UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 1023 May 23, 2013

Who Are We and What Are We Doing?

For the past several months, I’ve been actively investigating the UX jobs market as part of an effort we announced back in January to explore the employment issues endemic to our field. Through in-person research in several major cities and by working with Didus, a UX-focused recruiting and career development agency, I’ve seen the opportunities and problems up close.

In part, this research has exposed the immaturity of the UX field. For all the growth, interest, and importance surrounding user-centered ideas and practices, our professional milieu is still a disorderly jungle. The fundamental issue is that we’re growing outward faster than we’re firming things up inward, and new concepts enter the conversation before old ones have been fully established, methodized, and universalized.

This problem is in evidence wherever you look in the field. One of the vexations of editing for UX Magazine is trying to keep up with what the latest trends are, and feeling like we’ve only fractionally set the knowledge base on a subject before a new one captures the spotlight.

For example, what about persuasive design? Is that a real concept, or was it just a passing fancy on our way to lean UX or whatever the most current thing is? Have we, as a field, entirely grokked the concepts of information architecture or of usability, let alone newcomers such as decision architecture and content strategy? It’s hard to find anything except research methodologies that have been fully and thoroughly established, let alone methodized and universalized.

This failure to firm things up seems to be wreaking havoc in the UX employment market. What job titles and functions have we, as a field, fully established, methodized, and universalized so that everyone understands them? I assert the answer is none.

Lost in Translation

One of the primary ways Didus provides value to clients and to jobseekers is in providing translation services, ensuring everyone’s talking about the same things in the same ways. In our field, no conversation ever seems start with both parties speaking the same language, and everyone wastes valuable time groping awkwardly for a shared understanding.

“There’s really no consistency in how people look for these positions,” says Minoru Uchida, Associate Interaction Design Director at IA Collaborative in Chicago. Uchida’s design career started with print design for magazines, which is just the sort of experience that has relevance to UX work but is hard to capture in a title or properly represent on a resume, especially for someone whose main billing is as an interaction designer.

“It gave me training in terms of paying attention to minute details. I had to pore over every pixel of the magazine from corner to corner and make sure everything was visually tight,” he explains. “I see things as objects with meaning.”

Companies often struggle to find, for example, a “lead interaction designer” because the right people for that job seldom describe themselves using the same terms. It’s also unlikely that they’ve had similar titles in previous jobs. I’ve seen senior interaction designers called everything from “UI Designer” to “Creative Director” to “Information Architect” to “Usability Specialist” to “User Advocate” to “Chief Experience Officer.”

Uchida’s job has shades of variation to match. “A lot of times I’ve played a role that is similar to an art director," he says. "In the middle of the design process I’ll ask why certain text is so tight or why there’s not more white space.”

There are authentic differences in the ways people describe what they do. Two parties are often talking about exactly the same thing using entirely different terms. On both sides of the hiring equation, this makes it difficult to communicate who you are and what you’re looking for.

“I don't think we'll ever get an umbrella big enough for everyone to fit in comfortably,” Uchida adds. “At the same time, I do recognize some patterns emerging for how UX is being leveraged within an organization, depending on various factors, like the size of company, whether they're in-house or agency, marketing versus product development, etc.”

Easier for the Initiated

Is a self-described information architect at Amazon in Seattle the same person as an information architect at a marketing and interactive agency in Omaha? Certainly not. Is either lying, exaggerating, or being untruthful in portraying himself or herself as an IA? No. But if you’re an executive or HR person who’s unfamiliar with UX, how can you know the difference?

“The most important thing for me isn’t a title or an argument about a title,” says Scott Stroud, a consultant for NPR and the former Director of User Experience at LivingSocial. “It’s all about the collaboration and understanding, which requires a lot of humility and brilliance.”

Erik von Stackelberg, Creative Director at MyPlanet, echos that notion: “The only thing that is trite in my mind is a hasty generalization or something sweeping. I would rather see someone who is very specific or breaks down their title and lets me know what they like to do.”

The trouble here is that experience with UX is required to acquire experience with UX. HR departments find it nearly impossible to do a good job of servicing the staffing needs of their UX teams. Companies like Living Social and MyPlanet are already sophisticated with UX and have an easier time with hiring, but navigating the translation issue is a huge problem for companies that are trying to adopt, or improve, UX competencies.

Who Are You?

So far, I’ve mostly focused on job titles, but it should be noted that the problem with inconsistent terminology extends far deeper and befuddles job seekers, not just employers. In my time at Didus, I’ve looked through countless resumes where people, lacking a vocabulary for describing their actual skills, describe themselves in terms of the deliverables they produce.

