UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 1119 October 22, 2013

Four Myths About UX and How to Bust Them

While the concept of user experience and the term UX have become seemingly ubiquitous in the workplace, most non-UX people still have the wrong idea about what it is.

Here are four common UX myths and how we can bust them.

Myth: UX is too Soft; it's not Based on Anything

One of the most annoying things people say about UX is that it's "just common sense," or it's "something you just made up." Nothing could be further from the truth: UX is based on 200 years of scientific knowledge, 30 years of industry best practices, and specifically applied research.

Firstly, UX has a deep scientific heritage. Because we study and influence the way people use artifacts and carry out tasks, the field’s roots are in the behavioral sciences, specifically ergonomics, psychology, and human factors.

The Industrial Revolution made it necessary (and profitable) to start thinking about how people could create tools so that factory workers could use them as efficiently as possible. This drive spawned the field of ergonomics, a term Wojciech Jastrzebowski coined in 1857. At the same time, other scientists were studying how people think, how we cognitively process tasks, and what motivates us: Wilhelm Wundt founded the first psychology lab in 1879.

World War I and the rising importance of cars and airplanes allowed another field to emerge: human factors. This takes methodologies and insights from both ergonomics and psychology to understand how people behave while using complex tools and in different environments.

Secondly next to its scientific roots, the UX field itself has been around long enough to have developed its own best practices. Indeed, Don Norman popularized the term “user experience” while working at Apple in the 1990’s, and companies like Xerox were conducting formal research on computer-human interaction before that. In fact, Jakob Nielsen wrote his famous 10 usability heuristics in 1995, which we still use today.

UX knowledge and methods come from centuries of academic study, practice, and applied research.

Finally, the UX field sets itself apart from most other professional disciplines through its cornerstone of built-in, methodological evaluation. We practitioners all evaluate our craft in some way with real users, because user testing is intrinsic to the UX process. We also share these insights with each other through a diverse ecosystem of conferences and publications.

In other words, behind every well-trained UX professional is 200 years of academic knowledge, 30 years of practical experience, and a dose of process-intrinsic user research.

Myth: Anyone can do UX

Lots of people, from managers to engineers, think that anyone can “do UX” by reading a book or two and subscribing to UX Magazine. While it’s a seductive idea, a successful product team enjoys a balanced creative tension between stakeholders. If non-UX stakeholders try to “do UX,” such creative tension no longer exists, and product teams then neglect important aspects of the product.

Managers and business stakeholders generally excel at making money and leading teams. However, business goals stand, almost by definition, in opposition to user needs. If the UX representative in a project is too business-focused, the product will leave user needs unfulfilled.

Visual designers amaze us by creating beauty in all things, but their responsibility lies in pushing the envelope and being crazy innovative, which means that they often need to disregard the limits imposed by information architecture or usability. If the UX person is too focused on visual design, the product will be super-sexy but useless.

Engineers, builders, or technical stakeholders master the craft of making things work. They are focused on ensuring the product is as simple and efficient as possible, so that it works correctly and reliably. Where the UX person is too technology-focused, the product will be technical marvel that users find meaningless or unusable.

Each of these types of stakeholders is responsible for safeguarding a certain perspective, and the UX practitioner works in the middle of all of them, fostering a healthy creative tension and balancing all of these different perspectives (not only against user needs, but also against each other). In addition to that, the UX person needs to evangelize UX sensibility within the team and engender empathy between stakeholders.

If this evangelism is successful, the whole team becomes UX-savvy: managers learn to communicate problems, rather than trying to devise solutions. Visual designers learn to think beyond how something looks and consider how it works and behaves. Engineers learn to challenge the team by anticipating extra use cases and communicating technical opportunities.

Myth: UX is too Expensive

It’s true that the best way to integrate UX in an organization is to have full-time UX support at all phases of the design process. However, that’s not always practical. Employing UX methods surgically, especially by using guerrilla-style methods, can maximize benefit while minimizing cost. Don’t be scared of “light” UX in lieu of “full-on” UX. Something is better than nothing at all.

When creating on a budget, pick and choose where UX expertise can best support your process. While crafting a strategy, consider letting a UX person interview stakeholders, facilitate work sessions for requirements gathering, and/or do some consumer journey mapping. UX people can help during concept development by creating demos, challenging the concept with the requirements, or ideating from a consumer’s perspective.

Detailed design benefits from UX input the most in the form of rapid prototyping, light field testing, and evaluating visual design from the perspectives of information architecture and technical feasibility. Once a product goes into production, a UX practitioner can clarify requirements to engineers or fill any gaps in unforeseen use cases (i.e. “What should happen if the user does X?”). After product launch, a UX person can help re-iterate requirements, set up an evaluation and analytics strategy, or facilitate the creation of product roadmaps from a user-needs perspective.

Of course, it’s best when there is UX involvement at every phase of the process, but we can also add value when brought in at specific moments.

