Tom Chi  

Stop the Presses! User Experience Owner Found!

February 18th, 2005 by Tom Chi :: see related comic

For years the question of “who owns user experience?” has been a topic of serious debate in our field. Frankly it’s getting to be a bit silly, so this week I’ve decided to end the debate by just answering the question. And in the interest of making the answer understandable to all, I’ve decided to explain it in the simplest way I know how… this of course would be through the use of N-dimensional optimization theory.

Alrighty. So making products is hard. No surprise there. It is hard primarily because there are so many design dimensions that must be grappled with before any useful product can be created. For example, for any given electronic product we can choose from a wide variety of interaction metaphors, information architectures, visual design directions, market positioning, etc. Each of these areas by themselves is a complex N-dimensional space, and when we take them all together – well, we have a real problem.But this problem is the core of what product design is and our solution to it will ultimately determine the quality of the user experience. Schematically, the process looks like this:


In Panel 1, we see our N-dimensional space. Here N=3 because it’s more difficult to draw what a more realistic N=50 space would look like. In the space we see that there are several workable solution areas. This is already an important point. Within design (or any engineering project, really), there is almost always more than one good solution. I often hear people saying things like: “We must do XYZ to reach the best design.” The problem with the statement is that there is no single best design, and this sort of thinking typically leads people to optimize prematurely.

In Panel 2, we see the role of design. Design obviously includes visual and interactive design, but for the sake of this diagram, it also includes other decision-makers such as product management, marketing, etc. A group of good designers will look in many directions for a solution and can move rapidly around the space. Ideally, their creativity makes it possible for large regions of the space to be reached and explored.

In Panel 3, we see the role of usability. The definition of usability for this diagram is expanded to include all types of product feedback (not just lab testing). What usability is best at providing is a scalar evaluation function for a point in N-dimensional space. I say scalar because usability does a great job at describing whether a point reached by design will work or not, but does a very bad job of recommending where to go next. I will probably get a lot of angry comments about this, but in general, I think usability should not provide design recommendations. There are exceptions of course, when say, your excellent usability person also happens to be an amazing designer, but in such instances they are stepping into panel 2 and doing something outside of what usability should accomplish.

The reason that usability test design recommendations are no good is because testing usually delineates which parts of a design do not work. If a test says that a user could not accomplish task X, it doesn’t necessarily say whether a good fix would be adding a wizard, or laying out the form differently, or eliminating it as an atomic task and rolling it into another related area, or maybe completely changing the global interaction metaphor. These are dramatically different directions, and your survey data and walkthroughs probably won’t be able to say which one of these paths is right one to take next.

In Panel 4, we reach the happy ending. Design takes the data from usability and can thereby tell which designs work and which do not. Using this data they iterate and move their designs in space to a new and hopefully more successful place. Over time, unproductive paths get pruned (again, thanks to usability data), and finally a good solution is reached.

Now what happens when either of these two forces dominates and tries to own the user experience?


If our process is too usability heavy, we are not able to explore the space widely enough. The testing prematurely optimizes on a region and we end up doing many design tweaks, but comparatively few significant changes.

If our process is too design heavy, we can zip all around the space, but there’s no way to know when to stop. A designer might hit a workable solution and iterate right past it. There is also no way to know which directions to prune, so we use up design time on failing directions, and this can cause our team to optimize too late.

So the answer to who should own user experience is simple. Everyone should, but no one should own it completely. When interaction designers or usability folks or marketing or anyone else tries to start owning it all, we inevitably move toward one of the bad modes of solution searching and impair our ability to find the best user experience possible.

