UX is dead.
The industry is dying. Our practice is being watered down. It needs to be saved. We need to name it in order to save it. We need to be acquired, acquihired, or go it alone. We need to do these activities and stop these other activities. We need generalists. No, we need specialists. No, we need certification. We need to argue less. Well, no matter: UX is dead.
To be honest, I don’t believe this. I’ve considered it and read about it and re-read about it. I’ve wondered if it’s true. But it is not. The truth of the matter is that UX is in an exceptionally strong place.
Over the past few years notable people made bold declarations about UX. Peter Merholz, for example, said that there is no such thing as UX design. Upon reading his article and other similar pieces, I initially became defensive. They didn’t match my experience; UX was still needed, perhaps more than ever. I’ve worked with dozens of clients over the past few years that absolutely needed these techniques, philosophies, and practices. Without them, simply put, they will become irrelevant.
I’m reminded of another person who said UX would go away. His name is Paul McAleer, and he said that in an interview prior to the 2013 UX STRAT conference – oops. And you know, I still agree with this viewpoint. I do think that in the future, UX will go away as a practice. But that is a distinct position from declaring that it is dead or nonexistent.
This isn’t just a semantic argument. UX grew from a place that was closely aligned with digital products – interaction design, UI design, graphic design, and a subset of IA that is focused on navigation. Understandably this led to confusion of UX and UI. This confusion is noteworthy because so long as we apply UX practices to digital products we run the risk of being deemed UX/UI or UI designers. It’s also noteworthy because we’re just now starting to collectively pull away from it.
This coupling is problematic. Technology in general, UI inclusive, moves at an incredibly fast pace. It has not slowed down during my 32 years in tech and I think that’s fabulous. But some of the best UX practices have drawn from more established, slower-paced areas. We want to stop and slow down and, say, do research… but the fast pace of technology demands we do research much faster. Thus, the practices of UX have always been in a fast/slow position when they’re fully aligned with digital products. This is an uncomfortable place to be, this grey area.
So when it comes down to it, I infer from Peter's piece that he’s had the good fortune to drive UX maturity to a point where the organization no longer needs “UX design”, and it’s fully integrated into the organization. It’s not dead, in that case, just superfluous as a separate practice.
Several years ago, my boss – a product portfolio lead – asked me about the future of UX and my centralized UX team. I laid out a prediction in line with my UX STRAT interview, and also suggested that my team would much later be disbursed to individual product teams. But UX was still young in that organization, and it wasn’t strong enough to support a distributed team just yet.
A month later, the entire product team was reorganized. My team was broken up and disbursed.
While I’d like to say that everyone was ready for this change, that was not the case. We ultimately did not have the organizational nor financial support to succeed. In time, the UX team was re-centralized. Later still it was moved out of the product organization altogether.
This concern over where UX lives and the amount of influence UX has often demonstrates an organization that does not consider design a core value and instead sees it as a requirement with no true authority – a checkbox on a list of deliverables. It is common, still, and traces back to the UX/UI coupling.
Similarly, I strongly disagree with the idea that agencies that provide UX services are out in the cold… or will be swooped up by a bank. There will always be a need for an outsider’s perspective, always. Organizations that grow past UX/UI are going to need a hand in figuring that out. Now isn’t the time for a milquetoast approach to design work. This is the time for agencies and companies to truly state their case, hire intelligent people, and line them up to do big work. It requires evolution from the client – internal or external – too: asking for “just an app” isn’t going to cut it in 2015. UX experts will need to assist clients and give them a boost on the UX maturity scale. It’s a change management problem.
I had a chat with a good friend recently who is about 7 years into her UX career. She’s been doing fantastic work, starting with user research, wireframes, and information architecture. But she recently started working on business problems and strategy – to her delight. A concern she brought forth was her place in the community: several events she had attended focused on perfecting skills for digital products… like user research, wireframes, and information architecture. She was concerned that she was outgrowing the industry. At some points, it seems like a lot of training and growth is geared towards new practitioners instead of those of us with a decade or more of work under our belts. But that’s the fast/slow contrast fully at play here. We ultimately have a degree of freedom in our careers and our work that we aren’t familiar or comfortable with because these growth and career directions are being defined just-in-time.
I get this; I’ve felt this too. I started on a path to be a programmer but shifted over to photography at my earliest chance. My art school experience was instrumental in developing my career, even though I didn’t realize it at the time, because it exposed me to different ideas, disciplines, and ways to define success. It sounds a lot like where UX is headed.
A few months ago my team had an offsite event focused on improving processes. One of the many thoughtful workshops centered on career definition. Upon reflection, it wasn’t hard for me to envision a time in the future when I’m not “in” UX. That doesn’t mean I won’t be using UX techniques, Post-Its, or whiteboarding the hell out of things; it simply means that my focus will shift to other areas. I suspect it’ll have something to do with baking, a long-budding passion of mine. No matter what it is, it’ll have something to do with making the world a better place.
This concept of our work being bigger than just digital has been a thread that’s been showing up in talks, events, and conferences over the past several years. Abby Covert's superb How to Make Sense of Any Mess is an IA book through and through but is geared towards a broad audience. The fourth edition of Information Architecture for the World Wide Web elevates the conversation above tools to focus on IA fundamentals that can apply to a wide range of problems. Both of these books encapsulate the spirit of what design can do without the trappings we’ve long felt as an industry, coupled to digital UIs. It’s empowering.
That sense of empowerment is something we all can and should build in ourselves. And so, when we’re working on UX – either formally or informally, in the field or not – it’s incredibly important for us to devote time to working on ourselves. If your interests are outside of the digital sphere, that’s actually a great thing! Learn from that! Work on that! Be present with that! Use your skills to see what tools and techniques you can apply in those spaces too. The best way we can infuse ourselves with that sense of possibility and wonder is to keep fresh on what’s happening elsewhere.
That’s where I am today. With the help of others, I started taking design principles and applying them to myself. This attitude and approach, where I was my own client and I needed help with everything from research to feedback, is something that helped me significantly over the past few years. I even started to write and speak about it. Taking these tools and techniques to other areas of my life didn’t diminish my enthusiasm for design. In fact, it supercharged it. I’m bullish on UX.
UX is absolutely not dead. UX is a field that ebbs and flows with new energy and new talent, echoing what came before. And it’s simply too big to be “just” for apps and websites. As high technology continues to push itself out of dedicated computers and phones, our skills and abilities will be needed in many more places, in many more industries.
But we can’t forget why we do this work. We’re curious. We’re intrigued. We can help others. We can inform others. We can ensure those without voices are heard and respected and understood. In the end, UX is all about people. And because of that, UX will live on for a very, very long time.
UX is alive.