Myth: UX Is Just Interaction Design

When most people think of UX, they think of user flows (boxes and arrows) and wireframes. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, however. User experience methods and knowledge can add value not only to consumer-facing products, but also to an organization’s core business and strategy.

For explanation’s sake, imagine a 2x2 matrix. The essence of anything an organization does (if it has consumers) can be split across that matrix’s four cells. One axis splits organizational activities and consumer-facing activities. The other axis differentiates these activities across two levels: strategic and tactical.

Organizational activities affect the organization itself, while consumer-facing activities affect consumers directly. Strategic activities have long-term effects and usually take longer (long effort, lasting benefit), while tactical activities acutely affect specific things in the short term (short effort, immediate benefit).

Most people only know the tactical, consumer-facing side of UX. These activities are things like interaction design, user testing, and persuasion design. This is vanilla UX, and it’s great, but there’s much more value to be added elsewhere.

Some also know the strategic, consumer-facing side of UX. This encompasses activities like service design, content strategy, and communication strategy. While these activities have greater impact than vanilla UX, they still do not add as much value as real hardcore UX.

Hardcore UX begins with tactical, organizational activities. Big gains start coming when an organization leverages design-thinking and a user experience mindset through knowledge sessions, co-design sessions, and organizational research. Internal UX people or external consultants can carry out these activities.

However, the deepest, most lasting value that UX knowledge and methods can add to an organization is through strategic, organizational activities. Think of organizational (re)structuring, co-creating organizational culture, and creative development of strategic business roadmaps. This is how an organization can let UX into its core, and some large corporations are doing this with great success.

Most people only see vanilla UX, but they are missing out on the many layers of value that UX can add to their organizations by learning, trusting, and accepting empathy at all levels.

Truth: UX is More (Powerful) than You Think

UX knowledge and methods come from centuries of academic study, practice, and applied research. UX requires a healthy balance and some creative tension in teams to work, so there shouldn’t be other stakeholders trying to “do UX.” Taking advantage of UX is only as expensive as you make it; consider applying it surgically to one or several aspects of your project. But don’t forget that the real benefit of UX knowledge comes from using it to design empathy into every aspect of your organization.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Something of a design humanist, Brian (@brianpagan) believes that empathy and critical thinking are our best tools for affecting change. Currently at Philips in Amsterdam, he holds a PDEng in User-System Interaction as well as an MSc. in Industrial Psychology. His primary interests are Mobile UX, the Internet of Things, Quantified Self, Touch-Free Interaction, and Service Design.

Pretty much a drama club geek turned psychologist, he got into web and visual design while paying for college. Since then, he has given a few talks and travels whenever possible. He's an ENFP and loves reading spy novels, hiking the world's mountains, and singing karaoke.

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Comments

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The thing I like to comment on at 5:00 am on a New Year is this:
Managers by definition are expected to manage. They are expected to manage the budget (time and money) and they are expected to manage the quality which is in great portion affected by the very things they put constraints around. Most managers don’t have the knowledge expertise and so when it comes to putting value and weight on the role of UX or “designer” in their organization, they formulate it in ways only they understand. (Btw. thanks for this generous iconic representation of the designer which describes its role as someone who colors stuff – and that is exactly how my new manager described our role). So the greatest battle is to first make people understand what the role of UX or any other design discipline is.
For most organizations, the culture of how work should be done has to change. And those of us who work in the field have to take on this task and set examples. I work as an in-house designer for a Health Organization and develop web and print based products services. It’s an A-Z job. I studied design as an umbrella of multi-disciplinary field and learned enough to respect each discipline for what it is. And it has been a real challenge to build value around the impact and benefit of “design” in early stages of a product/service development and organizational development. I try to put as much process into my work as the job allows me. When I point out alternative solutions to product/service, I am reminded that it is not my job to do that, or that it is the role of “X and Y”. And from time to time I end up drawing circle diagrams to display how there has to be overlap and collaboration. There are those projects where I don’t get to meet with the client and most of the initial problem statement is based on what is communicated through second hand. “This is what the client wants!” – Never to know what the client’s and user’s wants, needs, desires, goals, and tendencies are. The other problem I have is a colleague designer who lacks any knowledge of design process, method and methodologies. He skips the whole thing and goes right into production: No problem statement or brief, no room for creating opportunities rather than solving a problem, no risk assessment, no design intervention. Get the job done and go to the next project. And what do I get? A lecture on how he can get a project done faster than me. (Okay I needed to get that off my chest  .)
What I don’t see in this article is the impact of marketing on product/services. Ideally, a product that does not fulfill the needs of the user would not sell by itself unless marketed in a particular way. It is through aggressive marketing that most of this products convince the user that “they are not complete if they don’t own this or that”.

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Thorough article and some useful information. However, I take issue with this comment:

"their (designers) responsibility lies in pushing the envelope and being crazy innovative, which means that they often need to disregard the limits imposed by information architecture or usability".