16 Responses to “Stop the Presses! User Experience Owner Found!”
Dave wrote:

I actually don’t think that people have been arguing over “who owns UX”. What I think people have been doing is staking claim to a center of gravity or disciplinary area of UX and in doing so, where that discipline overlaps with others, creates tension that seems to blind people from acknowledging the real areas of exclusion. Affinities towards certain type of activities is natural, as the solution set is just so large and depending on where you are in the serf to management chain you need to have different breadth depth of skills. So the career path is not by discipline, but by the whole, so those that are moving up the career path want to take their roots with them to the top. (That’s where the perception of ownership comes in. IMHO)

Tom Chi wrote:

While I agree there are political aspects to this conflict, there is a real question underneath. For years different factions in the UX community have staked claim to owning the user experience, where ownership means a kind of end-to-end responsibility, but also control. Visual designers feel like they are protecting the user experience from usability, usability feels like it is protecting user experience from design, and marketing doesn’t know what the heck any of these people are doing.

The idea behind the essay is that such ownership debates are ultimately meaningless. If any of the factions really were to dominate and ‘own’ user experience, then the team’s ability to find good solutions will be greatly diminished.

Historically, I think we have arrived at this point because before HCI/design/usability became respected disciplines, the user experience was dominated by marketing and/or engineering. In order to make it clear how important they were, the UX community started to claim that they should own the user experience and came with a laundry list of reasons. This made tactical sense as a means to raise our profile, but ultimately what was being described was not true. Worse yet, over time we started believing our own hype and started to wrestle user experience away from each *other*.

This essay aims to end the debate by abstracting out the underlying issues that have given the debate such fire.

Column Two wrote:

Role of design and usability

Tom Chi has written an article that provides an interesting perspective on the role of design and usability in a project. It even has diagrams! To quote: If our process is too usability heavy, we are not able to explore…

GuruJ wrote:

Excellent article … best description of a successful usability/design iterative process I’ve ever read.

Tom Chi wrote:

Thanks, GuruJ. I think the main thing about this description is that it is written in engineering language so technical people will get it… plus it has big pictures with big labels so even marketing can understand! (j/k)

Business Logs wrote:

Hey UX… Who’s Your Male Parental Authority Figure!

There are many items floating around the User eXperience blogland related to who owns the user experience. I’ve sounded off on this before due to a couple of posts on OK/Cancel and Wodtke’s site. Well a new post and comic…

Fernando Salvi wrote:


AK wrote:

The user experience is owned by your users. Listen to them, give them what they need to do to succeed, and get out of the way.

As practictioners we try to understand the user. Usability test, prototypes, demographics, and what not.

I’ve taken a different approach. I bring in one person who uses the system every day. I ask them what would make their life easier. A week later I ask them the same question in a different manner. The things that remained the same are what we build, the rest are “cool features for later”. Repeat this with people that use the system AND the ones that don’t. It is a good way of knowing what the project must do and what people believe the project should do.

Sure this is a simplified form that’s easier said than done. That’s where our expertese come in play. That’s why they pay us money.

Tom Chi wrote:

Good points, AK. I definitely like your method of averaging out which feedback to take and which to ignore.

However, ‘ownership’ for the sake of this article refers to responsibility granted to people who actually build the product. While users are the ones who eventually have the product experience, they don’t really have the option of owning the process of creating the product (unless you hired them into your team).

I also agree that expertise is a huge part of making any process work. If your group of designers in step 2 are not very good designers, you are probably sunk. Good designers know how to try a lot of possibilities, have the humility to drop the ones that aren’t testing well (even their favorite ideas), and know the right ways to respond to user data.

Peter Boersma wrote:

While this is sinking in (in my mind I’m comparing it with my “Big IA is now UX” article) I wonder how it compares to two competing approaches:

(1) Frederick P. Brooks Jr’s describes in his book “The Myhtical Man-Machine Month” a so-called “surgical team” of approximately three core designers who make final design decisions based on supporting materials, feedback, thoughts, etc. supplied by the rest of the team. This core team would in fact own the experience completely.

(2) There is another approach where the core team is even smaller and one designer owns the concept completely, making sure that all design decisions match one person’s ideas and therefore ‘consistent’. (I believe Andrei Herasimchuk is known to defend this approach on the IxD discussion list.)

Although I consider myself very much a team player and I subscribe that every expert should have a say in the design process (I believe it’s even called the Dutch Third Way in some circles, and Polder Model in others) I am not quite sure that a process where no-one has the right to make final decisions will work.

