Coming to Terms—Part 2
We should follow the lead of graphic designers and architects, film makers, engineers (and probably other professions) and establish an umbrella term for the field in its broadest sense and then specify the specialties within it.

As you may have guessed, I favor "user experience," and a broad term like UX also allows for different "schools" within it, just as there are various "schools" within the graphic design and architecture fields.

I confess I'm not entirely satisfied with the term, but I haven't come up with a better alternative. I've got two concerns. The first sticking point is the word "user" which ain't perfect, but I think is a necessary qualifier, since "experience design" by itself could include designing roller-coasters or perfume. The second, is that UX is in some ways overly broad, because it really encompasses everything that's "on stage" (compared to the programming etc. that's behind the scenes) so technically it also includes visual design and the text of the site. And in fact, "customer experience" or "user experience" teams are not an uncommon term for the "creatives" on a web site. However, I think we can live with some vagueness.

What are the specific tasks that fall under UX? I think Garrett's "Elements of User Experience" does a good job of outlining most of them. As I mentioned, I think it needs to be expanded to include a third experience-oriented "web as interactive multimedia system" dimension, but aside from expanding "visual design" to "sensory design" (to include audio, animation or video—and possibly other senses depending on your medium), I think the existing descriptions hold up nicely.

But wait, I can already hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth of those people (like myself) whose expertise is being a "holistic synergist." Where do we fit in? In several ways.

Nothing I've said requires force-fitting people into a single box. Many people will have expertise in several areas, and much like graphic designers, they'll be able to specify them, i.e. "I'm a user experience designer who focuses information architecture, information design and navigation design." (Conversely, some people might choose to specialize in one area—for example, I've seen job postings for software UI people who need to know the intricacies of Windows GUI guidelines—just as there are graphic designers who specialize in movie title sequences.)

There are people who are "Renaissance UXs" as it were, just as the Renaissance artists not only painted, but also sculpted, designed buildings, etc. But… they're generally less common, and generally more experienced, since it takes time to master the various fields. Of course there's always the stray effortless genius, but it's precisely their rarity makes them memorable. And especially as the scale of projects grow bigger, the more difficult it is for one person to master it all—especially since I think it's important for a UX to understand business issues, in particular marketing and branding concerns, which introduces even more topics to master.

But this brings up an important distinction between mastery and familiarity. While someone may not be able to master everything, it's possible—indeed a good idea—for them to be familiar with many of them. The curriculum of graphic design schools covers a wide variety of design, not only so that students can discover what area they're interested in, but also that as a working professional you've got at least some familiarity with fields outside your own specialty. And it helps you understand the bigger picture, for example, like how the packaging design you're working on should relate to a larger corporate identity system that someone else may have designed.

Even if you're interested in focusing on a particular aspect of UX, your job may require you to do (and learn more about) other areas. Although this is especially true today due to tight budgets that result in understaffing, it's true of anyone who works for a smaller company where there aren't enough team members to have a specialist for each area. Or if you're located somewhere where there's not enough business to support a specialty practice—for example, some well-known Australian and New Zealand graphic design firms also do package design and environmental signage because they're in a smaller market where broadening their offerings makes sense.

Similarly many jobs may require a generalist rather than a specialist. There's a continuum from hard-core user interface requiring people who've done extensive traditional software development to hard-core "info science IA" work of doing thesauri and taxonomies for sites with tens of thousands of pages. But these are the extreme ends of the Bell curve, and most projects require someone who can handle a variety of tasks at a moderate depth of knowledge. That said, depending on the company or project, projects will probably require more time/skill in some areas of UX than others.

As I mentioned earlier, people who've mastered multiple fields tend to be more experienced—and the more experienced people tend to end up in management, or at least as senior UXs. The same is true in the graphic design field. By the time you've become a creative director, as a designers you've been exposed to a variety design sub-fields. You're probably not as good at some as at others, but you're at least familiar with them. (However, I'll be the first to point out that there are also designers who move up strictly within a particular specialty, for example someone who moves up the ranks within an ad agency and never does other types of design.) Whether or not you want to be management is another issue, but it's the senior people who are suppose to provide the long view.

Am I positioning the UX architect as one of the senior (if not the senior) "creative" people on a project. Well, yes. But it's because they've got expertise in multiple roles and the ability to integrate a broad range of knowledge among various team members. more »

What's in a name?
Why UX?
What we don't do
So what do we do?

