Tectonics of UX: Drifts, shifts, and changes in the user experience landscape
As UX continues to broaden in scope and appeal, I’d like to look at certain aspects of current UX design practice to identify some emerging themes indicating that a fundamental shift in the UX landscape may be occurring.
By considering its diversity, its varying roles, and its growing relevance, my intent is to provoke conversation and reflection on current practice and speculate on some future disciplinary goals beyond the screen.
In this article, I’ll put forth a few dimensions of an expanded view of UX practice that ties directly to current themes in design education and explicit shifts in industry as UX continues to gain clarity and mainstream status.
For decades, human-centered design has been the hallmark for industrial design. More recently, it has been widely adopted as generalized terminology across the various sub-disciplines of design. In a June 2010 article for UX Magazine titled "From Industrial Design to User Experience," I wrote that “all design is human-centered. If it’s not human-centered, then it’s not design.”
I believe that the fundamental tenets and concerns for all designers remain (and will always remain) people—the aims, goals, and very cause for the existence of designing as an activity is to benefit humanity on some level and improve the human condition. We design for people. Whether directly or indirectly, our goals in designing systems, services, products, and communications involves some capacity of advancing the state of humanity.
Contemporary design problems are typically complex and interconnected, requiring us to work in new ways. Considering what human-centered design means today, in the context of human experience we must consider an expanded definition.
Historically, human-centered design has meant many things: ergonomics, usability, social design, and more. While these remain relevant, today, human-centered design must be viewed as a conscious movement towards human-focused holistic design, factoring in not only the attributes of the person in relation to the designed artifact, but also the attributes of the context within which the designed artifact and person co-exist—that is to say, within the greater context of built world, within the greater context of society, and within the greater context of the natural world.
Human-centered design is neither myopic nor egocentric, but rather all-encompassing of the many dimensions and impacts on people, places, and contexts, etc. Said another way: human-centered design addresses all dimensions of being human and should not be perceived as focusing only on the person without regard for these other dimensions.
To engage in human-centered design, a designer must not only design for the person, but also consider the many contexts within which that person exists; emphasizing that design is a mediator in our relationship with the contexts we live in and improves our own existence for today and in the future.
So, what does this mean exactly for UX? The term human-centered design is often confused with user-centered design (UCD) as popular usage has enabled a drift in terminology. User-centered design is a more constrictive term that focuses only on end user product optimization, often without concern for these broader interconnected issues. As design disciplines move towards a more holistic understanding of human-centered design as a mode for addressing the many interconnected dimensions of a design problem (by intention, not by drift), the space occupied by user-centered design will be quickly subjugated to a much smaller, yet still important, component of the much broader design process.
There is an increasing dialog in design communities where personal, disciplinary, and shared values are explicitly stated as driving forces behind design. Human-centered design as a discipline is (and must be) values-led. If not, then why do we design in the first place?
Why are designers so passionate about their work? We value human existence. We value our planet. We value the positive impact and emotional connections good design has in the world. Without these values, design no longer stands as a discipline charged with advancing the state of the world, but is rather minimized to a mere job.
UX designers in particular must lead with their values, as this can be a disciplinary advantage. More than an approach to designing for user-centric screen-based issues, UX is the strategic compass for the design process, factoring in all the varied dimensions of the user’s—err—person’s experience. Due to the distributed nature of UX practice, designers can benefit from having a navigation device. I contend that under an expanded view of human-centered design, it is our values as a discipline that set the trajectory for not only each project, but the discipline itself.
What I really mean is that rather than just serving industry, designers must establish their own rules, using their values to position design, maintaining the aspirational nature of design with intent to make positive impact. This requires designers to be continually reflective in order to better understand their own values, to articulate these values in ways that enable others to buy-in, to create understanding, and to take action on these values and put them into practice.
Today’s students can spend years in school trying to figure out what design means to them, forming their own values and ethical mores, and deciding what areas in the design landscape to explore. Those who carry on into design practice often have the aspirational goals of affecting positive change based on their values. Designers who lead with their values might find that the type of work they engage in changes, and might also feel their work is more fulfilling.
But what does a values-led human-centered design approach mean? First, it establishes personal and shared values as core principles and standards of design process and strategy, which can become the hallmarks of a design agency or particular designer.
The tags lines in an automotive advertising are a fitting example of companies expressing their values and thereby the value of their product. Volvo’s slogan, “for life,” implies safety and total integration into human processes. Ford’s, “Go Further,” suggests an empowering state of automotive freedom and hints at increased fuel economy.
Second, a values-led human-centered design approach means making these values understandable and relatable to others, including clients, design teams, and stakeholders. For example, American Express explicitly states their eight core values on their website under the heading, “Who We Are.”
Third, it means taking action on these core values and using them as clear indicators of what you design, how you design, and why you design. For human-centered design, this means designing on behalf of—and in the interest of—others, separating designer ego and personal agendas.
UX is often differentiated from other disciplines by its holistic viewpoint and strategic outlook. As such, many UX practitioners are strategic visionaries who function as integrators among disparate design teams. In this capacity, UX practitioners, namely UX designers, must have the capacity to cross boundaries and domains to work in an integrative fashion with a variety of different disciplines. Since one of the key values of UX lies in managing the synthesis stage of the development process, UX designers must be able to bridge the gap between intention and action.
Quite often, design is thought of as a problem-solving exercise. But is it really about problems? Or is design about potential? I suppose one way to look at this is to consider whether design takes the “Fix It Felix” approach, wielding its golden hammer of design methods, or the approach of “Nomadic Integrators” who roam endlessly in search of the next opportunity to build connections that facilitate interdisciplinary translation and synthesis, resulting in action.
Applicants to design school often write that they are attracted to the “problem-solving” nature of design. Perhaps the point of the first few weeks of school should be to change their understanding of what design is believed to be and what it is. (We know design to be more than creative problem solving.)
Students have the remainder of their educational experience and their whole careers to explore what design could be. If human-centered design is really about opportunities, then it will address problems as an inevitable fact—however, its strength is in connecting the designed artifact to the various contexts it will impact.
The multidisciplinary nature of UX has made it the new “black.” It’s universal. It’s now inescapable. Large companies are growing UX teams and recruiting students at an incredible rate to fill quasi-defined UX positions. It appears that both the concept of UX and its agility in practice makes it a universal and desirable fit.
It is perhaps the role of UX as facilitator that makes it so relevant today. Other design domains offer mastery in discrete areas, but the plurality of UX is currently an advantage and a distinct indicator that evangelizing UX has turned to advocacy.
Lead with values that aim to improve life today and in the future, engage in truly human-centered design that addresses the many contexts people live in, and use designing to move beyond problem solving to opportunities by building bridges toward understanding, facilitation, and integration.
Image of sinter terrace courtesy Shutterstock