Appropos of the DUX 2003 conference, I’ve found myself grappling with my relationship to the word “design.” It came to a head on the Tuesday following the conference, when I participated in a panel recapping what had happened. Before it began, I was chatting with co-panelist Hugh Dubberly, and mentioned that in the next iteration of the Adaptive Path website, we will not refer to our work as “user experience design,” and are in fact moving away from the word “design” altogether.
What’s wrong with “design”? Well, there’s nothing wrong with the practice, but plenty wrong with the word’s associations. Right now, particularly in the field of web user experience, the word “design”, without a modifier, means visual design. Adaptive Path doesn’t perform visual design services (though we love partnering with those who do). But, more importantly for us, “design” has been relegated to the world of tactics. “Design” is what happens after the strategy has been settled, the specifications determined, the raison d’etre developed.
This is unfortunate. Design, with a capital D, ought to stretch beyond tactics, and into strategy. Design methods are brilliantly suited to figuring out WHAT to make, not just HOW to make it. I find Herbert Simon’s definition apt: “Everyone designs who devise courses of action
aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. The intellectual activity that produces material artifacts is no different fundamentally from the one that prescribes remedies for a sick patient or the one that devises a new sales plan for a company or a social welfare policy for a state.”
However, I see no need to be a champion for the cause of “design.” When we hired a consultant to help us reposition our marketing, she had two concerns — the phrase “user experience” and the word “design.” The former concerned her because it’s jargon-y, requires definition, and often gets confused with user interface. The latter because she sees the word design in our marketplace being used by firms that don’t do what we do, and that we do what they don’t do. While we’re willing to fight the “user experience” fight, because we feel we can help define it, fighting the “design” fight simply doesn’t interest us.
Again, not that we don’t do design. Information architecture and interaction design are valuable kinds of design. Even the strategies we craft could be considered ‘design’. But, I don’t think we’re wedded to the term ‘design.’ None of us went to design school. We don’t feel the need to be associated with the word. In fact, we find that potential clients see “design” as a commodity, somewhat interchangeable, and not understanding its true value, often go with the less expensive option.
(For what it’s worth, I think pretty much the exact same thing about “usability” as I do “design” — it’s tactical, and quite possibly, even *more* of a commodity. But writing about the term ‘usability’ would have to be the subject of a whole other post.)