This parallel causes much confusion and creates much discussion about organization charts and what department user experience professionals belong to.

One could argue that user experience is just as, if not more, important than say development but at the moment, we don’t have the understanding and penetration that the staffing reflects this. If anything, UX staffing is one tenth or even one hundredth of development.

We’re making progress, but we’re not at a stage where separation by disciplinary boundaries makes sense. Imagine a small start-up where they can only afford one developer. That developer does the database, the UI programming, the testing, and the backend architecture. No roles are defined beyond development. That’s where we are now. We know the elements of UX that need to be covered to make a project successful but those may not be performed by one individual for each element. The boundaries of discipline and social are not equal.

User experience is not big enough within organizations to warrant it, either.

##Acknowledgments
So there you have it. My thoughts on why the UX community is thinking too big. I hope those who attended enjoyed the presentations. Props to Tom for helping me put crystallize some of the content, Lou Rosenfeld, the guest of honour that night, who finally cleared up for me what UXNet is really setting out to do and to Joshua Kaufman for organizing the event.

29 Responses to “The User Experience Community is Thinking Too Big”
jsg wrote:

I think the point Dirk was trying to make was that design, usability, IA and ID need to all be equal partners under a balanced, strategic approach to defining the user experience. His argument (to me) seemed to be that usability constraints currently dictate the parameters the rest of the disciplines are then forced to work within.

It looks like you’re advocating a similar approach: make love, not war, and consider all of these disciplines as partners in defining the overall experience. I think you’re saying the same thing.

(As an added bonus, this way everyone gets to own the UX! Partay!)

praetorian wrote:

that approach didn’t work very well for Kerry… i detect similar weakness with your approach as well

Nick Finck wrote:

Kevin, I agree with JSG’s comment here. Dirk’s article is about finding a balance between all of the disciplines, not pitting them against each other.

Kevin Cheng wrote:

Dirk’s article is about finding a balance between all of the disciplines, not pitting them against each other.

I was concerned that using Dirk’s article as the prime example would be a bad choice. After rereading, I think it was a poor example. I do still feel there seems to be “factions”. John Rhodes had an interesting way of putting it in webword.

that approach didn’t work very well for Kerry… i detect similar weakness with your approach as well

Again, a fear I had was using anything vaguely political because of responses like this. You’re right, of course. Just like Kerry, the rebuttals are sometimes completely lacking in content. Thank for playing praetorian. Around here, we try for constructive discussions. I’m happy to admit I’m wrong (as I just did) if a valid point is raised.

Daniel J. Wilson wrote:

The PDF link is redirecting to the main page.

Kevin Cheng wrote:

Thanks Daniel. Link has been fixed. Sorry about that.

Joshua Porter wrote:

By definition, doesn’t the “user experience” belong to the user?

Julian wrote:

I think by “belong” they mean “has control over creating”

michael A wrote:

Isn’t a “user” actually a human being? Think this way and things seem less confusing, at least to me.

Drew wrote:

A “designer” is a human being too. I don’t think the more specific term dehumanizes anyone or confuses the conversation at all; it would be more confusing to insist on calling everyone “human beings” all the time.

I read the same testiness about the supposed line in the sand between usability professionals and capital-D Designers in Knemeyer’s article, not to mention the Herasimchuk post he linked to. I’m not usually up to date on the various conversations going on within “the community” so I had no idea this sort of hostility was going on. Kevin, I don’t think your rebuttals lacked content at all, and represent where I’m coming from as a usability professional (obliged to wear many different hats depending on the situation) much better than the other articles.

Matt Rehkopf wrote:

Thanks, Kevin, for attempting to refocus the discussion started as a result of Dirk’s articles. I also felt that the articles’ argument was design vs. usability, a point that he attempted to back off from afterwards, and a point I, like others, feel has been covered. In defining who we are, I think that UX professionals and designers have come to terms with who does what and the importance of working together to strike that balance between form and function (an aspect that is dictated more by the type of site that is being built rather than the folks that are actually building it). I am happy to see someone stand up and point out the dangers of going down this road again. Now is the time to band together and focus on convincing management of the value of UX. Designers do not disagree that UX is important, and UX professionals do not disagree that design is important. Let’s acknowledge that fact and work together to own and design experiences that fulfill the needs of our users as well as the business.

