The role of UX in the future of products and services

Kyle Baxter in The Age of Insight, responding to a fantastic essay by Seth Godin called The forever recession (and the coming revolution):

We have to think about completely disparate fields””say, manufacturing, software development, design, and psychology””and combine them to make products that conform themselves to humans, rather than making humans contort themselves to the product in order to use it. We must think about big ideas””ideas that will change society and how people interact””and the little ideas that merely improve peopl’s lives just a little.

We have to think. This is an age where all of our gains will come from insights into what make products, services, processes, and structures fundamentally better for us. Whereas the twentieth century was about standardization and following a series of steps in a well-defined process, in this new century, there are no defined processes. Everything is to be questioned, re-thought, re-made, or even thrown out altogether.

I completely agree with Kyle’s view that we’re shifting from a world where users have to conform to products and services, to a world where those products and services go extinct quickly unless they conform to the needs of users. I further believe that the field of user experience design needs to be a central player in this shift. The theory, psychology, tools, techniques, and practice of user experience align perfectly with the type of thinking that’s needed to make things that work better for us.

One of the biggest issues holding us back from taking a leadership role in this space is the term itself: user experience design. There is so much not to like about it. “User” has a sterile, detached, almost robotic feel. “Experience” can mean absolutely anything, and opposition to the word is growing (and not just from Merlin Mann). And then there is “Design”, a word everyone wants to own – and despite some fantastic definitions out there, no one can completely agree on what it is.

But for better or worse, this is the term we’re stuck with. So we have a predicament. The UX community is fighting over semantics and who should be allowed to call themselves a UX designer. If we could just step out of that for a while and think about the larger implications we’d be able to see how perfectly positioned we are to drive this fundamental shift to better products and services.

We borrow from social sciences to bring ethnography to design so we can uncover needs by observing users in their natural environments. We borrow from psychology to design experiences that follow the principles of visual perception and emotion. We build on a very long tradition of graphic design. We use design thinking, product discovery, and all the tools and techniques that go along with that to come up with appropriate solutions to problems. The list goes on and on.

My wish is that, as a user experience community, we would move beyond the argument over what to call ourselves.  And that we would move beyond our focus on web design and take ownership of our ability to bring our skills to physical products as well as “services, process, and structures” (in Kyle’s words). Let’s be a big part of the coming revolution.