There is no such thing as UX Design

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.

A key challenge in delivering great user experiences

In my last post, I suggested that ,ost of us work in markets where products and services have matured out of “technology” and “features” and into “experience”, and so design should be driving the conversation, because delivering on experience is what design does best. Instead, we find design hamstrung into organization models that are still “features”-driven.

The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realized that there is a potentially intractable issue “experience design” faces. When you study how people behave, and propose design interventions to support better experiences, you’re engaging in a holistic and continuous activity. Human experience is continuous. It flows seamlessly.

However, in order to deliver products and services to people, we must break up this continuous experience into discrete pieces that are achievable by teams. So, to use the example from the last post, the Shopping Experience becomes a series of features (Search, Browse, Product Page, Checkout, Gifting, etc.) Working in producible chunks inevitably means losing the holism that defines human experience, and the thing I struggle with is figuring out how to manage this liminal shift so that what we deliver doesn’t become defined by the features (and the teams dedicated to the features), and it maintains its more subtle, nuanced, integrated qualities.

How could we/should we reorganize development teams and processes to achieve this experiential holism?

STEM into STEAM into STREAM

STEM is the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, and is used when talking about what we need Our Young People to study in order for the United States to Stay Competitive in the world.

John Maeda, formerly president of RISD and now a design partner at KPCB, popularized the idea of turning STEM into STEAM — adding Arts (and design), because it’s clear that inventions that turn into innovations are often not just driven by the hard sciences.

However, this strikes me as insufficient. Because in my experience, the greatest source of insights for inspiring meaningful product and service creation comes not from the hard sciences, but from the social sciences. To turn STEM into STEAM into STREAM, where R stands for Research on people, their behaviors and contexts.

Software, hardware, purpose, and agency–first thoughts from Solid

Rodney Brooks gave the first presentation at Solid Conference, talking about the integration of software and hardware in robotics. For decades, industrial robots were programmatically simple, performing the same action over and over again–not all that distinct from the machines that preceded them.

Brooks, though, is interested in how software allows hardware to change it’s behavior, to become more effective, and, in a way, smarter. He showed the robot Baxter, demonstrating how it picks up items to pack them. On Baxter’s second pass, Brooks takes the object from Baxter midway in his movement. An older robot would continue to go through the packing motion. Baxter, however, realizes that the object is missing, and halts it’s motion to instead go get the next object.

Brooks commented how many of his customers find this disturbing–they expect the machine to behave like a machine. However, Baxter is now exerting something like agency.

This is challenging for people because we assume that anything reacting with agency is alive. Machines are things we use for a purpose, typically a singular purpose. However, if software allows that machine to appear smart, to behave in unpredictable but savvy ways, people no longer perceive it as just a machine. Even if it doesn’t look like a person or animal, we still treat them as alive (think about how people typically name their Roombas.)

The challenge for design is to appropriately set expectations. I wrote an earlier post about the role of purpose in product design–people use an app to fulfill a purpose, and if that app changes (usually to add purposes) people often reject that change. As we start designing for wearables (smart watches, glasses, clothes, etc) and robots, we have to recognize that people bring a preconception of purpose stability–I use a watch to track time; I wear glasses to improve eyesight. Making these things smart crosses a cognitive chasm, where the person no longer perceives it as an object, but now a living thing.

Why I’m Grateful to Massimo Vignelli

News spread over the past day that legendary graphic designer Massimo Vignelli is terminally ill at his home in New York City. There will be a lot said about his contributions to design, notably the New York City Subway Graphic Language, American Airlines’ long standing logo, even stackable dinnerware.

I first came to appreciate Vignelli through my own little discovery. Roadtripping with my wife (then girlfriend) across the American Southwest, we visited many National Parks. And for every park, we got a beautiful brochure. And I was struck these thoughtfully designed objects, as we don’t tend to think of the Feds and good design. So much so that I blogged about it and through my research found out that Vignelli developed the “Unigrid” system that kept all these different brochures feeling like they’re part of the same family, though with enough flexibility so that each was quite distinct.

We should cherish good design when we find it, and laud those who help bring it into being. So, thank you, Signor Vignelli.

 

Product strategy and design through the lens of purpose

Foursquare’s announcement that it’s “splitting” it’s app into two, one focused on local discovery, the other on social connections, resonates with thoughts I’ve been having on the role purpose plays in product design.
I first grappled with purpose almost ten years ago, when I interrogated the concept of document genres. Examples of document genres are textbooks, maps, guidebook, press release, menu, manual. People have a purpose in mind when consulting a map, reading a textbook, browsing a menu, referring to a manual, and these genres have evolved a set of physical traits (maps are big and fold up), information layout traits (textbooks have detailed tables of contents), and content traits in response to purpose.

