This is about my journey from me being an Information Architect to UX Designer to Product Designer, and what I think about the current state of our industry.
Over 10 years ago I woke up one day and I decided to change my job title from Information Architect to User Experience Designer. I remember many Usability Specialists, Information Architects, Interface Designers, and Interaction Designers were telling me it is a fad back then. The term is imprecise, it’s bullshit-y, can experience even be designed?
And then, last year, I woke up one day and I decided to change my job title from User Experience Designer to Product Designer. And some UX Designers are telling me it’s a fad, and there is no real difference between User Experience Design and Product Design.
But to me they are different. And importantly: to me this new title is just more humble and true. And I think this is the thing that User Experience Designers need the most right know: to be more humble.
I’m not suggesting you should change your title as me. Frankly, you better not do it. I don’t care, really. But I’m here to tell you my reasons, and how I see the current state of our industry.
On the surface level it’s the most boring subject in the world: titles, just beating a dead horse, but as designers, we always love to discuss it, don’t we? But maybe it’s a little bit deeper.
It started with our need to be more important
I always loved the title that Alan Cooper was proposing: Interaction Designer. I think it’s still brilliant at capturing the essence of the job. But it seemed too narrow 10 years ago. Digital designers wanted to grow more and more, and UX Design seemed like a wider responsibility.
And it caught on. Today UX is immensely popular. Everyone is using this acronym, but the problem is everyone understands it differently. After all these years it’s still a very fuzzy concept.
In an interview with Peter Merholz, Don Norman said the following about creating the term UX:
“I invented the term because I thought human interface and usability were too narrow. I wanted to cover all aspects of the person’s experience with the system including industrial design graphics, the interface, the physical interaction and the manual. Since then the term has spread widely, so much so that it is starting to lose its meaning.”
It lost its meaning so much now, that Mr. Alan Cooper is thinking that there is no such thing as UX Design…
How the UX Designers see themselves and what they really do?
In our effort to define the scope of our jobs as wide as possible, we have pumped the balloon of UX so much, that it’s in danger of breaking. UX is now “orchestrating experiences across different touchpoints”, organizational transformation, strategy, innovation, marketing, designing everything from apps to ads, services, devices, places, events, even corporate cultures.
And maybe it is. But in reality no UX Designer is really good at doing all of these alone, you need an army of different specialist just to create a complex digital product.
I would say that many UX Designers have inflated egos and not enough skills or experience for their ambitions.
I’m also a hiring manager and most people applying for the job now are:
- UI/UX Designers, graphic designers really, who are not very skilled in the art of information architecture, defining goals and requirements, creating interaction models, and business side of things. They live on Dribbble.
- UX Designers who make a living creating wireframes according to a specification, and sometimes doing some usability testing too. (They are the most promising to grow to be full-fledged Product Designers, btw. Many seasoned UX folks call them “wireframes monkeys”, and I really hate this unnecessary contempt. They forgot they were probably wireframes monkeys themselves at the beginning of their careers.)
- Design Thinkers — people who specialise in conducting workshops, loving their post-its and canvases, but often unable to transform the results into real designs.
Naturally it’s a simplification, but from my observation a lot o UX people fall into one of these three groups. There is not a lot of folks that have skills and experience at both strategic and tactical, ideation and implementation, business and design.
There is a huge gap between how UX Designers perceive the importance of their industry, and what they often really do, and how useful they really are for business.
UX is not really at the center of all things, as many “What is UX?” diagrams are showing.
I recommend you to watch this great presentation by Paul Addams, titled “The End of Navel Gazing”, from UX London 2018. The title says it all.
UX discourse is focused on users and tools, but not enough on real business problems
Another observation I have is the state of UX Design discourse. Dozens articles by UX Designers are published everyday, and they are mostly about tools and methods (personas, customer journey maps, prototyping tools, user research methods etc.), tutorials, minor graphic design trends, or user interface details.
Fabricio Teixeira and Caio Braga wrote this great article demonstrating the shallowness of our discourse, which is available at https://essays.uxdesign.cc/state-of-design-publishing/
Yet the real struggles of product design teams within business context have very little to do with all of these things we constantly talk about. As planning and managing real product development processes has not much to do with the ideal 5-step Design Thinking process.
