Centerline Sessions: The State of User Experience (UX)
Jul 31, 2012
An interview with Cennydd Bowles of Twitter and Kate Williamson of Centerline.
Within any relatively young area of study, the boundaries, patterns and development of that field are frequent discussion topics. These questions have been simmering within the UX community for years, and its members are figuring out the answers with discussions that include a range of opinions.
I had the chance to talk to Cennydd Bowles (pronounced KEN-ith) (Digital Product Designer at Twitter) and our own Kate Williamson (UX Designer/Creative Strategist) and ask them a few questions about the current state of user experience and its future direction. (You can learn more about Cennydd and Kate at the end of the post.)
Why do you think there’s currently such a struggle in the UX community to define our processes and titles?
Cennydd Bowles: Any community that grapples with abstract nouns is likely to stumble over language. Our raw materials — bytes, information, interactions, experience — are all intangible. It’s difficult to agree on their constitution. Our practitioners are also an intelligent, analytically-minded sort, meaning some semantic sparring is inevitable. The quest for precision is valuable, but I think that outputs define our work better than words can.
Kate Williamson: It’s true: UX practitioners are analytically-driven creative people. We seek precision in solutions and value clear, articulate communication of ideas. So it makes sense that we would seek the same precision in trying to explain our roles to ourselves and others.
In addition, UX is the sum of many factors and a holistic practice. People don’t buy products; they buy experiences. Those experiences comprise ambiguous concepts like pleasure, fulfillment, perception, and participation. When the pieces of what we create are so hard to define, it’s even more difficult to define how we shape them, and what we call that practice.
Cennydd, you’ve said before that you don’t wireframe much. Is there a time when wireframing does provide a value that a comp, sketch or prototype can’t provide? How much importance should be placed on the actual method that a UX professional or designer chooses as a tactic to think through problems?
CB: Personally, I find the wireframe the world of all worlds; a bit too bulky, too rough, too static. It’s no longer a common tool in my repertoire. But the second question is pivotal. A skilled craftsman whittles her own tools, refining them to her exact needs. If she can achieve great results with wireframes, more power to her. The output trumps the method – but remember here that the output is the product as launched, not an internal design document.
KW: Right. It’s the ability of a design document to communicate an idea that matters, not the aesthetics of the document itself. That being said, writers are often reminded that their audience includes editors and publishers, not just readers. Similarly, our audience includes other team members, stakeholders and clients. We need their buy-in and ownership for the best possible outcome. The best tool is the one that communicates requirements, but at the same time provides a foundation for improvement through collaboration with these extended members of our audience. Whatever method helps you share, collaborate and communicate with your team within your specific context and dynamics is a valuable tool.
In the fields of UX and digital design, it’s valuable to have knowledge in a wide range of areas (cognitive science, visual design, human factors, etc.). Where is the line between broadening your expertise and generalizing your skill set too much?
KW: While you should never quit nurturing your core area of study, I think there’s always value in broadening your understanding of a topic by experimenting with applying theories from other areas. That’s how new fields of study are created and new insights are gained. It’s easy to concentrate on the familiar, but stepping outside of that area and making new connections is what grows expertise. Nothing is ever mastered, and we are always learning through each new experience.
CB: At the risk of a designerly cop out, it depends. The demands of your team, budget, project makeup, and so on will suggest the best profile. Beyond that, there is a natural pulse to these things. The trend throughout the technology industry today is toward centralisation and consolidation; before long, the tide will drift out again. The best advice I can give is to head to the territory that will teach you the most. Be aware of your skills and weaknesses. If you feel you can learn more by diving deeper into a subject, do so. But if you’re getting diminishing returns from specialisation, going broader may make you a stronger designer.
Now that UX professionals are receiving corporate recognition as a valuable part of in-house design teams, what new goals should the UX community set our sights on? How can we utilize this new-found recognition to increase our greater impact?
CB: The question I grapple most with is how we scale our work. Making technology better one app at a time is really just treading water at this point. Positive example will always be instructive, but we must find other ways to share the virus of human-centricity. That requires education: case studies, writing, speaking. It also means leadership: not just within design departments, but within entire companies, or even governments. I agree with Jesse James Garrett’s prediction that a UX designer who rises to the role of CEO will be a force to be reckoned with. Finally, scale demands reach – seeking out products and services that affect humanity as a whole, not just an early-adopter minority.
KW: Quite simply, we have to challenge the way things have always been, both in our outputs and the way we produce them. Luke Williams calls this “disruptive thinking”: challenging assumptions in order to cause a turning point in the way we think. Breaking down established frameworks and looking beyond complacency for new advancements and discoveries in our field is how we create better experiences on a larger scale and, as Cennydd mentioned, in entire systems.
Perhaps the aforementioned struggle to define our processes and job titles is a misguided attempt to push through stasis in our own field. But what we need, rather than labels, is to refocus that energy on product over process, and to create a more active UX community where members can cultivate ideas and encourage one another to be leaders. Only then will we be able to successfully bring UX design principles to public service.
Our drive to create better experiences and provoke certain behaviors and emotions should reach past the web to offline experiences to create greater holistic impact. That could mean improving doctor-patient communication in hospitals to shorten patient recovery time, improving the security checkpoint experience of airline passengers, or defining and applying confidence-building design values to improve citizen-government relationships.
The point is to concern ourselves with the greater picture of all experiences – whether that point of interaction is person-to-person, person-to-system or person-to-device.
About Cennydd Bowles in his own words: I’m a digital product designer working for Twitter in London. I do some public speaking, and wrote a book called Undercover User Experience Design. My second book Designing the Wider Web is in the works. The name? Yes, it’s Welsh. Pronounce it KEN-ith, with a hard th. It rhymes with ‘with’. Follow Cennydd on Twitter.
About Kate Williamson in her own words: Structured information makes me happy. So does evoking emotion and behavior through design. I aim to use these personal interests for good in an effort to make the complicated, simple; the hard, easy; and the confusing, blissfully understandable. Follow Kate on Twitter.