Dave wrote:

Oy! if only I could do this is a short paragraph:

UX != function != usability
UX can’t exist w/o design
To design a digital product requires design. Thus its success is a combination of the aesthetic (not just visual) and the function that that aesthetic surrounds.

usability != UX != function
Usabilty is the validation process of a complete solution and validates the aesthetic as much as it does the functional

function cannot exist w/o form
Function and form are both made up of three components: structure, behavior and presentation. Each effects both and thus any illusion that you can separate function from form is just that an il
lusion.

Our biggest problem in the UX world is unclear definitions. We have them amongst ourselves and we have them when we talk to our customers. Whenever words are used for both the specific and the general we add to the confusion surrounding our disciplines. Usability can’t mean two things that are so closely tied together w/o create a world of ambiguity. There is also no need for it since there are terms that can be used to mean the general w/o using the term “usability”: user experience and digital product design seem to be the ones of the moment, but even these so it seems from Matt’s post need to be protected as well.

I think if people want to really know what Dirk’s thinking about Usability vs. Design they should look at his presentation that he resently gave to BayDUX. There is a link from my blog entry response to it. It’s an awesome presentation and I think, Kevin if you take a look at it you’ll see that he is not really all that far away from what you want.

daniel harvey wrote:

Kevin’s comments about staffing *may* be correct at an overall level but there are certainly exceptions to that rule. I know of several new media companies where the interaction design department is actually half or 2/3 the size of the development department. I’m also aware of many big web services companies where the UX department is so large or the needs of the product so specific that roles do exist within the interaction design department — user interface, information architecture, etc.

Generally speaking however, I think Kevin’s largely correct. It would make little sense at my place of work — despite the fact that we number in the dozens — to break the department up along such intradisciplinary skill-sets.

Lurking Herb Simon wrote:

UX can’t exist w/o design

Depends on what you mean “design”. Do you mean professional design performed by people formally educated in the domain? Or do you simply mean Simon’s definition of it as the activity of intentionally and willfully changing existing situations into preferred ones?

The former is wrong while the latter is practically a tautology. People have been “designing” experiences for others for thousands of years. Stories, rituals, performances are all artificial–and therefore “designed”–experiences. The professional designer is only a very recent phenomenon–so recent that we’re still arguing about what he or she does and doesn’t do.

To design a digital product requires design.

Uh… right. To design something requires design. I think that qualifies as another tautology.

Usabilty is the validation process of a complete solution and validates the aesthetic as much as it does the functional

Usability is not a validation process. Usability methods and practices can be used to validated design desicions, sure. However these methods and practices are just as useful prior to design work, to model users’ behavior, performance, facility, etc, under current circumstances. This also means that usability methods are as valuable in modeling the problem as they are in validating (or invalidating) proposed solutions. I’m unaware of any formal usability practice that is valuable in evaluating aesthetics.

function cannot exist w/o form

Yes I belive Aristotle nailed this one in principle some time ago.

Our biggest problem in the UX world is unclear definitions.

Ahmen to that.

Dustin Diaz wrote:

We’ve been fighting for too long. Seeing posts over and over again on what someone thinks “usability” means and “design w/o usability” bla bla bla. It seems to me like nobody ever wants to agree with anyone and it’s about time we start getting along. Damned if you don’t, and damned if you’re trying.

Usability culture will never be satisfied with one answer…which is fine…but don’t blasphemize others.

btw, I was referring to some of the comments.

Good write up.

Lurking Herb Simon wrote:

I don’t think itís an issue of getting along. Itís an issue of getting our own collective act together and being taken seriously as a profession. Making it clear what we do and do not do as a profession is no mere bla bla blah–It is the very first obligation of any serious profession. And the degree to which we are taken seriously ultimately affects how much money we make

Yes, this and similar arguments have been going on for years. One reason they persist within the profession as well as outside of it is the pervasive intellectual sloppiness and muddled thinking cultivated within the design/usability/etc community. I’m sure that will offend a few of the sensitive folks here, but if we are to make actual progress as a profession the laxity of thought and process is going to have to end.

Dave wrote:

Depends on what you mean “design”. Do you mean professional design performed by people formally educated in the domain? Or do you simply mean Simon’s definition of it as the activity of intentionally and willfully changing existing situations into preferred ones?
The former is wrong while the latter is practically a tautology. People have been “designing” experiences for others for thousands of years. Stories, rituals, performances are all artificial–and therefore “designed”–experiences. The professional designer is only a very recent phenomenon–so recent that we’re still arguing about what he or she does and doesn’t do.

