Dirk Knemeyer

The future of UX as a discipline

The future of UX as a discipline, April 21, 2005

A short comment contextualizing the prediction could go right here

[We at UXnet have] been told that user experience is dead and user experience is a quality, not a discipline, clarifications that are accompanied by fairly consistent and completely unsubstantiated criticisms of UXnet and the things we are doing.

So, it seems now is the time to stop doing the work for a moment and raise our head into the clouds and begin to engage at the semantic level, lest we allow passive observers to set the course for those of us who are trying to physically get things done.

What is user experience? User experience lives somewhere between marketing, engineering, and design. It is a reaction to the complexity of digital design: whereas the successful design of traditional media like brochures could be easily accomplished by strategy from the business/marketing side being handed to the creative conceptualization and design side, the digital paradigm is inherently and significantly more complex. In fact, compare the structure of a typical 1980′s era software design team with the structure of a typical advertising design team during the same period. The two have very little in common. User experience is an outgrowth of the uncomfortable space between the two, when the rise of the web pushed the engineering and technology genius of computer sciences together with advertising executives and creative gurus.

When it was just software, being driven strongly by the engineers, the notion of extending into experience was not such a driver. Don Norman changed that. But it took the web bringing very different people and disciplines messily together to really give it legs, and for a new and awkward participant to emerge. That participant is user experience.

Where is the heart of user experience? Information architecture is a great example. It is a formal profession that was largely created and driven by the web. It was made necessary because of the complexity of digital systems and the dynamic nature of the information. Without the web – without the synthesis between computer science and advertising design – it would essentially not exist. Where would interaction design be without the web? Certainly we would not have an Interaction Designers Group. Content strategy? Usability? Each of these have developed as formal disciplines along with and thanks to the web, and each is a critical part of user experience.

Breaking from the UXnet definition of user experience for a moment, user experience is specifically native to digital interactions. That is what defines it: having to do with the holistic quality of digital interactions. Unlike usability, which is one of myriad design measures for any experience that people have, user experience is the synthesis of all design measures in the specific context of digital interactions. Sure, user experience and the people involved in the space are interested beyond just the digital bits and bytes. But what characterizes user experience, what sets its boundaries as just one component of human experiences, is the fact that it has developed from and is centrally a measure of the digital.

From a semantic perspective, as digital products begin inching toward the point of ubiquity, there will come a time when user experience as a term is redundant and unnecessary. But that time most certainly is not now. We have legions of poorly designed digital products. We have many different, overlapping disciplines that are not coordinated with one another, clumsily trying to navigate through an ill-defined paradigm. We have many, many people who are looking for someplace to call home, a place that nobody can quite put their finger on but falls quietly in the space between marketing, engineering, and design. I’ve met so many of these people, and they tend toward that quirky netherland of generalist that is neither marketer nor engineer nor designer yet suspiciously incorporates pieces of them all.

[…] But before deciding the methods and effort are flawed, try talking to the volunteers. Try going to countries that have had little coordination of or exposure to professional UX disciplines. See how – especially in less mature markets and regions – UXnet is providing a revolutionary service to local practitioners.