In a recent post where I argued that the biggest challenge the field faces is understanding how companies can sustainably and repeatedly deliver great experiences, a commenter wrote Bryan Zmijewski from Zurb commented, “UX Design doesn’t exist and designers have only tried to reinterpreted what great product designers, design thinkers and design managers having been doing for many decades before the web ever came along. The only things that have matured are the designers themselves.”
My initial thought upon reading this comment was, “Bullshit.” But upon further thinking, I realized he’s partly right. When you’re designing for user experience, you’re designing toward a desired outcome, the user’s experience, not a thing. If this is true, then user experience design would be the only form of design not defined by the medium, technology, or artifacts of its design, and that’s weird. And so I’m beginning to believe “UX design” doesn’t exist, really.
The label “User experience design” emerged in order to combat the small-mindedness of design for technology that was prevalent in the early 90s. During the technological boom of the last 20 years, with the emergence of the Web, prevalence of computers in all aspects of our lives, and the increasing complexity of the things we are building, “user experience” has been a helpful term in that it continually reminded us to think beyond whatever narrow thing we’re considering at the time, and to consider the entire user’s experience.
And now, in 2012, with Apple, Inc. having the largest market capitalization of any company in the world, and an endless stream of CEOs and pundits talking about the importance of user experience, I suspect the phrase “user experience design” is no longer necessary, and could even be harmful. Harmful because it suggests that the only folks who need to worry about user experience are the designers, when in fact companies need to treat user experience no different than they treat profitability, or corporate culture, or innovation, or anything else that’s essential for it’s ongoing success. The companies that succeed best in delivering great experience are those that have it as an organization-wide mindset.
(Why is the comment only partly right? Because UX design was not simply a matter of reinterpreting that great designers have done in the past. It has been an ongoing attempt to grapple with the newfound complexity of the subjects of design, a complexity that our prior tools and methods were simply not up to the task of addressing. And he’s wrong for using the phrase “design thinkers”–if “UX design” doesn’t exist, than “design thinkers” most certainly do not.)