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Your thoughts…

It comes to my mind that in another field of creative and communicative production there is a role that may be akin to the User Experience Architect.

The job description (modified for effect) reads somewhat like this:

Interprets content, directs technicians, and conducts mock-ups to create site presentation: Confers with Site Author and Producer to discuss content changes. Confers with Site Manager to coordinate production plans.

Familiarizes production staff in individual roles to elicit best possible performance. Suggests changes, such as 'voice' and 'placement' to develop presentation based on content interpretation and knowledge of usability techniques.

Approves graphics and text designs, sound, special effects, and site architecture. May hire. May select Site Designers.

???Wanna guess

http://www.stepfour.com/jobs/titlesd.htm

see #338 in the list

Donimo @ 07.13.2001

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George's quote below reminded me of something Don Norman said on CHI-WEB a while back.

Olsen: A highly usable interface to a product that's irrelevant to user's needs, or too expensive for it's intended users, or can't turn a profit is just as much a failure as one that's impossible to use.

Norman: Usability is NEVER the goal. Get over it folks. Usability is always secondary to the task or enjoyment you are trying to have. Is usability important? Of course, but it is les important than many other things.

Michael Angeles @ 07.16.2001

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It may be just me, but the right side of this page gets chopped off in the bullet point section above.

– Jim Jones @ 07.18.2001

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As an interaction design consultant since the early 1980s, and having created interactional architectures (physical, visual, and informational) for everything from room-sized machines to wearables to medical, industrial, and military equipment to phones to PDAs to gestural pads to televisions and movie theaters and on and on, and having never spent very much time coming up with elaborate theories for what it is that I *DO*, I would encourage more people in this field to spend less time talking, and more time demonstrating the depth and success of what it is that you've *DONE.*

The one thing that most sets "interaction architecture" or "information architecture" apart from traditional "building architecture" is that in the latter's field, it's generally *actual architects* that get the most press, not non-producing/non-architect writers of *BOOKS* that hold themselves out as *EXPERTS*. And the endless arguments in the field have grown more than tedious. ENOUGH! Forget the lofty theories and meaningless buzzwords. Just do the work for crying out loud!

I've never understood this problem of "clients not understanding what IA is." I find that if one shows them actual work and results, and refrains from the verbose prose, they consistently have no problem.

Jim Leftwich @ 07.18.2001

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i am wondering where visual design fits into your defn of ux?

visual design is just as much part of the experience as i.d, i.a., and interaction design. the visual design is what users see first. no matter how strong the info or interaction design, weak visual design will fail to provide visual cues that inform users of how the system is designed and works.

and weak visual design reflects on the overall brand and the user's experience with the site.

the writing also affects the user's experience with the site.

ani phyo @ 07.21.2001

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I definitely think visual design (and other sensory design) is a crucial part of UX -- and there's huge overlaps with not only branding (in the broad sense), but also informing business strategy. What I was trying to get at in the essay was that I don't think someone who working as a UX [whatever] will normally have the visual design skills, nor the time, to replace a visual designer/art director. I definitely think it's important for them to be familiar with visual design (especially if they're a "supervising UX"), but it's not their core area of expertise -- just as I think visual designers who want to work in this space, as opposed to print, need to be familiar with IA, interaction design, usability, branding in the broad sense (beyond just logos and image) etc. but likewise these aren't their areas of core expertise.

Same goes for writing and content strategy. And the same for things like animation, A/V and interaction multimedia specialists.

There's definitely an overlapping meeting areas where these disciplines can and should collaborate. Where the dividing line between tasks occurs will depends on the project and the people involved. For example, I've worked with some graphic designers who'd been doing web work a long time and had picked up a good understanding of UI, so with them I could simply identify what elements needed to be on a page, what priorities and proximity was needed among the elements, and trust them to do a good job of it. With others right out of school, I've had to do a fairly detailed page layout -- just as I'd done had to do sketches to show junior designers how to do a marker comp back in the print days.

However, since it's someone from a different discipline rather than same discipline doing it -- and because people seem to have forgotten the agnecy/studio hierachies of the bad old days of print, where junior designers started out by filling in the details of designs created by art directors and senior designers -- designers seem to complain and moan about this more. In fairness, because it's a converging industry, there definitely are project leads (whether IAs or otherwise) who do think designers are just there to make things pretty.