Knowing that someone created “annotated wireframes, user flows, personas, interaction designs, and graphic comps” in his capacity as a “UX Architect” tells me very little about what specific UX role he’d be a good fit for—what tier of seniority, what specialty/subset of UX, what type of business setting, what sort of product or project, etc.

For companies, the problem also goes deeper than translation: they have no clear means of figuring out what sort of person they’re looking for, let alone what that person might call himself or herself. You can’t know you’re looking for an IA if you can’t know what information architecture is.

Let’s Do Something

The problems I’ve pointed out in this article may not trouble people who have deep experience in UX—which is to say, nearly everyone reading this article. I expect to get some scathing comments, especially from people who hate discussions that seem to be about “naming the thing.” But we, the UX-savvy, need to remember that the next frontier for UX isn’t in digital agencies or technology companies, it’s in companies that are newly adopting UX as a competency.

It’s also in universities that are trying to understand how to adopt user-centered practices into their design and technical curricula. We’re making all of that even more difficult to attain when we keep the subsets and specialties of our field obscure.

Of course, naming the thing (or rather naming the hundreds of things) won’t be easy. I’m reminded of something Uchida told us—a tactic he has for describing what he does to someone unfamiliar with user experience, who might be expressing frustration over user interface with a mobile device:

“Don’t you wish this was easier?” he likes to ask. “Well, that’s what I do.”

That’s what we want to do, too: make this easier. Next week we’re going to launch a campaign that we hope will do just that.

So stay tuned, and be ready to tell us who you are.

 

Image of hunting bird courtesy Shutterstock

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Jonathan (@first_day) is a tech-focused jack of all trades and the editor-in-chief of UX Magazine. He is also the author of Effective UI: The Art of Building Great User Experience in Software, published by O'Reilly Media. Through its partnership with UX Magazine, Jonathan is also a senior advisor to Didus, a recruiting and career development company focused on user-centered professionals. As well, Jonathan is Managing Director, Product Strategy & Design for Dapperly, a fashion-oriented software product startup, and he is the Principal of First Day, a small private equity and consulting company. From 2005 to 2009, Jonathan helped found EffectiveUI, a leading UX strategy, design, and development agency focused on web, desktop, and mobile systems.

User Profile

Through our deep experience in the field, Didus is working to improve the market for professionals in user experience (UX) and user-centered roles in design, research, technology, and strategy through an insider approach to UX staffing, education, and career development. We help professionals clearly articulate their value to companies who we've helped to develop a clear understanding of UX. Interested in working for a company that understands and values your work and sees user experience, customer experience, and service design as key strategic priorities? We know that experience-oriented professionals are happiest where they're able to do their best work and do the most good, so we work intensively with companies to create an environment where experience teams can thrive. Connect with us so we can connect you to companies you'll enjoy being part of.

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Comments

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Am I the only one who thinks greater specialization might destroy us?

My UX career proper began only a few years ago and I still struggle with the "cocktail party definition" of what it is I do. It usually involves a lot of hand-talking. I have a hard time using my official title, "Experience Architect" without "scare-quotes," knowing that saying Information Architect and UX Designer will probably not get quite as many blank stares. Maybe...

All of this is to say that I understand the value of greater definition. Definition leads to understanding, understanding leads to advocacy, and advocacy, eventually, leads to greater respect and power. A hundred other fields have been and are currently going through a similar process of delineating their offering in the workplace, and they are doing it for a good reason.

The feeling I encounter in most places (this article included) tends to prefer greater specialization between UX design and the communities of related professions. A Senior EA at a major agency once told me that UX Design Unicorns tend to be great IAs and UXDs but terrible FEDs and Art Directors. I tend to agree with him, for the most part. Even amongst UXDs, there tends to be a split between he people who specialize in user research and the ones who focus on the design. Google, for example, makes this distinction in their hiring policies.

My hunch, though, is that this will not always be the case. I think that greater specialization and definition will make us calcify, become moribund, and eventually become extinct. I think this feeling comes from a few lines of reasoning:

1. Most UX designers I know (myself included) got into UX because they didn't fit into traditional design roles, or were dissatisfied with them. UXD is multidisciplinary to its core and greater definition might shut some of those people out. Or they will migrate to whatever the newest, slightly vague field might be. This would impoverish our field.

