Reframing “UX Design”

I was asked to speak at UX Week 2012, and figured I’d turn my blog post “User experience is strategy, not design” into a talk, but a funny thing happened along the way. I realized that, yes, UX is design, but not design as we’ve been thinking of it. And by reframing “UX design” as a profession, we can set it up to uniquely address increasingly prevalent business needs.

Before tackling the profession, we need to agree on just what “UX design” is. I have not come across a better definition than Jesse’s, which he originally shared in 2009:

Experience design is the design of anything, independent of medium, or across media, with human experience as an explicit outcome, and human engagement as an explicit goal.

Jesse went on to define human engagement across four factors — perception, action, cognition, and emotion, and then showed how design contributes to this engagement:

Similarly, Dan Saffer attempted to diagram the scope of user experience design:

These both present very broad mandates. This is particularly vexing for those who see design as execution, as making stuff, Because how can anyone be expected to execute on all that? How can UX design as a profession address the enormity of what it encompasses?

And I think the issue is that we haven’t been able to see the forest for the trees. UX design isn’t all of those disciplines. UX design is not design-as-execution. UX design is what’s left.

What’s more, Jesse’s and Dan’s diagrams are overly design-oriented. User experience arises from the sum total of interactions with a organization’s products and services. If we take Jesse’s definition to heart, we need to recognize that just because UX emerged from software and grew on the web, that doesn’t mean it has to be digital. User experience is affected by business development, marketing, engineering, customer service, retail, as well as product and service design.

An analogous model for UX design

The challenge for the UX designer is to identify where, how, and at what level to engage in order to appropriately address this scope. Typical “UX design”– workflows and wireframes– is insufficient. It needs to embrace a much broader potential that drives outcomes through deep organizational engagement.

I propose that we think of UX design in a manner similar to film direction. To explain what I mean, look at this org chart from Walt Disney (I’ve zoomed in on the pertinent area).

A film director doesn’t “do” anything. All of the execution is carried out by specific craftspeople. The job of the director is to coordinate, to orchestrate these activities in order to deliver on a singular vision. The director likely came up through a specific craft (writing, acting, editing, cinematography), but through experience and vision, has come to lead across all these functions.

I propose that the profession of the UX Designer is analogous to the profession of the film director, coordinating across all those disciplines identified in the diagrams (and undoubtedly other activities).

(It’s worth calling out that Dan mentioned something similar in the post supporting his diagram, but he was somewhat dismissive about the role of the creative director, saying there wasn’t much to it, and that it was a temporary role.)

What this means is that UX Designer is not a workflows-and-wireframes role. It’s a leadership role (though not necessarily a management role). It is a systems role — UX brings humanity to systems design and engineering. UX is a fundamentally synthetic role, not just coordinating these distinct activities, but helping realize a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. And while a UX Designer uses design approaches, they are not for typical design outcomes.

So, what does this person do?

The UX Designer doesn’t sit in a chair and shout “action!” (Actually, neither does the director. That’s usually what an assistant director does.) In order to support the orchestration of organizational resources to deliver great experiences, there are a set of activities I see UX designers leading.

User Insights

At the heart of great user experience is a deep understanding of the user, and the UX Designer should lead the development of insights that will help a company deliver better experiences. I’m calling out “user insights” distinct from “user research” — not all user insights are gleaned from user research, nor should the UX Designer necessarily be the user research lead. If user research is being conducted, the UX Designer should make sure to understand it well enough to be able to understand and prioritize the insights which will subsequently drive the design and development work.

Ideation and Concept Generation

Driven by user insights and other sources of inspiration, the UX Designer leads the team in coming up with ideas and concepts to address user’s behaviors, motivations, and context. There are many ways this can happen — sketching, brainstorming, bodystorming, improv, prototyping. The UX Designer identifies the most productive approaches, and then, as ideas emerge, filters out the less effective ones, and helps refine and evolve the great ones.

Experience strategy and vision

Perhaps the single most important responsibility for the UX Designer is to develop a clear experience strategy, and craft a compelling vision. An experience strategy specifies how a product or service will be successful from the perspective of user experience. A common part of experience strategy are design principles that help drive decision making.

