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It’s Time To Retire The Term “User Experience Design”

By Brian Prentice | February 11, 2016 | 0 Comments

We’ve hit the point were the term “User Experience Design” has become counterproductive. It is obfuscating to the world outside the user experience design community that something important and different is going on.

The fundamental problem is that “user experience design” manages to squeeze in two oxymorons into a single three-word term. That’s quite an achievement.

The first oxymoron is the use of the word “user.” 

What is a user? A user is a description of a human being when they’re looked at through the lens of technology. But the whole point of user experience design is to look at technology through the lens of people. That’s why we do research and use the data to define personas and journey maps. Effectively executed, good user experience design should disavow everyone of the notion there’s a “user.”

Even worse, the word “user” is both ambiguous and subjective. And as more people start paying attention to UX design, they are starting to fix that ambiguity by filling in the blank with their own definition of user. That is the heart of the customer vs. user experience schisms, with all its attendant semantic disputes on whether a user is a subset of a customer or a customer is a subset of user. 

But we’re just starting…emerging on the scene are employee experience, shareholder experience, partner experience. Every potential audience becomes a new experience model. Even though, at its heart, effective user experience design should be able to discern meaningful audience differences and deliver contextually relevant solutions to each.

That leads us to the next oxymoron…the notion that you design an experience.

Let’s be clear. Design is a process. It is a structured approach to create value for a producer and a consumer by making things that have meaning for people.

Experience, on the other hand, is an artifact of interaction. No explicit process is needed to create an experience. It just happens…even when no consideration is given to what that should be.

Every time we imply that we are designing experiences instead of creating value we are perpetuating a view that this is a “look and feel” effort. It’s no longer acceptable for the user experience design community to give each other a nudge-nudge, wink-wink…we know what this REALLY means. That’s because the seemingly intractable conflation of UI and UX by those not in the user experience design community is a constant source of friction that slows the uptake of a proper design process.

“User experience design” has reached its shelf life. It has served its purpose. Let’s thank it for doing so. But continuing to use the term is an exercise in nostalgia.

What term then should take its place? I think the answer is simple.

Digital design.

Why digital design? Digital design works because it is a consistent nomenclature with all other manifestations of design. 

Design is about creating value by making things that have meaning for people. And all design has a common set of phases – discovery, analysis, synthesis, prototyping, production and refinement. But the material being manipulated and the object being created shape the processes needed for each of these phases. So, while the word “design” represents a generic process, it is preceded by a word that creates specific context. 

Graphic design, for example, creates value by conveying a message visually. But to do that the graphic design process involves the use of very specific tools, a mastery of color theory and the knowledge of print production and digital display. Industrial designers, in their pursuit of creating compelling physical objects, must master the properties of different materials like plastic, metal, wood, work with their own unique prototyping tools and deal with production techniques like injection molding. The fashion designer must understand different textiles and how they affect construction techniques while prototyping with both mannequins and live models.

And in the world of digital design, our research techniques must be fined tune to look for the unrecognized need. Analysis must be conducted with an understanding that digital forms have no meaningful boundary on the scope of capability, but excess capability can have negative consequences. Synthesis must be done with a keen eye on the elegance of the solution’s information architecture along with the integrity of those it interconnects with. As we prototype, we must constantly look at how technology is re-shaping device and software interaction. Production is done through leveraging and creating platforms, while refinement involves thoughtful reduction, redirection and recompilation.

Part of the reason for using the term “digital design” is not just to help non-practitioners understand that what’s happening is a variation of design tailored for digital material. It is also needed to help convey to the current user experience design community that focusing strictly on aesthetics, without an understanding of how the underlying mechanics of digital technology impacts the final form, is not, in fact, design.

So, does that mean the term “experience” disappears from our lexicon? Definitely not! But it’s used in the context of management practices, not design processes. A successful experience – whether it’s customer, employee, shareholder, or…you get the point – is the effective orchestration of one or more design disciplines.

Consider an airline. The customer experience is the culmination of the digital design used in creating the online ticketing system, the interior design of the terminal or lounge space, the industrial design of the seat and the fashion design of the flight attendants’ uniforms.

In this context, digital design is allowed to flourish alongside all design disciplines while being understood as needing specific processes needed to achieve the broader goal of delivery design the organization.

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