2. As I understand it, UXD functions as a link between development, traditional (e.g. print) design, and (increasingly) product strategy. As the barriers to technical proficiency decrease and new generations of kids come up breathing technology from infancy, the connections between development and, say, strategy might not be necessary much longer. There might be a day when people simply "get" tech. Most new design grads will probably resemble what we might think of as a "Design Unicorn" today.

3. What gets me really excited about UXD is a future where, because of their need to understand every specialty within the product lifecycle, UX people end up in a role similar to the directors of films. They know the ins and outs of all the specialists, but they're goal is to keep them all in concert in order to ensure a good experience. We would become stewards of the vision. The more reductive we become in the definition of our field, the less likely that situation will be.

4. This may sound like a cliche, but the future of the web isn't the web. It's the world. In my practice I'm constantly forced to think holistically across both meat space and digital worlds. I consider this a core capability of our field. So why would we want to tie ourselves to a paradigm based on viewing things on screens?

What I'm trying to say is that definition comes with trade-offs that no one seems to be talking about.

Happy to know your thoughts.

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The definitions as described by Anonymous make a lot of sense, but as mentioned my Wayne UX researcher is a separate role.

However, before we can define roles we need to a have a clear definition of what User Experience Design is and does. We need to have a consensus of where User Experience ends and where Service, Customer Experience and industrial design begin.

To understand how we can answer these questions we could start by looking at other more mature professions to see how they have meet these challenge. Industrial design would be a good starting point as it shares many similarities with the profession UX has become. Architecture might be an even better model with Riba sitting in the middle as single source of truth and also heavily influencing the education of future Architects.

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Wonderfully written!

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Hey Jonathon –

Great article. I think you know where I stand on these themes.

I'm all for defining skills, both hard and soft, across the diverse spectrum that encompasses UX and I favor a very broad view from Brief all the way to Deployment. I think the industry associations (UXPA, IxDA, IA Institute, etc.) should take this on as I've been saying for a few years now, and they should only do it for their little corners of the spectrum.

In other cases where professionals congregate I would assume it's the associations who tend to police things, find consensus, and guide their members (e.g. AMA? IEEE? AICHE?). Isn't it? :) I'm assuming a lot there. In the end though I think there will be some turf wars since in my opinion only one over all association is needed and the others should become SIGs. The internal skills like IxD and Usability are specialties and when those associations pretend to speak around, develop training, and hold conferences on topics 6 steps away from their core competencies I feel very strongly that is dilutes their authority, confuses business, and leads academia(don't even get me started) in the wrong direction.

I'm not in favor of articulating roles. I think those boundaries will never be universally adopted. I'm hoping for a defining of UX domain scope, elemental skills, and general deliverables that are typical in in a Natural UX process and around which rational discussions can be had. Roles will always be fluid and can incorporate the basics. By waterfall I mean a simple digital design approach--one an individual practitioner may employ-- that is agnostic when it comes to an Agile, Lean of other advanced interpretation. Unencumbered. Let's get the basics down, really down, and get them ingrained in everybody's minds and only then begin to let these "fads" (I know, I know :) overlay and extend the elemental and structural concepts. Sort of the way Software Engineering has grown over the last 60 years. We all know what Configuration Management is in general, it's not really a debate what Algorithm Analysis is, and we all generally know what a Functional Spec document might look like. If I come across one more case(!) where a team is still undecided or losses a few weeks of momentum because of a misunderstanding what a "user story" ( can you name 10 interpretations? I think I can ) is I'm going to scream. All it would take is for one of the associations with some clout and guts to take a stand. Refining it over time is fine. The status quo is not.

Well, at least that’s my 2c :)

Best ~
Rich

Richard A. Price
Experience Architect // Richard Price Design

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To Anonymous, I totally agree with your comments. We are only doing a disservice to ourselves, our companies and our clients by not only defining our titles, but also what we do and how we deliver value. I really like your definitions, although I may change usability tester to usability professional, engineer or researcher. UX Researcher conducts research on users using such methods as ethnography, interviews and yes, usability testing. They would also develop personas, design insights from the data and, in many cases, develop design ideas and concepts (sketches, wireframes).

For VP of UX, see my article published here, Why you should hire a VP of UX. http://uxmag.com/articles/why-you-should-hire-a-vp-of-user-experience-design
I would argue that many companies of a reasonable size should hire a VP of UX to develop a UX strategy, evangelize and organizationally define how designers will execute within the context of their companies.

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Here are my hard and fast thoughts on this. In short, we need to DISTINGUISH the roles in our field, so that all of the people, in every company around the world, can learn about how we work and how each of our various pieces and parts interact to deliver great products to their customers. We need to intentionally delineate responsibility/skill/talent by title. This needs to be a strategic messaging goal for our profession. Our industry needs to lock down titles and responsibilities, then spread the word.

