At a restaurant, whose responsibility is patron satisfaction? Is it incumbent on the server? Head chef? What about the sous chef? Owner? Maître D’? In a soccer match, does the left-back who finds herself on the goal line with an open net freeze, refuse to shoot, pass back into the defense to find the out-of-position striker? Strikers score the goals, after all, right?
I once asked for help from a sales associate who, unable or unwilling to answer my question, told me with attitude exceeded only by his indifference: “I dunno, guy—I just work here.”
Hold those thoughts.
What is user experience design?
Quick review: In the tech and digital space, user experience design, or UX design, typically refers to the high-level mapping of how a product functions—including features, services, and flow. The UX designer’s contributions are best made early in the design process. Following and flowing from UX design, user interface (UI), visual (or graphic), interactive and motion design, and front-end development are subsets of the design process. To name a few.“All design is UX design.”
Stay with me—subsets are important. Runners who share and cross lanes are apt to stumble. For efficiency and scale, we need to specialize and coordinate specialties. (This, incidentally, also describes the history of humanity.) But the risk of specialization is a near-sighted focus on a subset at the expense of the whole set. If you’re looking for a forest, don’t fixate on a single tree. But what really is UX design? Definitions are helpful. Let’s break it down.
Tech has adopted the term “user,” shorthand for “end user,” to describe what a business manager might call “consumer.” It’s helpful because it differentiates from the creators of the product (designers, developers, etc). And we have to call them something. It’s also unhelpful. To say tech “adopted” the term is too kind, because in practice its usage is dehumanizing. What is a user, anyway? A person. Always a person. Further, “user” is limiting because every designed product, digital or otherwise, involves many types of, um, users: various end users, sure, but also clients with their own needs and hopes for the designed thing and other stakeholders with their business goals. Anyway, “user” is all the above people.
Related: UX design trends for 2018
Here we mean the how of the interaction between person and product. We can describe “experience” in terms of type and quality. Both are important. If you think of your experience reading this essay (type: English, left-to-right, top-to-bottom; quality: meandering, verbose, tedious) that’s “experience” as we mean it.
In this context, we’ll define the discipline, the verb design, thusly: a method of innovative problem-solving. Method because it’s a process (or a collection of processes). Innovative because if it had already been done, it wouldn’t need doing. Problem–solving because we apply active intention to meeting defined needs and goals.
Who does what?
Remember our friends from earlier? Let’s make it simple for them. If a restaurant is in the business of satisfying patrons, patron satisfaction is everybody’s job. If soccer is a game in which the team that scores the most wins, every player should put the ball in the net if given the chance. And Guy Behind The Counter Wearing The Name Tag, you just working there means you just have to be helpful. Food, sports, customer service—the end game is everybody’s responsibility, regardless of specialty.“If you’re looking for a forest, don’t fixate on a single tree.”
In design, it’s everybody’s job to solve problems with the user’s experience in mind. Here’s why: Humans define the problems they solve. Humans are the arbiters of the solutions to said problems. Every problem that gets solved is one a human identifies, so every solution is one a human designs. Other problem types may exist in the universe, but only the ones humans define get solved by humans.
Who does UX design?
Designers. Because if we’re solving problems for humans (users), the experience of those human-users necessarily factors in. All designers. The industrial designer working on a more ergonomic treadmill desk, the architect drawing a greener green building, and, yes, the UI designer perfecting the very flattest app—each takes into account the needs of the user and their solutions will be judged (at least in part) on the user’s experience.
Design is a fantastically diverse discipline. Designers solve all manner of problems in all kinds of contexts for all types of people. And because they’re solving problems for people, all design is UX design.“What is a user, anyway? A person. Always a person.”
“Design matters because it’s a way of giving the corporation access to anthropology, and sociology, and knowledge of culture.”
–Grant McCracken, quoted in Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits by Debbie Millman
“For a design to be successful, it must serve the needs and desires of actual humans.”
–Just Enough Research by Erika Hall
UX designers: Don’t be mad. I’ve taken some semantic liberty with the title. If it sounds like I’ve reduced UX design’s impact by ignoring the real and specific functions it has in product and digital design (personas, information architecture, interaction models, task flows, wireframes, user testing, etc), I actually mean to elevate it. First among many. It’s that important. Nay, you are that important. (Still mad?)