I wrote this in about an hour, re-read it twice to make obvious edits, then spent about 30 minutes making pull quotes, adding links to just break up the monotony. It is admittedly a stream of conscious thread, though of things that were obviously in my brain. So it’s reductionist and full of generalizations, and probably spelling errors—but it’s my hot take on the influences and seismic shifts that have affected UX over the last 20 years...
In reading Jesse James Garrett’s Fast Company article on the disillusionment in the state of UX design, I couldn’t help think about how much debate it would provoke. There’s a lot that was spot on, but also a lot that wasn’t covered—which I’d presume is more about focus and constraints in article length more than any blindspots.
I didn’t think I had anything I could add in social media commentary after reading the article—I intended to sit back with my popcorn and watch the debate unfold. But then a friend and colleague asked me what I thought of the article. I proceeded to give him a couple hundred words in response. I realized I had thoughts on the matter, mostly expansion on what forces have influenced and shaped the field of user experience design. It is my take from what I’ve observed and experienced in 20+ years of web producing, product manager-ing, information architecture-ing, graphic designing, UX designing, interaction designing, service designing, individual contributing, design leadership-ing, in all it’s IMHO FWIW value.
The influence of agile
First, I couldn’t be in more agreement on the affect of Agile software development on human-centered design practices, and user experience design specifically. The need for Agile to create more efficiencies in software development has had more of a Taylorism effect than the intention of the Agile manifesto. Before engineers take affront, I don’t believe individual engineers are the cause, but the Silicon Valley-esque product structure (patriarchy?) that has demanded speed, scale, and efficiency, which has then increased the pressure to focus on velocity, points, burn rate, and tools and ceremonies over the interactions, customer communication, and responding to change.
When I’ve been in design leadership positions and have had influence over how the design team operates, I’ve adopted a dual track agile framing of the design work. Also referred to as continuous discovery, I’ve preferred the “dual track agile” framing specifically to give the appearance that design discovery is compatible with the prevailing agile structure. When in reality, it allows me to decouple design discovery (the exploratory nature of UX as Jesse describes it) from the actual agile stream, where the discovery track has no elements of agile except for making loose commitments for what will be done in a given two week sprint.
The bottom line is that trying to extend agile upstream to design creates an assembly line commoditization of design practices.
The influence of product
But there’s more than just Agile. That product power structure is a big influence. The same product power structure that made Agile into Taylorism has also made UX design into product design. (more specifically on that in a moment)
UX was a reaction to product management not asking the right questions to generate the best product outcomes
As Peter Merholz (Along with Jesse, another Adaptive Path founder) has put it, “the entire field of user experience exists because of inefficient product management.” (6:58 mark) I take this as UX was a reaction to product management not asking the right questions to generate the best product outcomes. And as a former product manager, I wholly agree with it, from a historical standpoint. One issue with UX (I see in hindsight) is that it didn’t successfully include product management directly. Maybe UX should never have appended “design” onto its practice label? (though, as someone who had a “maker” itch, “design” certainly played a part in attracting me personally)
I believe this happened due to the consultative nature of UX in the early days, its best practices and field leadership, back 10+ years ago, deriving from design consultancies—teams of designers. So it wasn’t in the optimal position to influence in-house product management (and UX design) practices.
UX wants to measure twice to cut once. Lean (product) and Agile (development) want—at least the product executives want from it—to ship product fast and efficiently (among many reasons, to secure market share and user growth before competitors do).
The influence of UX’s many sub-disciplines
UX was born of the web. Jesse’s model for the planes of UX highlighted the difference between web (hyperlink structures) and client software, by segmenting IA for web against IxD for software. This wasn’t wrong at the time, and he eventually erased that distinction into a single “structure” plane as web increasingly accommodated the fine-grain interactions of client software.
But UX, early on, pre-mobile, was predominantly about websites. I did some work on client software as a UX designer, so again, I can tell you it’s a generalization, not exclusive. But, by and large, it was the case.