1a. User Experience (UX) / Interaction Designer (IXD)
You are an individual contributor responsible for sitemaps, flows, scenarios/use cases, persona's sitemaps and wireframes. The skills & talents needed to do this well don't vary. You are a thought leader, you absorb zillions of data points, remember them and boil them down to their essence (a wireframe), you dissect and counteract poor logic with ease, you split hairs where most people don't even know there are hairs to be split...but you bring those people along on your thought journey, so they become UX robots to be unleashed upon your company as they regurgitate most of what you shared with them. These people don't focus on visual design, branding, colors, fonts etc in anyway (even though they may also be pretty good at those aspects).

1b. Information Architect
This is someone who focuses on structures, such as site hierarchies etc. Many companies are not large or specialized enough to hire this person and/or have enough work for them, so these responsibilities are realistically rolling back up into 1a above.

2. UX Director
Although many companies hand out this title for people who are still doing the work, I slightly disagree, the title should be reserved for someone who is engaged with the team and helping them solve their problems and enforcing amazing design...but this role will have its largest impact by spending more of time evangelizing UX and "furthering the cause" in every IT/HR/Mktg/Exec meeting they can get themselves invited to. Without a UX presence, those meetings will fly by with the most brash (non-customer/user focused) decisions being made. People don't know they need UX, until they experience the process and see the results.

3. VP of UX
This is a role which should exist if you have a large enough company to justify so many UX staff that you have directors and managers above all of those people - reporting upward.

4. CXO: Chief Experience Officer: This is a future role and will appear as more seasoned UX people bubble up (and more contemporary business approaches) convince/enable us to have a seat at the table in every major executive meeting in every major corporation in the world. Without UX, companies of the future will under serve their customers and prolong the lives of their competition.

5. Visual Designer : This is someone who should be riding along with UX and collaborating with UX. Their skill is creating masterful visual design comps (in full color, on-brand, with the right fonts etc) and properly capturing all of the prioritization, labeling and logic behind the wireframes which have been created + they contribute their thoughts to make it even better. Some people call these roles UI Designers, but I do not think this is an intelligent move on our part, because of the next title I use below (#6). I think we need to intentionally label it without any similar naming components.

6. UI Developer / Front-End Developer : This is someone who knows CSS, HTML, HTML5, Jquery, Javaascript, Bootstrap etc inside and out. They take a pixel perfect .PSD (Photoshop Document) and replicate it to perfection...then add in the latest and greatest functionality...then work with a back-end dev (or many) to connect to databases and display the data as intended.

7. Usability Tester : You are focused on taking concepts, baked designs, visual designs & developed pages to the right users and asking the right questions...so this data can then inform the rest of the team and enable them to make better design decisions with well informed design rationale behind them. The title I am also seeing here is UX Researcher. I am not a student of this niche, so I would need some input here, but part of me wonders if these titles are the same or are there some hairs to be split related to whether the person is testing a product or researching concepts for future products.?. Insights appreciated.

My rant: There is no such thing as a UX Developer and this name confuses everything above for people who are not in our profession...unless you are a one man shop on an island somewhere whereby you are working off of "elance" types of websites and therefore architecting, ux designing, visual designing and ui developing...in which case, you might as well be UX-CEO as well.

Thanks/Please advise,
Jess

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The discussion that takes place around this always reminds me of what the field of web design went through a few years ago. The field went through a period where it was 'hot' to be a web designer, and everybody with a copy of Dreamweaver started calling him or herself a designer. After a while (and with the help of the dot com crash), the people who had no training or aptitude got weeded out. I don't think it is a bad thing entirely for the field to be so wide open to all kinds of talent. If it weren't for that opening, I certainly would not be doing what I'm doing today.

I think a similar 'weeding out' will happen with User Experience. I'm not sure that this is something that we, as UX professionals, have much control over. When you have a hot job market, both recruiters and potential employees are motivated to tag people with a UX title, warranted or not. The UX developer job title is my favorite in this department, and going back to my earlier analogy, always reminds me of back when job descriptions asked for visual designers who could also code Java.

I think what needs to happen long-term is for the user experience design function to become more clearly differentiated from the visual design and dev functions. Not to say that these competencies can't overlap in any given person, but I think there has to be an understanding that when somebody is creating a prototype for usability testing, they are engaged in a UX function, but when they are coding the front end of a web app, they are not.