Essential to helping a team understand how to realize an experience strategy is the creation of an experience vision. An experience vision provides a ‘north star’ for the product development team, helping them understand where they’re heading, and inspiring them to get there. These often take the form of prototypes — my favorite experience vision is Deborah Adler’s masters thesis for a new kind of pill bottle, dubbed SafeRX, which lead directly to Target’s ClearRX. I’ve had some success with illustrated scenarios of future experiences (either hand-drawn, or photographed). “Concept videos” inevitably seem like overkill and are usually never worth it.

Experience planning

It’s not sufficient to simply have a vision. And it’s typically not feasible, nor desirable to hold out on launching something until the complete vision can be realized. A UX Designer develops a plan for how to get from a current state to this desired future. What are in V1, V2, V3 along the way to the promised V4? Brandon’s Cake Model of Product Strategy shows how experience planning differs from typical product planning, because of its insistence on something experientially desirable at each stage.

Team Facilitation

While a visionary and a leader, the UX Designer must be a strong facilitator as well. There’s no way one person is going to have all the best ideas, so it’s up to the UX Designer to get the best from a broad, cross-functional team. Facilitation is less a discrete activity than a responsibility throughout a project. There will be a lot of things activities to facilitate, including branding exercises, customer value proposition articulation, tangible futures, and ideation and concept generation.

Oversight and coordination

This is the ongoing making-it-real of the experience strategy and vision. The UX Designer engages throughout the entire process, and makes sure that the user experience is never being compromised. If circumstances arise that force changes, the UX Designer leads the discussion to make sure that the new solution still adheres to the overall strategy. The UX Designer must sweat every detail, and, yes, occasionally be a jerk about it. As Charles Eames said, “The details are not the details. They make the design.”

What does this all mean?

My call for making the UX profession a strategic, planning, and coordinating one is not original. Here’s how Donald Norman, who coined “user experience” as we now think of it, framed it in 1995:

We describe the role of the “User Experience Architect’s Office”, which works across the divisions, helping to harmonize the human interface and industrial design process across the divisions of Apple and ATG.

The need Don recognized 17 years ago not only still remains, but is far more acute. As we’ve shifted from a world of standalone products to one of connected services, the increased complexity only makes poorer experiences likelier to arise.

Most people calling themselves “UX Designers” are not. They are interaction designers and information architects. These are perfectly laudable practices in their own right, but if “UX Design” is going to contribute meaningfully in this connected world, it can no longer be bound up in the constituent disciplines from which it emerged, but instead must embrace a new mandate to ensure the delivery of great user experiences regardless of where those experiences take place.


User experience is strategy, not design

User experience, when addressed appropriately, is an holistic endeavor. The emerging conversation of “cross-channel user experience” is redundant, because if you’re weren’t thinking cross-channel (and cross-platform, cross-device, etc. etc.), you were doing “user experience” wrong.

As the holism of user experience becomes more broadly realized, something else becomes clear. Earlier this week, designer Jonathan Korman tweeted, in response to a conversation taking place at the Re:Design UX conference, “STILL having trouble defining the UX design profession.” I would argue that that is because there is no such thing as a UX design profession. User experience is a strategic framework, a mindset for approaching product and service challenges. In that regard, it is akin to Six Sigma or Total Quality Management.

It’s only once we recognize UX as “an integrative philosophy of management for continuously improving the quality of products and processes” (to borrow Wikipedia’s definition of Total Quality Management) that we appreciate it’s truly massive scale, and how limiting it is for UX to be solely associated with specific (and usually screen-based) design practices. It’s no wonder why at this year’s IA Summit, which was explicitly about “cross-channel user experience”, the primary emergent theme was how organizations need to break free of their industrial age, bureaucratic, and hierarchical ways, and embrace cross-functional means that align every employee’s work around the customer experience.

The practice of user experience is most successful when focused on strategy, vision, and planning, not design and execution. In other words, UX adds value by bringing design practices to strategic endeavors. This means generative and exploratory user research, ideation and concept generation, scenario writing and roadmap planning. The impact of those strategic endeavors will not be limited to product and service design, but should be felt across business development, corporate development, marketing, engineering, sales, and customer service.

With respect to design execution, user experience should serve to coordinate and orchestrate a range of design efforts, not just that which has historically been called “UX design” (wireframes, architecture diagrams, prototypes, screen design). This includes industrial design, retail and space design, marketing and collateral design, and more. I think a huge challenge for “UX designers” has been to square the design legacy of making with the new reality of planning and coordination, because many don’t feel legitimate if they are not building something tangible. It’s great to build something tangible, but that is no longer “user experience” — it’s just one of many activities that, in sum, fulfill on a user experience strategy.

