Maybe we’re doing this User Experience thing all wrong
My crisis of faith as User Experience professional.
TLDR: User Experience folks think we can make everything better. We are hampered by our own training and our own environment; we are thinking too small. If we’re going to talk the talk, we can get much better at walking the walk. We might work with some of the biggest brands, but we can learn from independent and small businesses how to create innovative user experiences — at every scale.
After ten years in practice and two graduate degrees, I’m realizing that we User Experience professionals don’t know as much as we think we do. We talk up user advocacy but can’t seem to take our own advice. UX, at least how we do it now, is limited in its capacity to fix what’s broken in technology, design, and business.
The problem? We have been trying to apply design principles within our siloed design and development bubbles while working in a bigger, disconnected system. I’ve spent tens of thousands of hours in organizations ranging from museums to scrappy startups to big design agencies to huge corporations. In conference rooms, with sticky notes, with journey maps, in user interviews, in testing sessions and analyzing data. I’ve been called “Information Architect”,“User Researcher”, “UX researcher”, “UX designer” , “Product designer”, and simply “Consultant”. (I still get referred to as “the UX girl” with shocking regularity, but I choose to take this as a compliment to my skincare regimen.)
No matter the context or my role, the same problematic pattern emerges: we are blind to our own powerlessness when working as a single member of a larger team or system. It keeps us from thoughtfully applying design principles and engaging in effective user advocacy. As Facebook VP of Product Margaret Gould Stewart notes, “creating great user experiences is everyone’s job”.
Design thinking can radically improve the way that teams collaborate and deliver, but it only works when it’s part of an ongoing process as part of a larger strategy, not just a discrete activity assigned to a particular project. My hypothesis is that the only real way to make a real commitment to user advocacy is to do so throughout the development and business cycles in an organization. From the ground up.
Who here has worked on a UX team that was toxic, ineffective, or some other combination of an all-around bad experience for everyone involved? I’ll raise my hand first. Who has worked endlessly on improving the User Experience of products they have little faith in, or for organizations that were looking for easy solutions to big, embedded problems that we were all too willing to sell? I’ll raise my hand again.
Companies can no longer afford to ignore their own culture and the human experience and still create products for the human experience.
User Experience is more than just designing products — it’s an approach to solving business problems. We need to train business leaders, not just UX professionals, to apply design thinking and UX skills to their workplace.To see how well this ground-up approach can work, we needn’t look further than our own backyard.
What can you learn about the value of craftsmanship and service design at Danner Boots? Quite a bit, I’d wager.
As a Portlander, I joke that our major export is brands. From what I’ve witnessed, our local independent businesses practice better design thinking than many organizations employing an army of UX professionals.
If I want to see a business that puts people at its center in order to develop thoughtful product and service design, all I need to do is go on a coffee run. My favorite coffee shops: Case Study, Heart, Stumptown — each have super-developed and thoughtful experiences for the end user to accompany excellent products. What’s more, they demonstrate real commitment to doing it on a sustainable scale. Even my local nail salon has created an immersive and interactive craft experience that seems to have totally disrupted its industry.
Portland excels at business based around excellent product and excellent service. Technology always feels like an afterthought. Whether it’s a classic pair of Air Maxes, some Danner boots, some Stumptown Hairbender espresso, or let’s be honest, some Oregon-grown pinot noir (or recreational cannabis), there are folks here who have figured it out, who are walking the walk without so loudly talking the talk.
These folks seem to know something about delivering excellent product and delightful service by some true craftsmen and craftswomen, all the way down the supply chain. These businesses are built around people, products, and communities. Digital tools and technology are seemingly a last step.
Frustrated as I am by organizations shooting themselves in the foot and as much as much as I’d like to fantasize about opening my own gluten-free panaderia or super-stylish bike shop, User Experience remains my trade. I may be having a UX crisis of faith, but I’m not giving up just yet. Instead, I’ve vowed to learn as much as I can, and design a solution built around people.
Just today, I ran into a startup founder who called out, “Hey, it’s the UX Lady!” (far preferable to “UX Girl”, I must admit). I’m constantly asked by designers and developers, “How do I learn more about UX?” Folks who are curious about the field ask me, “How do I get experience?” . My peers at mid-career want to keep learning new skills and get better at their jobs, and colleagues managing teams are struggling to help them grow and work better together.
I see an unmet need for better, practical UX training — for everyone, not just designers. So I’m working towards building a solution, using the iterative, participatory methods I’ve used in my years of client work. I’m launching UX Night School, my own independent Portland business, exploring design principles and values, developing new, engaging ways of building user experience and giving people the tools to change their workplaces and grow in their careers.
Join me. It’ll be fun, or at the very least, a real experience.