Who makes the final design decisions?

Dave wrote:

Peter I think you are on the right and important track, but not addressing I think the issue at hand.

I think the “owner” question is … who “owns” the UX from a discipline perspective. Is there one org/discipline that should represent the totality of UX (except for UXnet)? IxD? IA? Usability? CHI? UCD?

My answer to this question is that it has to be NO. that being said though, a single individual or collaborative team can embody all of these disciplines and thus own the UX.

Personally, I believe the CEO owns the UX. ;)

— dave

Extremly Confused wrote:

wow you totaly lost me i have no idea what your talking about

Dave wrote:

EC, something the IxDG ( said really early on that people and disciplines are distinct. There is a discipline. This discipline can be IxD, IA, usability evaluation, HCI/user research, visual design, etc. And more often than not a single individual will have to be competent in more than one of these. And thus their title may or may not reflect a parallel to the list of disciplines or competencies important for their role. How many Usability Engineers out there are also doing IA or IxD? Tons and there are people with the title IA who do a heck of a lot more than IA.

This confusion of titles to me is the key problem. This whole big/little issue. By title most people are “big whatever” … A User Experience professional, but organizations have been centered around titles, and since UPA is for Usability Professionals and Usability Professionals are doing more than Usability, then Voila the UPA as a whole has had to address the needs of its constituency and put out a magazine called, what? User Experience. the IA Institute (FKA AIfIA) has a similar issue if you look at what it put in its Tools section. As the IxDG builds its own tools section, I bet we are going to face the same issue as well.

But I do think that LukeW put it best in his article Understandig the Problem.

During the Future of Digital Product Design panel last December, a question was raised about who the decision maker on a product team should be and which discipline takes on the role of “innovator”. In both cases I replied: “the one who best understands the problem”.

Carolyn Snyder wrote:

Good article Tom - the struggle to “own” the UX means viewing it as a zero-sum game. Mediocre companies have turf. Outstanding companies have synergy.

In that vein, here’s a couple of thoughts about having the usability person involved in design:

1) I agree that usability can’t always make good design recommendations - the law of unintended consequences lies in wait for the unwary. But usability people (especially consultants) often have the advantage of testing many interfaces, and may know how designs with similar problems have been fixed. In those cases, why make the designer reinvent the wheel?

2) Familiarity with something constrains your thinking. It is cognitively hard to abandon a solution you’ve worked on and come up with a novel approach. An outsider can help here. (And the usability person isn’t always the outsider; there’s some projects I’ve worked on long enough that I’m the one who has trouble seeing it differently.) The true question is not who should come up with new ideas, but rather how the company can foster creativity.

As far as who “owns” the UX, in good companies I think it’s the product manager, who (along with everyone else) takes usability data as input to decisions. As you mentioned, N>>3 in the real world, and the best decisions are made by people who understand the big picture and its constraints.

CD Evans wrote:

This is amazing. You have better described the design process as it relates to amazingly arcane methods of understanding the world around us, than those who have been trying to find it between their toes, a still unexplored region in some peoples shoes.

If I was a usability professional, (what about I like to admire when accused of being one confuses me such that I’ll leave it at that) I’d love the fact that I’ve become a cube. It’s so much easier to understand how you fit on the end of a design thought, probing, measuring, attaining, knowing the limits.

Yes, within good humour mate, definately. But what happens when the humour takes a sudden turn, falls to the dogs like a pack of wild wolves, and ends up giggling itself to sleep in Canada?

Yes, let’s keep an eye on our man TOM CHI!

I have a feeling his ability to criticise in good taste will fall nay and light aside in the presence of his future User Experience projects, this man has taste! And, that shows skill!!

Look out Tom, your future is bright, and we’ve got shades.

Tell it like it is..
CD Evans

Kevin Cheng wrote:

CD …

say what? That was possibly one of the most non-sensical things I’ve seen you post. I’ve read it three times now and can’t tell if it’s actually a compliment to Tom or sarcasm. You also seem to be making points of criticism about -something- but … uh … what?

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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) ?