Physical products have also evolved in similar ways. They have a job to perform, and their shape and ‘interface’ have evolved to serve that purpose. Just look in a toolbox or a kitchen drawer and that becomes evident.
Digital forms present a challenge, because these documents now reside within the same physical form. It requires writers and designers to be more explicit about the purpose to be served, because a keyboard and screen don’t provide the cues that physical documents do. And it’s those cues that our brain uses to predict utility — we’ve learned how to use maps, books, manuals through exposure, and we use new documents of the same genre, we can rely on our past experience. Digital documents require explicit visual cues and interfaces.
When I first explored this space, mobile was not a serious context. Most phones were feature phones, and ‘smart phones’ were Treos and Blackberrys.

In a post-IPhone world, where our devices are literally tabula rasas that are meant to wholly become the app that is launched, I find once again that purpose can be a helpful lens.

And that’s where Foursquare’s decision is interesting. I suspect that when people engage with an app, it is for a purpose. Emphasis on ‘a’. So folks would open Foursquare with that one purpose in mind, even though the app could deliver on two–local discovery and social connection. And given what we know about how people habituate to content genres and physical objects, they likely habituate to apps in a similar way–whatever was the purpose that was first served is the purpose people stick with. And as Foursquare developed an awesome local discovery capability, people who originally came in for the social aspect, or to learn about a place only after they checked in, didn’t realize that Foursquare could introduce them to new places. (We saw this at Groupon. Most folks continue to use the service in a lightweight browse and serendipity mode, though there are search and filtering capabilities that reward folks with something specific in mind.)

Foursquare’s bet to remake the app called ‘Foursquare’ into a direct competitor to Yelp, and to move the capabilities of ‘classic Foursquare’ to a new secondary app is a reflection of how a product design needs to be very clear about the purpose (SINGULAR) it serves.

And a potential takeaway is to recognize there are ‘app genres’ that are emerging to address users’ purposes. Local discovery would be a genre. Social connection would be a genre. News aggregator would be a genre. And if your trying to serve multiple purposes (Facebook Paper is both your social connection AND a news aggregator!) you introduce confusion, because people’s expectations, rooted in their genre experiences, are being confounded.

Questioning assumptions in a world with no pants

I just finished Scott Berkun’s The Year Without Pants, combination memoir and situational analysis of his year-plus working at Automattic, the company behind WordPress. It triggered a series of thoughts that I plan to write. This is the first.

Groupon, where I recently worked, has been labelled the fastest-growing company in history. In less than four years, it had 12,000 employees in 48 countries world wide. To manage that hyperinflation, the company adopted an hierarchical bureaucratic organizational model. For many, if not most, companies, such a model is seen as the default, as just how companies work.

However, corporate bureaucratic hierarchies were developed with specific purposes in mind, mostly around the development of railroads and mass manufacture. As such, they are products of 19th century Industrial Age contexts.

From my vantage point, the most important thing Matt Mullenweg and his team have done is question assumptions about not only how we work, but how we organize to do that work. And that begins with the recognition that the 21st century Connected Age is a much different context.

Automattic was born out of an open source project (WordPress) that had contributors worldwide. This lead to the company being a wholly remote/distributed organization. Most people work from home, and people work from all over the world.

However, remote work isn’t interesting in and of itself. You could be sitting in your pajamas, working from home, but still operate in a bureaucratic hierarchy with explicit guidelines about how to do your work.

At Automattic, remote work is the outcome of something even more revolutionary, which is the remarkable degree of autonomy granted team members. They choose not only where, but when and how they work. They figure out what they should work on. They set their own timelines.

Now, it’s not wholly emergent — Matt is still In Charge, and has authority to make certain things happen. But he seems to operate more as a benevolent dictator than a hard-charging CEO. And as the company grew, so did the realization they needed some organizational structure, so employees were grouped into a series of teams, each with a team leader.

It’s important to recognize, though, that even this structure emerged. It was not a top-down mandate, but a group realization. Most organizations don’t think hard their structure — they default to what has become a conventional assumption. What’s so liberating about Automattic is that, at every step of it’s evolution, it has been thoughtfully intentional about how the organization operates, recognizing that the company warrants the same type of design that their products do.

What’s also liberating is that such autonomy demonstrates a remarkable degree of trust in employees to do the right thing. Because, as I’ve recently learned, companies wield bureaucracy expressly because they do not trust their employees. Bureaucracy is seen as a safeguard to ensure nothing bad happens. But too often it simply leads to nothing happening at all.

(As I was drafting this, Scott made freely available Chapter 4, “Culture Always Wins”, which I believe to be the single most important chapter in the book. So go read it!)

Information architecture reborn

The IA Summit has just finished. What I’m about to write might be ironic given my previous post. But what I’m walking away feeling is that information architecture is reborn.

7 years ago, I wrote how IA was not dead, but sleeping. There was a period in the field’s history that felt stagnant and disappointing. And I think it’s related to that last post, because IA allowed itself to fall under the “user experience” umbrella, and the Summit started to feel like any UX conference warmed over.

