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The Fall and Rise of UX

1 September 2011
Keren Trostler
A hand pointing at a screen

Based on a blog summarizing the presentation of Cennydd Bowles at a conference in Denver, Colorado


Cennydd Bowles began his involvement with user experience in 2002 when he was asked to organize his employer's overloaded information repositories. Seeking inspiration, he found it in a book that made him realize that others thought like him and shared his aspirations that extended beyond the existing perception of the web. He was later exposed through blogs, articles, and events to an entire community of people who shared his love for the profession, and today, he advises organizations and companies on the best way to lead their organizations to prosperity by putting people at the center of thinking and action.


As a consultant, he diagnoses that his central strength is his naive perspective, the ability to ask "innocent" questions and provide an honest opinion about how things appear to the untrained eye, unaffected by the organization's culture, language, and political conduct.


User Experience as Mainstream

User experience design has gone mainstream. Senior managers who previously viewed design with suspicion hear about the topic at respectable conferences and professional articles and view design-driven products as a means to success, naturally wanting to participate. Today, everyone wants to be Apple, the most admired company for the fourth consecutive year, and develop the new iPhone. Although there is a significant gap between aspirations and execution, organizational managers are heading in the right direction when discussing experience, prototyping, design strategy, and innovation.


Public awareness of design is also growing, as consumers can learn about the product before purchasing it. This means that the value of usability and user experience grows in the public eye, even if they do not use this terminology. Many people choose technology based on user experience and also choose a service provider along the way based on the service they provide. Some companies take advantage of this growing awareness and address user experience as a central selling point of the product or service they promote. This is a welcome change from relying on an overload of features or the glittering associations evoked by the brand.


Catalysts for Change

Information and technology are two factors that serve as catalysts for change. Both affect businesses globally, as well as laws, privacy, and governance. The younger generation is connected and accustomed to adopting technologies and disseminating information instantly to influence the ills in their environment. An example of this can be seen in early 2011, which proved the power of networks to drive the destruction of hierarchies. These were exciting times for those at the intersection of technology, information, and experience.


The Dangers Ahead

Despite the promising era we are entering, Cennydd Bowles warns that the coming years are set to be challenging for the user experience community. One reason is a natural correction to the tremendous success the community has experienced and a result of its tendency to expand. In any case, this marks the beginning of an era of disillusionment.


Pollution

The discipline of user experience has become so broad that anyone can claim to implement it, and they would be right. Any designed object or service is an experience. However, the standard interpretation is narrower. 'User experience' (UX) is quickly becoming a synonym for web design.


The dilution in impact, pay, and respect that workers in this industry enjoy is causing quality issues. These issues stem from the growing gap between supply and demand, which consultants and freelancers are trying to meet. Still, they are causing a situation where the skills that formed the basis of professionalism have been abandoned. The result is a proliferation of cases where a lack of basic knowledge in information architecture, design theories, and basic programming skills results in mediocre service under the guise of user experience.


Aversion

Bowles describes a situation where some of the community's peers in the technology community are downplaying the value of user experience, claiming that while experts promise clients the world, they are promoting inexperienced people to fill roles they are not qualified for. One of the issues lies in the abstract vocabulary used to describe the work; after all, 'user experience architecture' is an incredibly arrogant and bombastic term. The critics see the field as no more than a fad, no more than the ability to listen to users and give them what they ask for. Despite the experts in the field repeatedly refuting the claims against them, new claims arise, to the point that even people whose work is closely tied to user experience find themselves defending their territory and distancing themselves from the field of user experience.


Disagreements

One of the most natural responses in cases of over-expansion and external threats is a retreat into groups, allowing for in-depth thinking and discussion on the issues at hand or encouraging power struggles between different groups. Since user experience is an amorphous idea, it is incorporated into more considerable design challenges. The expectation of a professional to adhere to a single discipline narrows the way the problem is examined to a narrow perspective.


Stagnation

Instead of leading to better specialization, the division into fields of work encourages stagnation, as each specialist retreats into their niche and becomes weaker. The crossbreeding between the different fields of activity enhances both the weaknesses and strengths.