The UX industry as a whole seems to have not much interest in the business side of things. No wonder: the name “User Experience Design” implies the focus on users only. Business is other people.
UX Design is very much like a religion now, and its representatives are often very close-minded
No wonder, there are even UX-evangelists! If you disagree with them on certain pillars of their faith, they will be ready to rip your heart out.
Just say that user research is not always needed or practical, and they will be ready to tell you that you’re not a real UX Designer without it, and probably a very evil human being. If you are personally not very fond of some methods, like personas or something, you better run or be stoned!
It’s very sad. UX people always wanted to be the most innovative bunch. But I feel they are not. Their prejudices hold them to be really innovative, to try different ways of working, to really think fresh thoughts, to be different and flexible, to experiment, to be practical, business-minded, and down to earth. To be really innovative is to carve your own way, to go against the grain, to risk. Not to repeat the same simplistic cliches everyone is saying and follow easy recipes. I’m afraid UX Designers en masse are often seriously confused between the map and the territory, the models or buzzwords and the reality. (Only Innovation Consultants are more predictable: all reading the same books, all saying the same predictable things.)
I feel like I’ve overgrown UX
I’ve been designing digital products for 13 years, and right now I don’t think I have much in common with most UX Designers. I feel like I’ve overgrown UX. I feel more affinity with the product people: Product Managers or Owners.
Peter Merholz has said in one of his presentations, that the entire field of UX Design emerged only because the field of Product Management was lacking certain things. And I tend to agree.
Digital products is what I do: websites, apps, interfaces. My goal is to create successful products for my clients. Products that will help them to make money or save money. Usability and User Experience are only ingredients of this, very important, to be sure, but not the end goals. I’m not as romantic as most UX Designers are…
I also need to make money for myself and my company, so I need to be good at planning the design process efficiently, budget estimations, scheduling, collaborating with the clients, selling and promoting my work, recruiting people, etc.
I know I’m good at digital products, but I’m probably not as good at designing everything possible.
That’s why I feel more comfortable with the title of a Digital Product Designer.
What I like about it, is its focus on product instead of users. It is placing my work within the context of the capitalist market. Products need to be useful for customers, but also feasible and profitable.
To me “Product Design” is much more down to earth, than “User Experience Design”, whatever that is. Product Design is easy to understand by everyone, even by your mother. It doesn’t need much explaining. UX is only a part of it, but on the other hand, it’s much more humble in comparison of the great visions of UX as the panacea for all the world’s problems.
What I am doing most of the time is still mainly good old Interaction Design and Information Architecture. I’m working mostly on the strategic, process and conceptual level. But I’m wearing many hats: Strategist, Interface Designer, Information Architect, Copywriter, Creative Director, Project Manager, Product Owner, Researcher, Tester, whatever is needed from me and whichever way I can help.
Of course I need to collaborate with many people, great specialist in their own areas, to make my vision complete, and to make it better, and more complete. Technologists, developers, graphic designers, content designers, project managers, even lawyers, etc. etc. The final user experience is always the sum of the work of many people.
This is important: user experience is the outcome of the work of many people, the product of a product or a service, not a job description.
I would define the role of a Product Designer as a person who is responsible for the definition of the function and form of a digital product, planning and facilitation the process of design and delivery of digital product in every way possible that he or she is able to help. (If you are treating Product Design as just another name for UI/UX it’s indeed useless.) It is nothing new for many seasoned UX Designers, but somehow it’s also different from it.
I see more and more experienced UX Designers calling themselves Product Designers now, so perhaps it’s a trend. And perhaps there are reasons?
Andy Budd, a guy with great insights, who I respect much, has tweeted recently that UX is like jazz and Product Design is like punk.
Well, I think it’s exactly the opposite. It seems all you need right now to become an UXer is a weekend course, just learn your 5-step design process and five methods like personas, customer journeys and canvases, and you are ready to go (and evangelize design thinking). But to be a Product Designer you need an actual experience of delivering digital products to the market. Which is hard, often chaotic, complex process. Product Design is like free jazz. It may sound chaotic and noisy, a bit like punk, but to play it you need a lot of skills and experience, solid grasps of music theory, but also an ability to improvise, to bend the rules or even go against them. Not to mention you need to be a master of teamwork with your band.
Whatever you want to call yourself, dream big, but please get real and stay humble.