A UX skillset incorporated the principles and best practices of other disciplines. While lots of T-models and broken comb models tried to make sense of a half-dozen or more skill sets—the implication was that you needed a diverse range of skills represented across multiple designers, who each went most deep on a couple of the skills while others went deep on other, complimentary skills. No one should’ve been expected to incorporate all the skills fully—these are whole fields of practice in themselves.
it became the in-house norm to have one designer per team/project
UX skillsets were most predominately defined early on (again, generalization) by information architecture and usability or human factors, with interaction design coming up as websites became more dynamic, or when UX was applied to client software. (and all those fields valuing—in theory—a human-centered approach of user/customer inquiry/research) Sure there had to be interest and influence from many other fields, but these were the skill sets that most defined a user experience designer.
And whether it was a matrix/agency model (centralized designers assigned to projects owned by a product manager who needed design support for a particular [defined] project), or an embedded model where product, design, and engineering are on a team together, it became the in-house norm to have one designer per team/project. Again, the vanguard of UX (Adaptive Path, Cooper, Frog, among others) were found in consultancies, showing how it’s done with 2–4 designers working on a problem, specifically hired to inquire, research, and reframe. These designer-teams having a range of complimentary skill sets, sometimes explicitly codified with unique titles like communicator and synthesizer. But showing best practices through multi-designer collaboration.
In-house gap (consultancy vs in-house reality)
This represents what I’ve called the “in-house gap”—where in house designers operated differently from design consultancy teams. Design consultancies were the thought leaders on how to implement UX design, while in-house designers were confronted with being the one designer on the team that must do research, IA, usability, and interaction design. And they were the measure twice to cut once people while their lean product managers and agile software developers were about speed and breaking glass. I
The influence of visual design
And further more, one practice was absent in UX: visual design. As I said, UX most closely was born from information architecture. Information architects developed the underlying structure, navigation, and flow of a website, while a visual designer/web designer created the visual layer over that underlying structure.
For some reason, the UX design practice was happy to distill and incorporate the principles and theory of many practices that are whole fields in themselves—ethnography, IA, IxD, usability—except. visual. design.
Of course there are many reasons why UX designers were allergic to the thought of doing visual design. With those IA roots, it seemed like a logical separation (structure from aesthetic)—they were even separate layers on Jesse’s UX model. Many from the OG generation were more social scientists, or conceptual architects, and visual design (née graphic design) was a “creative” discipline.
Also, understandably and truthfully, among all the fields mentioned above, visual design had the least human-centricity baked to it. It was all auteur theory—designer as insightful genius. It wasn’t grounded in the inquiry of human needs and all the dirty problem reframing and questioning that ethnography, IA, IxD, human factors, et al incorporated.
I, personally, can tell you that visual design is as easy/hard to absorb into greater UX as IA or IxD. They each have foundational principles that can be distilled in a list of a dozen or less and learned at a basic level in application over a few projects. (for better or worse) And visual design at that level is as “creative” as designing a subway map for maximum clarity. Absorbing CRAP (contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity) is just as easy or hard to grok as feedback loops and affordances, or taxonomies, ontologies, and concept models.
But there was a stubbornness in adopting it. And I see why: if you’re in-house, and you have to be one person to practice all the disciplines, there is no space to even entertain the above: that visual design can be incorporated to the same extent as these other fields have been incorporated. You likely aren’t an expert in all these “other fields” anyway. Maybe your “T” is in one or two of them. And also, there’s someone hired to do visual design already, and who wants to learn Figma or Sketch (or Fireworks or Photoshop before that).
(An aside—the tool divide back in the day between being an IA—using Visio and OmniGraffle—and a visual designer using Photoshop, was real, so that contributed greatly to the divide as well. But today, with apps like Figma and Sketch, where I may be just as likely to design a journey map, a user flow, or a set of screens using pre-designed components from the design system in the same application, there is less excuse)
Again, it’s the in-house gap. In a consultancy, you can have a UX/Experience designer that indexes on research and human factors, and another that has visual design and interaction design chops.
You can’t do that in-house. (Again, I’m generalizing and, in fact, I currently work at a company that has at least two designers on a team and includes product design, experience design, content design, research, and design technologists in its design practice — but very much an exception to the rule).
