Provocative statement: The entire “field” of user experience emerged for one reason — to accommodate, and overcome, poor (or non-existent) product management practices.
Product management’s responsibility is to identify opportunities in the market, specify new offerings, and see these through development and distribution. Originally, product management was seen as a business function, and MBA’s were placed in that role. As such, it was about sweating the market, assessing opportunities, crafting business plans, establishing requirements, and the like.
In Silicon Valley, most notably at Google (where Larry felt it inappropriate for non-engineers to tell engineers what to do), a more technically oriented product manager emerged, essentially a flavor of engineering management but with some business savvy.
The rise of software, and particularly networked software, lead to products of immense complexity. It was in these environments that some designers realized that a significant perspective was being neglected–drawing from customer empathy. Designers, who are typically the most empathetic folks in a product organization, knew that many of the requirements they’d been given were foolhardy–that no one would use the thing. So, they pushed back, incorporating first usability and then up-front user research methods, and developing systems-level design practices around architecture diagrams, interaction flows, wireframes, and the like.
This work was called “user experience,” a term originally coined by Donald Norman to acknowledge that the totality of a user’s experience should be intentionally addressed.
The problem is, Don should have never had to say something so obvious. It was due to the shortcomings of the MBA and computer science mindset that product management had not yet considered this.
So, the field of user experience emerges, typically within design teams, in order to fill this gap. It makes for an awkward organizational fit, because, really, product managers should be the ones driving these efforts, as they are best suited to weigh these inputs alongside the business and technical concerns.
The dissolution of “UX Design”
User experience is an emergent property of an entire organization, not just one group. When user experience is so closely associated with design, it allows non-designers to feel like user experience isn’t their responsibility. This association also sets up designers to fail, because they are given a charter they cannot deliver on.
There is another issue around the job title, and career path, of “UX Design.” The use of the term is so broad as to be meaningless. Instead, let’s unbundle the components of what people think of as UX Design and place them where they make more sense.
Much (most?) of what people mean when they say UX Design is around the structural and interface designs of complex, software-enabled systems. And we already have a name for that: interaction design.
There are strategic aspects of UX Design — user research-informed product strategy, using design and storytelling to help figure out what we should do. We also have a name for this: product management. As in, product managers need to consider this empathy-driven understanding with equal weight to the business and technical concerns.
Do not interpret this as me suggesting designers should not be included in product management — far from it. Design is a key input, and oftentimes, driver of product management. In fact, I am seeing more and more senior “UX Designers” reframing themselves as product managers, because it better explains what they’re actually doing. This is progress.
“User experience design” served a purpose when it was necessary to shine a light on a glaring gap in the ways we were working. That gap has largely been addressed, and I see no reason not to retire that term.