Actually, I mean both. That the best people to do the latter are those who have informal or formal training in the former. I dee no tautology. As for the “recentness” of the professional designer, I’m not sure when you think design started, but the idea of wholistic design outdates the rise of the PC by about 50 years. Compared to usability and CHI, we are talking generations.

Usability is not a validation process. Usability methods and practices can be used to validated design desicions, sure. However these methods and practices are just as useful prior to design work, to model users’ behavior, performance, facility, etc, under current circumstances. This also means that usability methods are as valuable in modeling the problem as they are in validating (or invalidating) proposed solutions. I’m unaware of any formal usability practice that is valuable in evaluating aesthetics.

usability is impactful of design but can never actually do formative design. It can generate ideas, but not turn those ideas into complete solutions. It’s process of discovery still relied on the fact that there is some validation done on an existing process. Again, my goal here is to limit the definition of usability to a narrow one, not to control who ones what, but to create clarity.

There are other forms of research but I wouldn’t call these usability: contextual inquiry, participatory design, card sorting, etc. These are other research methods.

Last poing again … people do many disciplines, that doesn’t mean that the discipline who’s name you mostly identify does any more than the discipline itself. I’m a designer. I do research and usability and design, but those are 3 different things that fall under my title. To Kevin’s point, Yes, most organizations try to put many disciplines under 1 hat, but if we are to grow as a community in practice with a formal education process and a vast literature we need to look at these areas both in whole as you are doing and in separateness.

I do not expect to see a university program in User Experience Design any time soon. It is too broad an area of study. But there are a growing number in IA, IxD, and HCI.

— dave

Andy wrote:

In the museum/visitor attraction sector we are relatively new to the term “usability”, having used “evaluation” (I know, different meaning for software…) or “audience advocacy”. Ultimately what we are after is to create a voice for the end user within the development process. If you don’t have usability, how can a designer *know* what users do or how they behave? Surely we are providing a service to enable designers to do a better job (and win more awards!).

Ron Zeno wrote:

I don’t think itís an issue of getting along. Itís an issue of getting our own collective act together and being taken seriously as a profession. Making it clear what we do and do not do as a profession is no mere bla bla blah–It is the very first obligation of any serious profession.

Well said Herb! I still think the “getting along” part is key, though. As long as there are people taking very different approaches to creating their own professional standing, there will be conflicts, especially when some approaches are in direct opposition to others’.

Mostly, I don’t agree with Kevin’s premise that people are “thinking too big”. I think they’re not thinking enough to prevent them from being led astray into fighting the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Kevin Cheng wrote:

Mostly, I don’t agree with Kevin’s premise that people are “thinking too big”. I think they’re not thinking enough to prevent them from being led astray into fighting the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Ouch. Now I know what you meant by being optimistic before, Ron. Perhaps I should just say “Those in the UX Community who are thinking, are thinking too big”? =)

I love how this discussion has (yet again) degenerated to a discussion about titles. i.e., blurring the social and discplinary boundaries.

John S. Rhodes wrote:

In general, and when it literally relates to my customers and clients…

I don’t give a rat’s arse about definitions. I don’t a rat’s butt about wars. I don’t give a rat’s poop about who says what.

…I care about results. I care about profits. I care about clear language. I care about solving problems. I care about communication.

If I am talking to my peers, well, then I can bitch and moan. However, when it comes to projects and clients and the “real world” none of it matters. You do your job and you do it well with the right people and the right tools. In short, these discussions are largely USELESS.

Do you think most people (e.g., project managers or developers) really care what “IA” or “UX” mean? Do you think they care about “usability” or, instead, about completing projects, or writing solid code?

Folks, do the math. Don’t get so upset. Don’t waste so much time. Find pain points and use the right tools to eliminate the pain. Think big, work small.

This is a little, tiny, circle. We are but cogs in the machine. Yes, we are working to make the world better. But, most of the world can’t see us or hear us. (Maybe they shouldn’t!) Think about what we should really be talking about. Stop. Think.

Bob Salmon wrote:

I must own up to my foreigner status here. I’m not any of the titles discussed on the forum - the closest that comes is systems analyst, and have a developer background. Given that I’m not involved in the internecine rumblings listed here, I tend towards John (S. Rhodes)’ position, although I think I wouldn’t express it as well as him, or involving rats as much.

