World Design Day: Is UX Experiencing an Identity Crisis?

As part of World Design Day, we take a look at user experience (UX) design to understand its identity crisis and shine light on the one attribute that always makes something UX: empathy.

“I thought I was being hired as a UX designer, but it turns out I’m a glorified graphic designer,” a friend confided in me recently.

He’s working at a company that has made some strides in how they understand their customers from a marketing perspective, but they don’t yet see these individuals as “users,” something he says comes at the expense of improving the overall user experience from a usability standpoint. Too many decisions are based on assumptions rather than actual user experience.

His situation is systematic of a greater issue that stems from the discrepancies in how user experience is defined. As part of World Design Day, we turned our attention to examining the changing climate surrounding UX right now – only to discover that it seems to be having a bit of an identity crisis.

“The irony is that UX designers are supposed to make things easy to use and understand, and yet, how we explain what we do is so complex. Why haven’t we used our superpowers to design a definition that can be easily consumed and understood?” writes Yazin Akkawi, founder and principal, MSTQ, in an Inc. article called “Do We Need A Better Term for UX?”

“With the lack of consistency and simplicity in how we define UX, we’ve stripped it of its meaning and, more importantly, reduced the job to a mere buzzword,” he said.

This one-dimensional thinking, argues Yazin, means companies are more likely to underestimate the resources necessary for creating great UX, reducing the crux of UX design to “the ‘face’ or ‘skin’ of an app or website.”

It’s why UX designers like my friend end up working on user interface designs without being armed with the tools (aka the data and resources) necessary to develop comprehensive user experiences. As UX design makes its way increasingly more into the corporate world, is it time to unify what UX is, or is UX itself too complex for that?

A rose by any other name

The UX Design Collective’s State of UX 2018 report analyzed a plethora of clickbait-laden articles and opinion pieces stating that UX is dead, only to reveal a deeper story.

What they found is that the broad term “UX designer” is going the way of “webmaster” and “information architect,” changing and dissolving to meet the demands of today’s world.

This isn’t necessarily a cause for alarm. “We have always been able to adapt what we do and call ourselves – while maintaining our mission of creating meaningful experiences for people,” the report states.

As the field evolves, however, the report notes that some UX designers are moving into new fields and technologies like virtual reality and voice interfaces, previously viewed as separate from UX. Others are establishing more niche UX specializations like motion design, UX writing, and prototyping, some of which were previously blanket responsibilities. Many still use the umbrella term “UX designer,” despite such variances in scope and responsibility.

The report also found a preferred title shift among many designers from “UX designer” to “product designer,” a growing trend in 2018. As the “role and responsibilities [of UX designers] grow inside our companies, understanding more about business and design strategy becomes inevitable,” the report states.

It delivers a pill that may be hard for some UX designers to swallow, especially those who favor the art of UX and the user journey over its core business value, but it’s one that cannot be ignored.

“2018 will be the year where designers will, not without struggle, learn to be more strategic about the features, screens, and experiences they design,” the report said. “It’s about time we accept the fact we are not artists and embrace being part of a business.”

What type of UX designer are you?

While companies work to figure out what UX looks like within their organizations, and UX designers look to distinguish which path is right for them in this ever-growing and evolving discipline, others look at design as a whole to see its entire meaning shifting.

“Designers’ move to the business mainstream has sparked a broad debate about who designers are and what they do,” writes Clay Chandler in a TIME article entitled, “The Meaning of Design is Up For Debate. And That’s A Good Thing.”

“In this new era, smart corporate leaders are embracing the idea that design can be a crucial differentiator. Only a decade ago, senior business executives tended to dismiss design as a second-tier function–a matter of aesthetics or corporate image best left to the folks in marketing or public relations. No more. Today, design is widely acknowledged as a C-suite concern and a key element of corporate strategy,” Clay writes.

He draws on designer John Maeda’s Design in Tech report, which identifies three distinct categories of designers, describing them as:

  1. Classical designers: “Create physical objects/products for a specific group of people” including architects, industrial designers, and graphic designers.
  2. Commercial designers: “Innovate by seeking deep insights into how customers interact with products and services.” This draws more on research and design thinking.
  3. Computational designers: “Use programming skills and data to satisfy millions or even billions of users instantaneously (think tech firms like Amazon and Facebook).”

“The camps don’t always get along,” Clay writes. “Classically-trained designers are apt to look askance at the artistic abilities of designers from the other groups. Commercial designers question how computational designers can empathize with millions of people they’ve never met. Computational designers complain that the methods of the other two groups can’t be scaled. But many believe that, in the future, the most valuable designers will be those who combine skills and perspectives from all three categories.”

The UX connection: empathy

While Clay argues that UX has become an overused buzz phrase, he highlights that the power of empathy “has never been more profound.”

It is here we see what separates UX from the pack, and that’s the level of empathy necessary in designing a user experience. It’s about understanding who your users are, what they need, and how you as a UX professional can help them get there.

In the coming months and years, the terms “UX” and “user experience designer” may fade out, the roles and responsibilities may change, but if one thing remains the same it will be the core thread of empathy that weaves all this together.

No matter what you call it, as long as it is indeed roses that you are planting and nurturing in the garden of user experience, then a rose is still a rose.

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