Global Perspective

The author notes that most of the standard reference today has an inward and local/regional focus, mainly in the United States, despite different countries in Europe doing wonderful things. It is important to remember that power shifts over time, and it is advisable to expand the circle of reference beyond the one closest to us. True global engagement will open new ways for us to see the world and examine our field of work.


How Do We Move Forward?

User experience professionals are facing several challenges. However, since they are professional "problem solvers," it will be interesting to examine the ways of coping with these challenges:

Labels

First, the recommendation is to discard the complex terminology and definitions, which are identical except for slight nuances. The speaker predicts the title 'user experience designer' will cease to exist in the coming years. The nickname suited the era when there was a need to unite against those hostile to the field.


Nicknames are an individual's choice to define their boundaries and comfort zone. There is no need to be sentimental about definitions. The various disciplines within user experience are here to stay, and they have earned the maturity required to serve in all areas of design. The skill of user experience designers will continue to be in demand, regardless of the job title. The work is what matters; the label is just metadata.


Product Focus

Instead of explaining the skill through a process or methodology, it is advisable to point to the product. If user experience designers are truly worthy of the praise they have received, the product they present should be better than that of others aspiring to work in related fields. This kind of faith in the profession requires commitment, and the implication is to stop worshipping trivialities and focus on the end product.


Of course, intellectual curiosity is healthy; it helps us sharpen our philosophy and add tools to our arsenal. However, real issues require our attention - managing digital identity, controlling user privacy in a connected world, and finding a way for people to take their digital lives with them as they move between devices. When we address these issues, we will indeed be worthy of praise.


The focus on the product must support everything we do. Designers are understood to want strategic roles as they encounter tactical limitations. Still, when claiming ownership of design thinking, we must not forget design itself, where talent turns into results.


Providing Value

As the profession grew, the discussion of morality became more muted. Recently, the user experience field has succeeded in branding itself to influence the user to do what the employer wants - buy more things, sign up for more actions, or return more often. Using psychology as a tool is nothing new; advertising has been doing it for years and is a hot topic in the public sector.


In some cases, design aimed at persuasion is justified, especially when the desires of both the user and the persuader lead to mutual benefits—such as energy savings, financial caution, and so on. However, there are questionable applications that user experience designers allegedly offer, designed to persuade solely for the profit of the paying company. Despite the need to please the paying client, it is crucial to continue examining our impact on the world.


The world does not need another clone of Groupon or another chocolate snack. Instead, it requires fewer products, and each one works better. Reliable and humane products that help people perform actions they did not think were possible. Of course, one can continue to make a career out of peripheral products and services; that is each individual's choice, but Bowles asks what user experience designers would want to be said about them in their eulogy: "They moved more units" or "They made a change"?


Gaining Influence

How do we make a change? The first step is to design the best possible product or service. This usually only has local influence. Great aspirations require influence. Until now, the design community has tried to gain influence mainly by adopting business mindsets. It has tried to market the field to strengthen customer loyalty and reduce risk as a field that can be controlled and measured, thus giving it a more 'business-like' appearance.


Design and Science

Numbers have power and exceptional beauty; they are good advisors but have limitations. Design is a visual prediction that cannot predict its return on investment and requires faith. Designers strive to create fundamentally unmeasurable experiences, usability, and enjoyment. These things are difficult to measure, but do they need to be measured? The principle that "what cannot be measured does not count" is an utterly harmful illusion, rewarding quantity rather than quality.


When measurement and numbers are set as a central goal, the result is a design that will try to maximize those numbers at the expense of the essential qualities.


A New Angle

In an attempt to please businesses, we risk losing what makes us unique and valuable. Our understanding of the intangible and our long-term vision are different but complementary to the capabilities of analysis and deduction.


Experts will attest that recurring patterns of behavior result from the system's structure and laws. This also applies to successful company expansion or the production of poor products. Therefore, we need to change their structure and rules to influence how companies operate, not just add a user experience designer to the team.


The author emphasizes that we must change businesses, not become businesses ourselves. Instead of adapting to existing organizations, we need to build businesses where the consumer is the center, not costs; businesses where creativity prevails over control, where good questions are as important as the answers, where we create things that make a difference and do not create disorder.


Deviating from the Path

Economist John Kay argues that successful people and organizations achieve complex goals through deviations from the path, that is, by aspiring to something else. Just as the most successful companies do not pursue profit alone and the strongest people in the world do not solely pursue power, the guy will not get the girl through persistent pursuit alone but by being an attractive person.


The pursuit of profit has created an economy rooted in fiction, where some companies prefer to manipulate their balance sheets over producing valuable products or services. In light of these horrific implications, we must hope that companies will return to trying to profit by creating value-added products, not just by defending their goals and the rules they have set for themselves.


The Golden Rule of User Experience

Bowles suggests that user experience design should provide personal value. The role of user experience designers is not to reduce risk but to create things that improve people's lives and, in doing so, their companies’ profit. It will not be enough to judge the user experience industry by the return on investment it provides. The author suggests judging the sector by the happiness it creates. It is easy to dismiss idealism as youthful naivety, to think that it is something "we grow out of," but idealism is a deviation from the path, and without it, the world is a dismal place. This is not unreasonable; it is a vision to return humanity to capitalism, which prefers meaning and value over simple functionality and embraces long-term, measured investment over fleeting profit.


A user experience designer meets the definition of an innovative business leader - they are diverse, happy to focus on small details as well as create interactions, vision, strategy, and systems; they connect dots that others do not, examine details throughout all stages of the experience, isolate quiet requirements that others do not hear, and through years of mediating between technologists, users, product teams, and marketers, they are an interdisciplinary creature.


Leadership

Influence and leadership are within our reach if we are brave enough. The way we will arouse the least resistance is to wait until companies recognize the value and create appropriate managerial roles (e.g., Chief Experience Officer, Chief Customer Officer). Still, since every field thinks it deserves its own Chief, this is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Another way is to encourage influence through alternative paths - product management, marketing, and even technology - through which we can spread the message of user focus within the organization.


None of us needs to be told to 'do good' or 'have influence'; our values and approach led us to this field in the first place. However, we need to acknowledge our limitations. Humility and pragmatism are central reasons for the growing influence of user experience professionals, and it would be tragic if we succumbed to arrogance. As we enter a new field, it is essential to listen and learn from the experiences of others who have already been in the field and dealt with these issues in the past.


Where Do We Go From Here?

In his presentation, Bowles urges the listeners to rise above superficial commercialism but be wary of arrogance. It is about rational radicalism, ambition, and humility. For him, the future of user experience is multidisciplinary and pluralistic and can run parallel to other disciplines. Instead of building walls around the field, pursuing problems and their solutions wherever they lead is advisable, even if it means defying different disciplines. Along the way, they will find those who share the same spirit. Regardless of the disciplines they come from, these partners will be as brave allies as friends of the field. When we encounter an experience that design cannot solve, a common problem, these friends can help navigate around it.


Bowles painted a picture where the user experience designer is a leader, but it is a role that does not suit everyone. He summed up his words in a fiction he came up with, depicting all levels of the industry in a few years:


"User experience" is still a common term, but it describes a typical frame of reference, not a job description. The principles of the profession have permeated the bloodstream of every designer. Many user experience designers apply their knowledge outside the digital realm; others prefer to focus on specific products. However, the gaps between products and services are narrowing, as very few exist distinctly offline.


It is likely that in the future, they will nostalgically look back on our time as the golden age of the user experience community before its scope of engagement grew dramatically. User experience designers themselves will fondly examine this period, shaped by visionary 'peddlers' who encouraged the free flow of information. Instead, we will see an environment where browsers fail to become the sole platform, the government abuses regulation and privacy, and corporations become more dangerous. However, during this period, digital technology will mature as a medium in its own right and permeate daily life in hundreds of different ways.


As the boundaries of the industry are examined, somewhere, an enthusiastic user experience designer becomes the CEO of a company, not a design company, and that company outperforms its competitors. The company has gathered overlapping fragments of understanding customer needs into holistic, coherent bodies of knowledge. The company now enjoys both by attempting to export personal value over profit. While there needs to be more awareness of this, they will soon be inundated with people wanting to know their secret. This is a global shift in mindset toward sustainable, customer-focused business.


The speaker concludes that despite the challenges facing the user experience design community, its members make him optimistic about the technological and global future. He describes the sense of challenge he feels when sharing his thoughts on the present and future of the profession with intelligent and passionate people and thanks the participants for the opportunity.

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