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What’s in a name, Whitney Hess?

Descartes

I think (about solving problems), therefore I am (a designer)

This is a response to an article I came across on Whitney Hess’ blog Pleasure & Pain called “You’re not a user experience designer if…”. It is a very interesting article – Ms Hess produces a great list of suggestions to improve one’s user experience designs – and it left me thinking about my own work and considering how I place myself in this industry.

It is clear from the outset of the article that Hess has a need to protect her professional title against what may seem as a tidal wave of aspiring designers and developers claiming the new-found title of “User Experience Designer”. I can’t say I don’t see where she’s coming from, I’ve certainly had my fair share of “Oh, you’re a web designer eh? My cousin is in IT, you should meet sometime!”, and I think most creative professionals out there would sigh in relief if only the world at large would really understand the value and depth of their work.

However, perhaps stipulating such defined requirements of who can call themselves what also has the less desirable effect of alienating a whole generation of creatives – in this case web designers – who now can’t “officially” call themselves UX designers. I mean, in todays environment it is pretty hard to honestly tick off all of Hess’ check-list, unless you’re part of a bigger team. A lot of web designers work in environments that simply don’t have room or budgets for the delegation of jobs Hess is advocating, and a lot of freelancers and smaller agencies offer UX design even if they don’t have a dedicated UX person sitting next to the “visual” designer (whatever that means). Are they wrong in doing so?

…a lot of freelancers and smaller agencies offer UX design even if they don’t have a dedicated UX person sitting next to the “visual” designer (whatever that means)

UX: A privilege for the few

“UX designers,” Hess says, “never work in a vacuum. Even a UX team of one relies on stakeholders, visual designers, developers, marketers, the guy in the next cubicle, etc. for feedback.” True that, creatives should never be locked up in solitary to perform alone, but not all outfits can afford to add UX designers to their lean team of 2. Or 4. Or 10 for that matter. I guess that means they can’t offer UX design on their What we Do page.

Moreover, “User interviews, usability tests, personas, scenarios, card sorts, affinity diagrams, concept models, sketches, flow diagrams, sitemaps, wireframes, prototypes, web analytics and A/B tests”, are all among the must-have weapons in the UX arsenal – and the list goes on, we’re told. It should be said that web designers of good ilk would naturally apply many, if not most, of these useful tools in the process of designing a good experience for the user, but are they all necessary or even feasible all the time? What about the clients that can’t afford user interviews, or don’t have the time for prototyping or AB testing? Maybe they’re getting that lesser form of User Experience, namely a User Interface.

“…you’re a user interface designer, not a user experience designer. There’s a big difference”

So the big difference between a user experience and a user interface is the personas and scenarios, the number of prototypes, the scale of the sitemaps, the frequency and duration of A/B testing – in short the level of research and analytical tools – applied to the project. But when exactly does a user interface designer turn into a user experience designer? When all the check boxes have been ticked and all the weapons in the arsenal have been fired? Or at some point on the way?

All design is user experience design

I don’t think it’s as black and white as “if you do this then you are that”. In my view, any communication between any interface and any user is a user experience, and though the depth of research – or lack thereof – may correlate to the quality of the experience, all such experiences have been designed by someone. Now, who are these designers, if not UX designers? And I’m not confining this to GUIs either, the same argument would apply to real life designed experiences such as reading a magazine, using a screwdriver, driving a car or paying for something at the local supermarket.

So how does one relate magazine design to UX design (admittedly I don’t know much about designing screwdrivers, cars or check-out lines, so I’ll use magazines as my example here…)? Well, magazine designers rely on research about the target audience, they need to know the goals of the users (to read their magazines and become more attractive to their peers, directly or indirectly), they work in a team with writers and artworkers, they adhere to corporate guidelines and strive for legibility (but also retain a healthy level of artistic license), they naturally consider the business objectives of the magazine (retain integrity!) and the publisher (make money!), and utilise a range of research methods ranging from personas to sitemaps, wireframes and prototypes (if only there was a Google Analytics for the real world).

This conveying of information is the problem she – or he – has to solve, and the solution will always be a user experience

They know that it is not their job to add rainbow gradients, over-the-top drop shadows, layer effect bevels or to fill all the white space with stock photos. Nor is it to create templates, empty shells framed by decorative page numbers and “lorum ipsum” headlines. No, it is the magazine designer’s job to communicate the content, to serve as a vessel for the writer’s words, the photographers vision, heck, even the political agenda of the publisher or author. This conveying of information is the problem she – or he – has to solve, and the solution will always be a user experience.

I’m a UX, Visual, Web, Interface, Information, Editorial, Interactive, Graphic Designer

So what’s to make of it all? Are we User Experience Designers or are we Dancer? Given the overlapping fields of expertise and the multitasking required from most design professionals it seems childish to bicker over each other’s job descriptions, setting up boundaries around defined roles. At the same time one could argue that Hess’ article also serves as an inspiring call for budding designers to shape up and embrace research, strategy and content as core parts of their processes.

My advice, though, to anyone who’s not sure what to call themselves after reading Hess’ article is this: Who the hell cares what you call yourself. If you’re thinking “Well, I do most of that, but not all” just call yourself a User Experience Designer, it’s not a protected title by any means (in fact, I’m a bit of a nutritionist myself). If you feel awkward about that title because no one quite understands what you mean by it, just call yourself a designer. Heck, call yourself a web design genius extraordinaire if you want. But be prepared to show some good work for it!

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Author: Espen Brunborg

Espen can easily ruin a great conversation with questions about chimneys.

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  2. Joanna Behm January 29, 2012 at 2:03 pm

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