Don’t let user experience design methods die

Des Traynor did a great interview with Ryan Singer, Product Manager at 37signals. I’m a huge fan of Ryan’s, and I agree with most of what he says in the interview. But there’s one part I’d like to challenge a bit.

Answering the question “Did you ever consider techniques like personas or user journeys, or any of those UX design methods?” Ryan says, “That stuff is all terrible”. He then obliterates the use of personas before going into a bit more detail a couple of questions later:

The things that get called User Experience come from the agency world. It really seems to be like that. Every time you meet people who are doing all of these UX methodologies they come from the consulting world. My background isn’t in the agency world; it’s in the product world. The whole game changes when you don’t have the pressure of delivering to a client on time, or trying to convince a client that you’re worth hiring or worth sticking with.

For example, if you’re working on products, and you’ve got a really capable team that can prototype things in real code, of course you don’t need wireframes, because you don’t need to get sign-off on something from a client.

This is where I disagree. I started my career in the product world. I worked at big companies, startups, and now an agency. I’ve used (and have observed others using) these “terrible” UX methods very successfully. Ryan is extremely lucky to work at a company like 37signals where personas, user journeys, and wireframes are not needed. But that is evidence of how great the 37signals culture is, not that certain UX methods are useless. I think Josh Brewer said it best:

To get a bit more specific, here are just a few scenarios and contexts where using personas, user journeys, and even wireframing (which was pronounced dead again this week) can be really useful:

  • At large organizations, not everyone is focused on and has an understanding of what experience design is about. There’s often a lot of “I am the user” thinking going on, and an inability to see interactions from the perspective of users. In those circumstances, personas and user journeys in particular can be enormously beneficial to help the organization see their products from a user’s perspective. Personas aren’t prescriptive, they’re descriptive. You can’t identify a persona and then try to predict people’s behavior off it. But you can use personas to help focus development efforts on users, and help define what features are included in (and just as importantly, excluded from) the product.
  • At startups as well as large organizations, we’ve used user journeys effectively to guide the organization away from systems thinking that’s focused on internal structures and technologies, to user process thinking that results in the design a of much better experience. Once again, when you’re dealing with people who come from non-UX backgrounds, making this shift can be tougher than it seems.
  • At agencies, we like to help companies wherever we can. To do this, we say that user experience and user-centred design scales well. Therefore, running a task-based usability test in a controlled lab environment will get the best results, but if there isn’t budget, guerilla testing is better than nothing. Similarly, sketching interfaces and then building a clickable prototype for iteration is absolutely the preferred way to go. But lacking budget, flat wireframes for quick iteration is better than doing no iteration at all. We can’t be so idealistic that we’re not willing to scale down our processes when we need to.

So, just to reiterate my point. 37signals appears to be an organization that is in lock-step agreement about their vision and goals. This means that they can build prototypes in code, iterate on that together, and they might not need reminders about their user personas and journeys. That is a fantastic place for a company to be in.

But to call UX methods “terrible” ignores the fact that most of us work in organizations where building good experiences is only 50% design challenge. The other 50% is organizational challenge to get all stakeholders pulling in the right direction. And in the right context, UX methods can be extremely helpful to address both types of challenges.

Further reading: