Notes From The Field: Insecurity Behind The UX Curtain

In his latest blog post, Boon Yew Chew bravely and honestly discusses the reluctance he has to use the term User Experience Designer for himself. We have talked about this a little bit more on Twitter, but there are certain elements of his post I wanted to think a little more about, and why not think aloud, right? We UXers ask that of our user-testing populations all the time, after all.

What do we know?

Much of the insecurity I read and see, when UXers talk about their advanced cases of Impostor Syndrome, is actually because we do not have a canon. There is no basic shared knowledge that is indispensable to have in this field, there are no rules and laws and basic theories from which the rest of our craft flows, really. There are tons and tons of ideas and guidelines and processes with deliverables and artefacts, but there is no underlying model that we need to know in order to do good work, and therefore there is no hook for us to hang our security in our craft on. Yes, I have studied Fitts Law and I know about the 7+-2 rule, but guess what, I almost never use them in actual practice. To the point that I can barely tell you what Fitts Law even is, and as a mobile-first designer, I actually do not even care anymore because all my targets need to be visible and fingertip-sized anyway.

Back in the very early nineties when I started studying this field, people who had been tasked to make user interfaces for their companies but felt they had no guidelines and no background, asked me if there was a unifying or basic theory of User Interface Design, or Human Factors studies as it was called. Twenty years ago I had to say no, because what that basically was asking for a fundamental theory of mind and cognition, and neuroscience hadn’t come up with one. We still do not have that in what is now called the UX community, we just have compendiums of thought like “Don’t Make Me Think” and “The Lunatics Are Taking Over The Asylum”, but a basic theory what makes a good User eXperience, statistically solid and lab tested, or even a simple process that practitioners can follow to get significantly better results? All we have is variations of research-produce-test rinse repeat, which is what all the new Lean UX or the About or Our Process pages of Digital Agencies come down to. Just look for the diagram with arrows in a circle.

It is hard to feel secure in what you are doing when what you are doing doesn’t really have strong fundamentals like, say, Medicine or even Economics. For all the flack Economics gets, a lot of thinking has been done about basic theories of what actually is money, what are good exchanges, or on capital and work. And it may often have shaky predictive value, but the field can at least talk about models and predictions, something UX as a discipline can not. I remember work done in the 70s and 80s–I even did my thesis based on some of that–about systems to tally concepts in a command-line User Interface so as to be able to predict whether it would be easy or time-consuming to learn, whether a user would be fast or slow in it. That work has now completely fallen by the wayside in the larger practice of making web pages and mobile apps. Can I call myself an Economist without being able to explain how Marx saw the relationship between work and capital? Not very credibly. Can I call myself a UX Designer without knowing the inventory of ways to visualize repeated data sets as explained by Tufte? You bet. Many UX Designers have no idea what happened before 1998, and rightly so as there weren’t learnings fundamental or rigorous enough to stand even the test of time, never mind any actual lab test, in our ever changing computing environments.

Next week everything will be different

We publicly pride ourselves on how our varied backgrounds, the many routes we all took to become UX practitioners, makes us stronger when we work in teams, but it does mean that the field therefore has a lack of coherency, or even shared values beyond “we want to do right by the user”. Then the field changes in five years in some fundamental fashion, and some new people feel their current process or insight isn’t covered by the existing field and we all need a new fashionable term to go to. (I remember when Information Architect first popped up. I have to admit my first, and in hindsight vicious, first thought was “Card sorting as the whole of a job description. Nice work if you can get it.” And then it took off and I had a new title to collect. And yes, I have seen the error of my ways.)

Or our tools change, and because everyone is so insecure, or because they are recruiters trying to make money in a field they just walked into without any knowledge, we all pretend they are vital to have had forever. Little secret: when I arrived in the UK in 2008 from having designed and delivered sites and desktop applications since 1995 in the USA, I had no real idea what Wireframes were. I had to look the term up when I saw it in job ads. As someone who worked in User Interfaces–oops, sorry, User eXperience, there was one of those shifts again–from a software engineering background, whenever I had an idea or a design for a UI I would just code it up and see if it worked. At most I would sketch on paper first. Seriously, this whole in-between wireframing stage did not exist for me, and I had to study it.

So I took some of my old work and made some wireframes for them retro-actively. Can you wireframe? Oh yeah you bet! and I got me some gigs. I have now spent considerable time working with this deliverable, but I can’t say it has advanced my thinking or my results beyond my pre-2008 process. Yet this deliverable has become so important that you can get or lose out on jobs depending on whether you know the exact wireframing tool in use inside the company. Wireframing as a deliverable is now less fit for purpose than ever in a world where the transition from one state to another in a website or app is the real interaction deal-breaker, which wireframes suck at demonstrating. I am wireframing in my current gig, but only secure in the knowledge that the programmers to the right of me will code up an interactive element for testing when I verbally explain to them how it will work in the flows, and the amazeballs colleague with a Visual Creative background to my left will turn our collective ideas from the prototypes and wireframes into a deliverable that does make sense to people. I may user-test my ‘frames, but only with me doing the test with the user as I know all the caveats. I am sure wireframes will fall out of fashion and be replaced by something else (please!), and then recruiters and hiring managers will talk as if Everyone Has Always Done This In Our Field about the new thing.

We are about tearing ourselves down

User eXperience Design is the art of making things that are so blindingly obvious everyone wonders why this would take longer than an afternoon to come up with. Everyone except the people who made it, that is; they know how they went through iteration after iteration. And the only way to do it by constantly exposing what you sweated over and thought about, to ridicule and scorn for being too difficult to use, in user tests. User testing in all its forms is all we got, and we have to do it, but as a practitioner it is actually not that fun to have to go down in flames repeatedly. In front of your colleagues. And manager. Who may not understand that this is what the current UX Process requires, because we have no models to work to, and you end up wondering if they are wondering why they are paying you if you can’t get it right the first time already.

We end up in the strange position where we have to advocate to the organization to make resources available for us to find out how bad we are. I once, at a start-up drinks meet-up, explained this process to an accessories designer. She couldn’t believe her ears and didn’t think she could have gone through with it. Throwing yourself to the wolves in public every time? “Well, yeah, kind of. You never get it totally right on the first try, and there is no other way to know which part you got wrong.”

So yes, when you can’t get full buy-in to make proper testing happen–we have no time, we need to get to market, this is so simple, we’ll release it as a beta, it’s Customer Development, we have no money, can’t you just make it simple the first time?–sometimes it takes having to be in a UX community to remind you that you must still test somehow. It’s easy to let that slide. I have raised plenty of eyebrows by judgementally proclaiming that “If you are not user-testing your design, you are not doing UX, you are just doodling” but even truly believing that I have to sigh hard and steel myself before every time my designs will be seen by fresh eyes that have instant opinions about everything. How hard we worked, in the end, doesn’t matter, just the result.

We don’t really do this in the best circumstances

Even though I try to explicitly style myself humbly as a co-designer–“I am not a guru. I have done research but I do not know everything about this field. You in my team are the experts, and have lived with your ideas for a long time, longer than me. I am just a conduit to take all your ideas and shape them into something usable by other people in your field”–instead of a designer expert sent from heaven, I still end up in many situations where I feel “I should have seen that coming.” I was talking to some very respected colleagues today about a situation where I, with the team, after a week of sweating over some interactive function, collating all ideas into this one workflow, got shot down on a phone conference at Friday 5PM with a remote division manager who had a far simpler idea.
–“And of course now I am thinking, he’s right, he’s just right. And wondering what he thinks of me that I as a so-called User eXperience expert didn’t see that solution myself.”
And my friend correctly says: “He could only see that solution because you made an artefact that showed him the problem.”
–“I still should have come up with [that simpler solution] myself while making the artefact.”
“So why didn’t you?”
–“I was too close, I guess,, too enmeshed”
“Exactly, and he was far and gets to see this once a week. You need distance for these insights. We don’t get the time to take that distance when we are on a project.”

And in reality, especially inside Digital Agencies, the client doesn’t want to co-design all that much with you UX expert. They want to give you some knowledge and then have you show them a solution like you promised you would in your tender, for that specific amount of money. Innovation? As long it fits in that one week you budgeted between research and wireframing the home page, and by the way, budget is shortened because the dev team says they will cut more, so that week is gone, just come up with that Wow-On-The-Richter-Scale (actual client quote) while you wireframe. Digital Agencies work best when they have a close, iterative relationship with the client, but they only get that when they prove themselves in the first project which, guess what, happens with the agency frantically trying to find out what the client knows so deeply it actually can’t articulate it to outsiders, and only getting to it by showing designs to the client that the client will initially be unhappy with. Client churn is basically a given. It’s only if you have a stellar Account or Client Services manager on board, who can make the client understand this is how the process works, that you get a second gig.

It is really no wonder that we are so loyal to, and count ourselves lucky when we end up in, a business or even division that truly puts the user first, over profit or retaining the client: the people running them know what we go through.

What we end up with

So, we don’t have a truly shared body of knowledge and predictive theory to feel secure in, just an ever-changing field that keeps making stranger and stronger demands on us as the devices that provide user experiences explode and span the gamut from whole walls down to wrist-watches. Our job, when we are allowed to do it in a way we consider right, is about breaking our own hearts and having our babies killed in plain view of everyone in our teams and labs, repeatedly, until we get it right already. When we don’t get the tools to do this process, we labor under the knowledge we are probably making utter crap, mediocre at best, unless our colleague at the desk next to ours, if we even have one and aren’t the lone UX designer, will be brutally honest when we let them take a look. We are surrounded by people who have opinions and of which most think just making the right pixels prettier will solve everything. There is constant in-fighting in our field about what it is we should know (coding? visual design? taxonomy management?) mostly by people who don’t know one area and thus need to be heard saying that the area is not necessary lest they end up without a job. And we hardly ever have the luxury of time or space or variety. It’s not surprising we often end up measuring victory by getting one little good piece of innovation included in what is yet another mediocre site. It’s basically what Dribble was made to showcase.

It is also not so surprising then that many UX designers can hear themselves asking their friends and colleagues “Am I really a Designer? Am I a crafts-person? With no theory or real process? And if not a Designer, am I the best UX person I can be? Can we all do better? Is this new book / pamphlet / site about ourselves / process / intermediate step with pretty pictures going to be the key to stop us from flailing and make us get to good results like an arrow?”

Honestly, I wouldn’t sweat the name and field much. That you care about making software and services a little less heinous to use is what makes you a UX practitioner. Document your ideas and solutions into a portfolio, go to some workshops and meet-ups, and most of all, talk to other UX practitioners about the work. If with all that you have enough of a story you can get someone to pay your bills doing the UX work, then just call yourself whatever is in the job title for a while.

Every job, every field is a racket. We are all winging it, from brick-layers to CEOs. We might as well then wing it in an area we love.

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