“A process is created and documented so that it can be replicated and followed by anyone. UX is a nascent field and isn’t mature enough that processes are not documented yet. You don’t need a specialist once the processes are well documented. Anyone can just learn the process and follow it. There will be no UX field in a few years once that starts happening. UX is not a specialization, it’s a transferable skill”.
As specious a definition that is for a “process”, let’s try to evaluate the validity of this argument in User Experience Research and Design.
As most people would agree, User Experience Design is a process — one that is highly influenced by constraints and crafted and customized to the nature of the problem at hand. A textbook process, that which is taught in Universities could be — User Research, Surveys, Contextual Observations, Data Analysis, Affinity Diagrams, Segmentation, Personas, User Stories, Scenarios, Ideation & Brainstorming, Information Architecture, Sketches, Wireframing, Low-Fidelity Prototyping, Usability Testing, High-Fidelity Prototyping, Front-end Development, Software Integration, with iterations along the different steps. Go to any Design agency’s website and you will find this process documented as a selling tool.
This is a UX process that has indeed been documented, it’s called User Centered Design. These are tried and tested methods, that which has its genesis in Design, Psychology and Engineering. Why then are there still badly designed products out there, despite following such deeply researched tools and frameworks?
As I’m currently pursuing my Masters degree in Human Centered Design & Engineering, I come across some students who get married to this process that’s taught in school. What’s not taught in schools are the constraints that are associated with the User Centered Design process and how this fits in the constraints of the business, product/service, users and stakeholders and how certain processes work effectively or fail within these constraints. Going by textbook is acceptable when there is a good enough reasoning to following a certain tool or methodology. I recently executed a UX Research and Design project for a company where I had to reorganize and realign our goals a number of times throughout our process. As questionable as this sounds in terms of planning, the nature of some design problems is such that you are not aware of all the constraints until you carry out some exploratory research. In our case, this was largely dictated by the changing needs of the client and the uncertainty of the problem we were tackling, other than the typical budget and technology constraints. Certain tools worked better for certain scenarios. For example, we planned to create Storyboards early on in the process but later realized this wasn’t going to be of help in solving our client’s problem. “Wait, what! You didn’t create storyboards? That’s a must in a design process”. No it’s not. Solving the problem was the goal, not creating storyboards.
Beyond the Process
Knowledge of processes is one thing. There’s an aptitude and attitude that go into executing the process.
The attitude of a designer represents her mindset in approaching problems. If I had to define one aspect of attitude as the most important, I’d pick self awareness. The rest usually falls in place if with this habit. Being mindful and conscious of our own cognitive biases makes one more empathetic and capable in setting aside one’s own thoughts, feelings, perceptions and opinions. Wouter de Bres wrote a great article on this — The Cognitively Biased Designer. Though this “god trick” has been challenged by Feminist Standpoint Epistemology, it certainly helps to consciously do it than to not do it.
Aptitude is the ability to effectively execute a process. In this context, I use the word “process” as what you ended up executing and not what you planned to execute, or something that has a fixed definition. You have successfully executed the process if you have met the constraints surrounding the business, product/service, users and other stakeholders including your team members, or more.
So there’s attitude and aptitude. What about experience? This is where we need to be careful. While experience can prove to drive aptitude, it can also hinder attitude which in turn can hinder aptitude. Today our design industry is highly opinionated (guilty as charged). The causes for this are knowledge and experience biases. So how do you balance it then? Once again, it’s self awareness. As long as we have the ability to learn, unlearn and relearn, we’re probably on the right track. I focused on writing about the other side of experience because it’s too easy to talk about the good side, that which everyone already knows.
Design is not just acquired through education and practice; it’s highly influenced by our upbringing. The work a designer produces is intrinsically influenced by the mindsets and characteristics that have been acquired through life experiences. We don’t develop empathy for our users by just documenting personas. Empathy comes from the same care that we have for the things and people around us in our daily lives, not just by documenting User Stories. It is our nature that helps us build that empathy and understanding of users, not a deliverable. Neither do we always create usable products by just doing usability testing. A designer’s personality highly influences the result of the product. It’s highly driven by our innate nature. While I mention a lot about mindsets and personality, I’d like to point out that I’m not in anyway suggesting to ignore the process. Process is important but not everything.
So… Is User Experience Design a transferable skill? Sure. It could be. Are human characteristics transferable?