$1 Billion is Ludicrous, So…

it suggests that there are things going on that we do not understand. It could be that Facebook is buying authenticity (which would be ironic), or it could be a rational calculation of value per user, but I suspect something else is going on. I have two theories.

1. The Instagram guys really didn’t want to sell.

They had made something because they loved it. They wanted to see where it would go. They wanted to make something meaningful. They didn’t want to join an internet giant, or they would have already. So Facebook kept upping and upping the price until they couldn’t, in good conscience, turn it down. Everyone has a price. Mine would be much less than that.

This was my initial thought, but then as I thought more about it, I came up with the second theory. This is not based on any evidence, besides some inkling into human nature.

2. Instagram was the object in a dick-swinging bidding war.

There are exactly four companies who would have gotten into this tussle: Facebook, Google, Apple, and Microsoft. Instagram had hit upon something that none of them had yet to master: the intersection of mobile, social, and photos. Facebook gets photos and social, but has a weak mobile experience. Google has Android, but Picasa and G+ have not gotten serious traction. Apple gets mobile and photos (look at what they’re investing in the camera of the iPhone), but get social about as well as Ted Kaczynski. Microsoft needs to get traction — Instagram on Windows Phone could help make that platform legit.

So you have 4 players, hoards of cash, and a company that is in this sweet spot where they could augment any of these players perfectly. And once they start sniffing around, well, then testosterone kicks in. Zuckerberg, Page, and Ballmer are not meek folks (I suspect Cook isn’t either, but he doesn’t have that kind of chest-beating presence). The initial logic of the business deal morphs into a matter of testicular fortitude. And, because the others are interested, the deal turns from being one about acquiring a potential asset, and becomes one of preventing the competition from acquiring that asset. And the bidding gets out of hand, until you get to the point where a company with 13 employees and a fat AWS account (or however their stuff is stored) is somehow offered $1 billion.

Anyway. A theory.

The thing that I fear most is a total misreading of the reasons behind Instagram’s success, and the inevitable launch of a thousand “mobile app” companies trying to get on Facebook’s radar. As others have pointed out, Instagram was great because it was built on passion and care for the product itself. It was not a calculating or mercenary play. But now we’ll see countless hours of creativity and productivity pissed away on folks pursuing “the next Instagram” in a sad mini-Gold Rush.

Seeking: Candidates for a Service Design Internship at Inflection

I am looking for a graduate student intern to conduct a service design internship at Inflection this summer. This person would help me uncover, craft, and articulate a broader service strategy for our offerings, tying together marketing, sales, business development, product design, and member services. You must be familiar with the tools and techniques of service design (customer journey maps, blueprints, etc. etc.)

If you are interested, please let me know in the comments. Thanks!

Oddly nostalgic: the passing of the printed Encyclopædia Britannica

For as long as I can remember, if I didn’t know something, I’d look it up. The age of the internet has turned me into a habitual Googler, but as a kid, it was books — most often the dictionary, occasionally the encyclopedia.

And that encyclopedia? It was the Britannica. I don’t remember exactly how old I was when we got it (12, I think, as we had this 1985 version), but it had a prominent place in our little home. Leather bound. Tiny type. And pages upon pages of facts.

Owning it was definitely an investment on our family’s part. Economically, we were lower-middle class (socio-economically, fairly solid middle class). We were not an acquisitive household, saving for my dad’s predilection for VCRs. But when it came to my education, my capability to learn, my access to knowledge, we did not spare expenses. We bought a set outright, which cost $1,249 at the time (which, according to this calculator is $2676.77 in today’s dollars).

Now, I’m typically not one to wring my hands at the death of the printed book. Long ago I wrote about the benefits of ebooks, and this was particularly true for reference works. So I surprised myself at being affected by the news that the new editions of The Encyclopædia Britannica will no longer be available in print form. Most books are transient things, read once, placed on a shelf, and largely forgotten. The Britannica, though, was a different thing altogether, and key to the experience was its gravity (both figurative and literal). It was a physical presence in our house. Heck, it probably weighed more than my mom.

