I was in Freiburg, Germany last week where I crossed paths with my good friend Andy Clarke at the Smashing Conference. Andy gave a stellar talk in an unconventional format. He prepared no slides, had no case studies or examples to share. He simply jotted down some notes on three topics that he'd been pondering, then spoke extemporaneously. I've seen Andy talk dozens of times, and this was certainly one of his best.
"UX Design is bollocks."
Backstage he shared a preview of his talk with me and a few other fellow speakers seeking some feedback. He spoke about responsive design being the responsibility of everyone, not just front-end developers, and described how to tell a client they're an idiot to their face and have them thank you for it. My head nodded in agreement until, as he recounted his experience on a recent project, he said, "UX Design is bollocks." My hackles were raised. I've heard others make similar claims, but never in person.
Andy was recently paired with a UX team that focused heavily on deliverables like personas, wireframes, and tree-slaying documentation. When their part of the project wrapped and Andy's began, he discovered that what they'd designed was out of touch with contemporary technologies and best practices. The design recommendations were ignorant of responsive design and used so many different design patterns they'd result in bloated markup and CSS. Battles ensued, and the UX team argued that the Axure prototype should be followed as gospel in the build out. Andy argued that what they'd created was shit, and would make no sense to build out.
From that interaction, Andy concluded that UX Designers care more about deliverables than actually creating a great user experience. I see where he's coming from, but that's not UX in it's true sense. The folks he worked with suffered from "tool love" (um, not that kind of tool love), a disease that affects designers, developers, and everyone in-between. We've all seen interfaces that look like the designer used every Photoshop filter, technique and tutorial to bevel, emboss and embellish resulting in an unusable UI. And we're no stranger to jQuery mayhem on websites where all bells and whistles are employed to impress visitors.
Love of Tools
It's an exciting time in our industry. The tools we've dreamt of are in our hands, empowering us to create amazing things for our audience. But it's our audience we serve, not our tools. The UX team Andy worked with lost sight of their mandate to serve their users. They turned a blind eye to sound recommendations because they weren't convenient for their workflow. But one bad apple doesn't spoil the bunch. User Experience is more important than ever.
As our tools have evolved, so too have our teams, dividing into specializations that help us build for many platforms, create better content, and design more usable experiences. But as we divide, we understand one another less, causing us to lose our empathy for the challenges of the designer or developer we work with. When we no longer feel the pain of our peers, we stop listening to their recommendations and ignore the limitations they face. That's how political unrest arises in teams, and the loser in those battles is always the user.
User experience designers have to understand design, usability, front-end and server-side development, and content strategy. They may not be an expert in all, but to do their job well the have to know how all pieces of the puzzle fit together to create a great user experience. UX people peer into the silos of specialization that divide our teams and find the thread of experience that runs through each. Our tools are complex, the platforms we design for are diverse, and our teams are increasingly divided. Now more than ever we need people to pay attention to the big picture of our projects, and never lose sight of the users we serve. That's why user experience design is not bollocks; it's essential.
Andy listened to my argument, and realized that maybe he'd painted UX with too broad a brush. Not only did he avoid lambasting UX in his talk, he also tweeted this little gem, which I think I'll make into a t-shirt:
This whole conversation about the blinding love of tools reminded me of Marshall McLuhan's story of Narcissus in his book, Understanding Media. He said that the tools we make offer the promise of overcoming our limitations, making us super-human. "All media are extensions of some human faculty - psychic or physical", McLuhan tells us.
The Internet helps us transcend space and time. It makes the world our neighborhood, carrying our message to millions. It's power is intoxicating. McLuhan likens this feeling of numbing love to the story of the Greek youth Narcissus, who lost himself in his reflection.
"The youth Narcissus (narcissus means narcosis or numbing) mistook his own reflection in the water for another person. This extension of himself by mirror numbed his perceptions until he became the servomechanism of his own extended or repeated image. The nymph Echo tried to win his love with fragments of his own speech, but in vain. He was numb. He had adapted to his extension of himself and had become a closed system. Now the point of this myth is the fact that men at once become fascinated by any extension of themselves in any material other than themselves."
M. McLuhan, Understanding Media, p. 51.
We all want to make better things in a better way, but our quest can be derailed by the seductive power of our tools. Better things are not built with bells, whistles and dogmatic processes that serve narcissistic desires. They're made by taking your audience's needs to heart and tying your metrics of success to them. When tools trump results, it doesn't matter what you're making, the result is always bollocks.
Read more of my thoughts on the importance of user experience design in UX Magazine.