The importance of user experience design specialists

Abby Covert wrote a very important article on the just-relaunched Boxes and Arrows. I know we’re all pretty tired of the “What is UX?” debate, but A Perfection of Means and a Confusion of Aims addresses the damage that the umbrella term “user experience design” is doing to specialist UX functions. Some key passages (but you really should read the whole thing):

I am afraid that there is a shortage of specialist jobs, and it isn’t because those specialities aren’t needed. I believe it is because the value of those specialities, and the impact of not considering each carefully, is in too many cases not clearly called out to our clients and partners. […]

In my experience when “UX” is the term sold-in, the resulting project plans are less likely to reflect the points at which various specialities will be relied upon to progress the team. Often prescribing a stacked to the gills list of tasks reduced to the nebulous “Design the User Experience” on the Gantt chart. The makers of these types of plans leave it to “UX Designers” to divide the time they have amongst the various specialities of a “UX” and arrange their time against it. […]

The worst case scenarios result in teams jumping right to wireframes, prototypes and documentation. I see far too many UX designers that have become wireframe machines.

This is, by and large, an agency problem (but you see it in some internal design teams too). As agencies start to see the value of selling “this UX thing” more and more, many put out unicorn job specs that aim to find some generic skill combination that can be sold to clients as user experience work. And I’ve talked to several people who fell into the trap of these jobs, only to find that their new realities consist of making wireframes and getting dirty looks because their colleagues feel they’re just slowing down the design process.

I have nothing against wireframes — in fact, I remain a huge proponent despite some recent calls to move away from it. It’s not the focus of this post, but I still find huge value in wireframes (particularly HTML prototypes) to (1) work through the complexities of finding elegant solutions to difficult interaction problems, and (2) get early user feedback before moving into high-fidelity design and development. But the point of all this is that wireframes are not the end goal of user experience design, they’re part of the process. A process that involves research, information architecture, customer journey maps, content strategy, and all the other specialities Abby points to in her post.

And that’s where I’m 100% in agreement with Abby. That we have generalised User Experience Design to a black box process that makes it very hard to convince clients (and some agencies!) that the specialist functions that go into designing holistic experiences for people are absolutely essential. We need agencies to:

  • Understand the different specialities that make up the User Experience Design process (I’ve taken a crack at a model here),
  • Hire specifically for some sensible combination of those skills, and
  • Educate clients on the value that each of those specialities can add to make their products successful.

Yes, UX unicorns do exist, I won’t dispute it. But they’re few and far between. The rest of us need to know that there is value in becoming really good at our chosen specialities, and we need to be confident that we can sell those skills to our clients.

So, I’m not arguing that we should throw away the title of UX Designer, as some have suggested. I’m saying that we have a responsibility to know that the field is made up of many specialities, and if we ignore those we do ourselves, our industry, and our clients a huge disservice.