The influence of product design
The consequence of this gap is real. Back to that Silicon Valley product hierarchy. They want to ship fast and lean and scale. The easiest design discipline to incorporate to make sure that their product is aesthetically passable to the human/user eye is the UI design…
Long story short, the rise of product design has undercut user experience design.
This brings up the bifurcation of digital design into UX design and product design. I’ll make some statements that may be inflammatory to the identities of various flavors of designers, but these are generalizations, and yet I also believe they represent trends and seismic shifts over the last 10+ years.
Long story short, the rise of product design has undercut user experience design. (For this argument I consider product design and “UX/UI design” to be relatively synonymous) Product design is a UI focused discipline. (and I say that in no way pejoratively) In the same way UX design was a very IA focused discipline. Where UX was usability and IA, product design was primarily visual with a secondary interest in interaction design (motion primarily). UX design was more web, and product design more mobile. And the rise of mobile put lean-and-fast product shipping on overdrive. I don’t think this is bad in itself, as someone with an information architecture background and graphic design background who now has found there identity as an interaction designer that looks through a service design lens, (best as I’ve been able to come up with) I love the details and think this separation actually resulted in underestimating visual design’s impact on cognition of information and improving human factors. Hey! As a matter of fact, if these two people could collaborate on problems, you’ve got some real chocolate and peanut butter action happening—the complimentary skill sets covering all the bases and making magic happen. Yet, we’re back to our one designer per team problem. And that designer is now a product designer.
Product design, as the solo designer, needed to incorporate UX best practices and heuristics to check the UX box, but gone were the true inquiry and exploration and reframing that were meant to be a part of developing products that met the needs of people/customers/users in sync with business objectives. This was replaced with digging into the heuristics of Apple’s HIG and Google’s Material Design. In organizations with product designers, the inquiry part has most often been left to separate ux researchers. Which is a really good role to have! Unless those researchers conduct that inquiry, and synthesize data alone and hand over insights for product designers to incorporate like a product, er, empathy requirement document. I’ve seen about a 50/50 mix of orgs that have strong research/product designer collaboration against orgs that have a detrimental separation of the two.
UX, as intended, is about getting it right. Lean and agile, as intended, are about getting it right. But, as practiced, are about breaking glass and learning a lesson and eventually, maybe, getting it right. If all of these practices have been distorted by the product ship-at-all-costs mindset, the issue for UX is that UX (and design in general) is third in a hierarchy among product, engineering, and design. That isn’t whinging about our place in the world, it’s a recognition of how we’ve missed opportunities—even in light of the growth and success of the field.
I myself, have been involved in UX and product design, for many years, I’ve held the titles and been in a leadership over the practices. But I’ve rarely referred to myself as a UX designer, nor a product designer in the past 10 years, preferring the flexibility of interaction designer and applying that in practice to service design or cross-channel problems. But that is just me.
The UX design practice as it grew—among many blind spots that I myself, admittedly, contributed to—wasn’t in a position to either incorporate, thus influence, product management practices, as directly, nor close the in-house gap between diverse consultancy talent profiles vs more monolithic in-house talent profiles where there was only one designer on a team. These gaps, with UX’s inability to incorporate visual design (whether appropriately or not), created the opportunity for the visually-dominated “product designer” to become the ruling talent profile for design, which (generalizing) prioritizes visual design and interaction design, while incorporating UX heuristics (without the inquiry and exploration). Combined with the challenges of scaling an empire (so to speak), in the face of these break-glass counter forces, there will always be a challenge in fostering a role inside businesses who’s approach is to measure twice to cut once.
Full disclosure, I worked for Adaptive Path, the design consultancy that Jesse, and 6 others, co-founded four and a half years. Also, while we are justifiably reflectively acknowledging some of the harms that highly visible and privileged design consultancies contributed to in shaping the field—from upholding power structures and being exclusionary, among other aspects—I also loved working for Adaptive Path, and still consider it one of, if not the most, rewarding jobs I’ve had to date. I have been (self) critical of aspects of the larger structure issues that consultancies like AP have propagated (and may write about that separately), I also admire their leadership from whom I learned so much, and I can and do live with these contradictions.