But one reason I think is that design schools are doing a huge disservice by continuing to promote the cult of individuality among designers, when in reality you're working as part of a team, especially in this space where the problems are too large to be solved easily by one person.

george @ 07.21.2001

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How did individuality become cult? Individuality is the antithesis of cult, is it not?

The individual characteristics of the ideal candidate for the role we are seeking to name would have those qualities that are diverse enough to correctly comprehend the needs of each team member in a way that can be beneficially applied to a group goal.

And, yes, sensory design must take into account sensibilities derived from social organs of perception, as well as the base physical that most do have, but some lack.

A team of thus qualified individuals would, by nature, be burdened rather than assisted by the imposition of a catalytic overseer of this sort. Fat chance that will occur very frequently, so the need to cultivate this skills package in individuals who can effectively see to it that the work gets done correctly.

Some of these problems stem from the generally slave-ish atmosphere generated by individuals who don't want to work, but feel that they must, for whatever reason.

But that's a whole different problem set.

Donimo @ 07.22.2001

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Realized I forgot to add another thing we don't do -- project management.

While project management skills are obviously important to have, project managers typically focus on making sure the project is staffed properly, is on time, and is under budget. And the project manager is typically focused on pleasing the client rather than pleasing the user.

george @ 07.26.2001

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That's a decisive line of demarcation.

That clarifies much.

There are other specifics of not doing that apply, as well.

I mean, that do as fine a job of succinctly sculpting the role.

Business consulting.

Hardware evaluation and procurement.

Vacation planning.

Commingling of funds.

Legal advising.

Shareholder recommendations.

Puts on margin.

Wedge shots from the rough.

No, wait! we do that.

Uh, sorta.

Donimo @ 07.26.2001

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I'm realizing that the "What we don't do" list, probably is better called the "Who we aren't" list.

I'm not trying to imply that we don't actually do the things I've listed, instead my point is that these shouldn't be our primary responsibilities -- and that are other disciplines that focus on each of these areas in far more depth than we do.

And on a large enough team, ideally each job I've described would be done by a different person. Yes, there's overlap, but each person brings a different perspective to the overlapping areas that's valuable.

On a smaller team (or for a solo practioner), there's not the luxury of having separate people to do these other things, so often times we end up inheriting these other tasks -- going back to my comment that we're often the "foot soldiers of user experience."

But my point is that these tasks aren't the core of what we should be doing as a "UX professional." There are other people who can do these tasks, often better than we can. Where we add value is bringing in something that's outside the core expertise of the other professions I've listed.

george @ 07.27.2001

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We can only aspire to comprehend what Jeffrey Zeldman meant

. . . and know that we are Happy Cogs.

– Donimo @ 07.27.2001

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I think if I were going to use one term and one term only, to describe the job, it would be Web Maker.

It sounds flat, though. There is an almost irresistable cumpulsion to want to icon-o-cise it with the image of a spider, too.

Other than that there is no better description than Making Webs.

It just needs some marketing conceptualization.

"Hi, I'm a Web Maker. Can I help you?"

"Yes, please. Will you make me a Web?"

"Okay, would you like fries with that?" (audience laughs)

– Donimo @ 07.27.2001

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Very timely. My boss and I recently had a two hour meeting to come up with a new title for what I do. We finally chose "User Experience Specialist". It seemed to best encompass most of what I do.

I agree with much of what you said, but remember in smaller companies you'll end up doing more than just the User Centered tasks. I'm currently the visual designer, the content approver, part-time BA and HTML developer as well as the person responsible for the tasks you mentioned as appropriate for UX.

I'm hoping for a staff soon. Wish me luck!

Toni @ 10.30.2001

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Yeah, but can you get the kids to school on time, bake bread and still have a life?

Huh!? Well?

(: or would you ever want to? :)

Then there's the how to deal with it actually working so well that we obviously need to bring in the rest of the design team.

You know, the users.

They can be so unlikely at times.

(Some can't even float a div, let alone balance.)

– Donimo @ 10.31.2001

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What about the pay ranges involved in all of these fields and employment law?

– Larry Wood @ 06.30.2003

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Copyright © 2001 All Rights Reserved.
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