There’s something to the tangibility of information that allows you to grasp its scope. Clearly, what we now have access to at our fingertips is far greater, and I will never suggest “things were better then,” but I do think what we’re missing, and what my children will definitely miss, is a sense of the real scale of knowledge. Our computers and screens have rendered this information as weightless and abstract, and I wonder if this literal lack of gravity will lead to a sense of a figurative lack of (informational) gravity.

Trend: designers moving from agency/consultancy to in-house

Let me begin by saying how excited I am to have Todd Zaki Warfel join our team at Inflection. I’ve known Todd for a number of years, and have respected his passion, commitment, and sharing within the UX community, and know that he’s going to be a tremendous asset in our efforts moving forward.

I’m also intrigued because Todd’s move seems to be part of a larger trend I’m witnessing, and, obviously, taking part in: designers (and particularly design leaders) moving away from the agency/consulting world and heading in-house. I don’t have a huge sample size, but it’s hard to ignore when you see folks like Andrew Crow and David Cronin go to GE, or Bill DeRouchey join Simple, or former APers such as Leah Buley, Ryan Freitas, Ljuba Milkovic, off the top of my head. And that doesn’t take into account the other people who have approached me since my move and told me of their similar plans, yet to be executed.

I suspect that all these folks realized the same thing I did (and most of them did so long before me): in-house is the frontier of design and user experience. And the typical reasons why people worked at consultancies (variety of projects, working with the best talent) no longer holds true. The design teams at many organizations rival and excel what you typically find in an agency, and thanks to the fracturing of the device landscape and the growing appreciation of the need to address a broader customer experience, in-house designers don’t find themselves just spinning wheels, but working across multiple platforms and challenges.

Interesting times!

Top Chef: Season 9, Episode 14: Mentors

…And the beat goes on…

If you watched the last Last Chance Kitchen, the edit lead you to believe that Grayson was the winner, which is why it was utterly unsurprising to see Beverly return at the start of the episode. The Magical Elves seem to have a love of ham handed misdirection.

The quickfire was disappointingly insipid, even more so because it conferred the opportunity for immunity and a guaranteed spot in the Final Four. The chefs that second-guess Sarah’s decision to not take the car are only fooling themselves. At every stage of the game, the priority is to advance. Period. Plus, she got to have a relaxed day and decent night’s sleep, which at this stage of the competition is remarkably valuable.

I loved when the mentors walked in and the cooks last their collective shit (well, except for Edward.) It was one of the most honest displays of emotion I’ve seen on television, and Paul’s inability to contain himself had >me choking up while I was on the elliptical trainer, which makes staying in rhythm hard. Even for all the editing trickery that goes on with the show, the authenticness of its participants means that Top Chef taps into real human emotion unlike anything else out there.

There’s not one fan of the show who didn’t know that Edward was going down the moment he bought the smoked oysters.

Given all the grief she’s received, Beverly’s success makes for Good TV.

Paul continues to operate on a plane utterly separate from the rest of the competition. Gail’s blog post points out that the TV edit underplays the quality of Paul’s dish — she says it’s the only truly memorable plate she’d had all season, and among the tops in all seasons.

If he doesn’t win it all, it would be a huge surprise.

Asymco’s “Hollywood by the Numbers” – Industrial Sclerosis

Growing up a math nerd in Los Angeles, I was preternaturally drawn to Hollywood metrics. My dad would bring home Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, and I would comb over the latest box office numbers and television ratings.

So it was that I was compelled to read Asymco’s lengthy exegesis on Hollywood box office data over the last 35 years.

Of all the charts and graphs shown, I found this the most explicative:
Click for full size.

It shows that the type 5 studios have pretty much remained the same, and that their proportion of overall box office has held steady, too.

I can’t think of a single other industry where this would be true.

It demonstrates just how… hardened the film industry is, and how unreceptive to innovation and new thinking. This graph is a depiction of the industry’s sclerosis. I suspect that this graph is made possible by the overwhelming favoritism our government has shown the film industry (particularly in the extending of copyright), which has created an unfair advantage for incumbents, and made it nearly impossible for upstarts to get a foothold. It’s also why Hollywood throws so much weight behind suffocating legislation such as SOPA and PIPA — if you’re industry has no new ideas, then lobby to protect the old ways for as long as possible.