Dustin wrote:

Herb, you’re right to an extent. It just seems that most of the time we argue on who’s right…rather than taking in the good’s and bad’s through thoughtful and constructive discussions.

By no means should we “stop talking about it.” It’s just that we should figure out better ways to communicate our progress.

Matt wrote:

Having worked as a web developer & designer for the past 6 years with a previous background in traditional graphic design I have given the ideas of user interface design, usability, user experience, and similar subjects much thought. I personally feel that one of the biggest divides in this arena is between the pure technologists and the pure graphic artists.

A true “web designer” (in my opinion) is one who falls somewhere in between these two groups and has a diverse skill set borrowed from programmers and graphic designers. They are capable of performing both the graphics creation in PhotoShop as well as the user interface elements utilizing javascript, and possibly, server side scripting languages. If they can’t do the work themselves, they at least need a deeper understanding of all these technologies and their capabilities and limitations.

I constantly jump back and forth between creating or improving navigation elements, overall site designs, Flash movies, and javascript functionality. Although each of these elements is a part of the “user experience”, it is the combination of these pieces that creates the overall “user experience”.

A GOOD designer, the traditional sense of the work (ie. print designer), was NEVER simply concerned about making pretty visuals. Even before the internet, designers were the key factor in creating a “user experience” for print pieces. After all, it’s about presenting information clearly and perhaps a call to action by the consumer - regardless of whether we are talking about the internet, a brochure, or a newspaper.

Lurking Herb Simon wrote:

However, when it comes to projects and clients and the “real world” none of it matters. You do your job and you do it well with the right people and the right tools.

So what job is it that “you do”?? If potential clients don’t know what that job is, why they need it, how it fits into thier plans, how to evaluate if you are good at it, you simply don’t even get in the door. Heck even once they know all this there is still a good chance they’ll just assume that what you claim to do is what their engineering and marketing folks already do. So again, you don’t even get in the door.

As much as we may be tired of the title debate, titles and labels are crucial to people outside our community to understand where we fit into their plans. Could you imagine if doctors suddenly decided to do away with titles? Anesthesiologist, proctologist, whateverólets all just be doctors and get along. Sorry, if Iím having heart troubles I want a cardiologist and not cosmetic surgeon. We unfortunately need titles, we need meaningful definitions of these titles, and we need to promise levels of expertise, experience and quality within these definitions so potential clients truly understand our value proposition.

What does a lawyer do? An accountant? A plumber? Business decision makers know where these professionals ad value to their operations. They have at the very least a rudimentary understanding of when they need a lawyer, and why they need a lawyer rather than a plumber.

Can the same be said for all the professional titles heaped under design/usability/etc…??

I think Kevin is right–UX as a professional domain is thinking too big. Michael Porter says (forgive the oversimplification) that the essence of strategy is defining what you will NOT do. Thinking too big therefore is the antithesis of strategy. And without a strategy our profession(s) will never achieve the level of acceptance in the business world that say finance and engineering have.

Ron Zeno wrote:

…the essence of strategy is defining what you will NOT do.

Agreed. The other aspect of this is responsibility. You can do whatever you want, claim anything, and get away with it if no one thinks you are actually responsible or you aren’t willing to be responsible.

As I said in response to Kevin’s UXNet London announcement, I’m concerned with the lack of critical thinking and the overwhelming amount of emotional thinking in these discussions.

Lurking Herb Simon wrote:

I’m concerned with the lack of critical thinking and the overwhelming amount of emotional thinking in these discussions.

Wow! I agree 110% with that. Its helpfull to be reminded of this every so often.

Keith Instone wrote:

Thanks doing the presentation, Kevin. And for supporting this follow-up discussion.

Since I was not there, one of your points is still not clear to me: There is no “umbrella”, only a roof.

Please elaborate on your differences between an umbrella and a roof.

I really want to understand your distinction. Thanks.

Kevin Cheng wrote:

Way overdue response to Keith’s question. In the presentation, I had an actual umbrella with me, large enough to cover a small UX team. A usability professional, a designer and an IA stood and I posed the question of who should hold the UX Umbrella. It was rhetorical, of course, and meant only to show that nobody really needs to hold it. Peter Boersma’s T diagrams illustrate the Roof diagramatically.

Trust me, it worked better in presentation than in written form :)


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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?



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