But starting last year, and coming on strong this year, there has been a new energy, born of an exchange of ideas that really only can be called “information architecture”. In particular, Track B this year was what I’ve been looking for from this event – deep, penetrating, talks that didn’t talk down to the audience, that interrogated the role, the practice, the meaning, and the relevance of information architecture. What the community is recognizing is there’s no need to make excuses, and in fact, the practice of information architecture is increasingly crucial and essential in addressing challenges we face as people, community, and society.

I look forward to seeing you in Minneapolis next year.

User experience has stunted information architecture

I came up through UX practice as an information architect and interaction designer. I was an avid reader of Peter and Lou’s “Web Architect” column, spoke at the first IA Summit, and was an early proponent of facets and tags in the broader UX community.

The UX community was essential for casting light on the importance of information architecture. It made clear how the organization, structure, relationships, and semantics around and in our information are key to delivering a successful user experience. There was a period, around 1999-2005 or so, where information architecture was a vibrant, dynamic, evolving field.

But there are only so many talks to give on facets, tags, and the like. And, over time, it feels like IA has been swallowed by UX (and seen in strange competition with interaction design).

IA had become less and less of my practice as Adaptive Path shifted towards strategic design consulting. And so I didn’t think about it too much.

Then I went in house. In particular, I joined Groupon. A month or so into the job, I became part of discussions to change evolve our site navigation. This excited me — I would get to flex some of those old analytical muscles that had atrophied over time.

As I dug into it, though, I felt a little like I was peeling an onion. Every layer presented new layers beneath. And I quickly left the realm of site navigation, and found myself engaging in conversations that went deep to the core of Groupon’s operations. Because, it turned out, our taxonomy influences everything we do — the deals we strive to get, the operations of our sales force, the presentation of our offers across devices and channels, heck, it even determines where some people sit.

And I realized this was bigger than I could tackle at the time, because I had (and still have) a design department to run.

And it also made me realize that IA had been stunted by its relationship with user experience. Because information architecture, when approached with the depth and rigor that is warranted, is a deeply seated operational and organizational function. The UX component of information architecture, how information is represented to end users, is important, but truly a tip of the iceberg. (And not just Peter Morville’s iceberg.) But in order to IA to have the impact it could (and should), IA needs to free itself from being seen under the umbrella of UX, and instead pursued as a distinct, and difficult, practice that’s not just about taxonomies and semantics, but the organizational, operational, and technological change to realize that.

Programming Conferences

This morning on Twitter, a conversation flared up around IA Summit 2014, because they received over 400 submissions for 50 spots, which means many many people, even those whose sessions were reviewed highly, were rejected. (I was rejected as well, but I half-assed my proposal.)

FOR STARTERS, let me say nothing but praise and thanks to Aaron Irizarry, Johanna Kollmann, and Abby Covert, the IA Summit chairs. They are friends and colleagues, and I know they are working tirelessly to do the best for the IA and UX communities.

OK, back to the conversation at hand. Jared Spool raised his concerns that with so many submissions for so few spots, there’s a lot of “wasted effort.” I share that concern (though I recognize my lackadaisical effort was not wasted), because a lot of people, and thus good people, likely feel burned by the work they put into a submission, and would be less inclined to submit in later years. So while this year’s summit benefits from being able to draw from such contribution, how will later summits fare?

Professional associations have it kind of tough. When I was at Adaptive Path, I programmed MX and UX Week events, all based on what I wanted to see (and suggestions from colleagues). Professional associations have a responsibility to their membership, and tend towards the “call for papers/proposals” process. The benefit of this is that you can get interesting new voices and ideas, and you give the membership a voice it might not otherwise have. The drawback is that your beholden to submissions, and it can make it hard to craft a compelling event.

Which events are better, invited/curated or submitted? They both can work, though, given that I’ve curated, I lean towards that style. I like it when there’s an editorial point of view that connects the presentations.

However, I’ve had transformative experiences at the IA Summit, and as a conference organizer, always sought out rising stars there. There’s a randomness/unexpectedness that often delivers crap, but can yield amazing stuff.

The IA Summit faces a challenge in terms of not discouraging great submissions because potential contributors feel the effort isn’t worth the likely rejection. One solution is to raise the bar on what it takes to submit, to weed out those (like me, this time around) who are half-assing it, and cluttering things up. Another might be to more aggressively ‘track’ submissions into categories, to make sure there’s a good spread of topics (and make clear to folks that we don’t need yet another submission on agile/lean UX).

Separately, I heard complaints about panels. There are always complaints about panels. Done wrong, panels are a lazy way to fill a conference slot. And many panels suck, because it’s simply 4-5 short presentations. However, I still have vivid memories of one of the IA Summit’s best sessions, a panel in 2003 on “Wayfinding and Navigation in digital spaces” which was legitimately mind-expanding. So, don’t count panels out. Just structure them so they’re stimulating.