This generalisation serves only to pigeonhole designers as creators of the novel, aesthetic but useless, ignorant of usability.

While that may be the case for some, good designers will create products that have their foundations in good UX and good content. Design should serve these things, while tapping into the emotive to create experiences that 'work' from a functional perspective, and engage on a deeper level.

What this comment also shows is the existence of a fundamental 'Us Vs Them' mentality that causes many Design & UX collaborations to fail.

UX needs design as design needs UX – one can't work without the other, egos aside.

My two cents.

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Thanks for your comment, Adam. It's not my intention to pidgeonhole visual designers or to foster an "us vs. them" mentality. You're right that those things are the enemy of fruitful collaboration! You're also right in stating that "good designers will create products that have their foundations in good UX and good content." Still that foundation of good UX and good content sometimes leads us to overlook or disregard wonderful solutions. As you say, "one can't work without the other," but if we all work the same, we'll never innovate.

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Good article. Kinda light on the "how to bust them", in my opinion. You could do a follow-up article on each myth, and focus on the organizational change methods you might employ to change the incorrect perceptions of UX within an organization. In my experience, spotting the mis-understandings is easy. Changing how people think (about UX) is harder.

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On the "Anyone can do UX" myth.

I couldn't agree more, but the problem I have faced is 1) communicating this point and 2) getting buy in. I am a designer and a bit of a front end dev traditionally but as with many small agencies & companies I started doing the UX portion of the work many years ago. Now I follow the industry, practice the craft myself and like to think that while I like to innovate and push the envelope on the design side I do always consider UX patterns, love to iterate, and am a huge proponent of testing and research to drive design decisions.

After working internally at a company, I am almost at my wits end trying to get proper buy in when it comes to big projects like a rebrand and website rebuild/redesign. There are no "web people" here and after 7+ years of being in the industry working with agencies you would think that would garner some respect when making website decisions. Not the case. My requests to have an agency be brought in (as we have no programmers, UX designers, etc) get dismissed and my own involvement and input is limited (the only person who has worked in web). Managers, in a roundabout way, take to doing the UX portion with 0 experience and 0 skills. To top it all off the "IT team" of 3 has, in some twist of fate over the years, become the managers of the website, making web decisions and implementing features with no testing and no understanding of the web industry. I have friends in IT at large organizations who are dumbfounded when I tell them our IT team essentially runs the website and makes UX decisions.

Is there any hope to turn a old, not very technologically advanced organization around when it comes to web and UX?

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Hey Mazurka,

It looks like you're fighting an uphill battle, but congrats on being "the UX person" and taking that (informal) role seriously.

When it comes to your key questions about communication and getting buy-in, Chip & Dan Heath's book "Made to Stick" is an immense help, along with Dan Roam's "Back of the Napkin."

As for organizational change, check out another of the Heath brothers' books "Switch." Finally, if you'd like some additional UX resources, check out Whitney Hess' blog post entitled "So you wanna be a user experience designer — Step 1: Resources." Whitney lists a bunch of relevant resources there, plus I don't have to tell you that UX Magazine is a valuable resource :-)

These comments don't allow HTML, so I can't link these, but a simple Google search should suffice. Good luck on your quest!

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Good article, and I particularly like #2 (Anyone can do UX). It clearly states how the non-ux members can contribute to UX, instead doing it themselves. That's a bold point, and many Managers and Engineers gonna hate that.

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Nice article. Glad you mentioned Human Factors. Wish that was more in the mainstream lexicon.

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Thank you for this article. I've been in the field for a decade and I am encouraged to see that most mid-size companies are finally understanding that hybrid roles (front-end + UXA for example) eventually break down after the product reaches a certain level of complexity. Hiring managers and recruiters are getting much better at isolating the skills that make a person a UX expert and finally our skills are somewhat widely understood and that industry standards are finally taking shape around roles and titles.

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Hi Richard and Daniel,

Thanks for commenting, I absolutely agree with both of you! Indeed, anyone can become a UX practitioner; it is absolutely available to everyone. However, I think we all agree that, to do anything well, there is a requisite level of knowledge, practice, and expertise necessary, whether it's UX, programming, or open heart surgery.

One thing that happens a lot is that organizations don't get real UX help, because someone on their team "once read a UX book" and now "understands it well enough to do it." We wouldn't want open heart surgery from someone who wasn't qualified to do it, so why should we let people "do UX" who aren't qualified?

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UX design is no different than articulate oratory, available to everyone, albeit not in the plenary sense, at least not immediately.

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I agree with most of the points made in this article. A lot of people out there really do take it for granted. The only part i disagree with is not everyone can do UX. I think as a magazine you should be promoting the idea that you can do UX, no matter who you are. You just have to be dedicated, as you have to be with anything else.

The article makes it sound as if you are born with the ability to create User Experiences. I wasn't born a programmer, but the more i read and learn the better i get. I feel the same when I'm creating UX.