I’m not a UX Designer, and neither are you

Ben Moss.
August 02, 2016
I’m not a UX Designer, and neither are you.
In the last few years the term User Experience has come to the fore, and with it we’ve seen the rise of the UX Designer. Every few months someone tweets a pair of images, one will be a biscuit (labeled ‘UI’), and the other will be a smug face eating said biscuit (labeled ‘UX’). A few weeks later a heartfelt post will appear on Medium refuting the tweet by arguing that the correct definition of ‘UI’ is the mug of tea into which the biscuit was dunked. These metaphors are seized upon, because ‘UX Design’ has become a catch-all term for a process we’re still trying to define.

UX can’t be designed

Well, it can…in some fringe cases… A roller coaster designer for example, could be said to be designing experiences. A roller coaster is a sensorily overwhelming experience. With the extreme changes in gravity, balance, sound, air pressure, on a thrill ride you barely notice that all you actually see is the back of the seat in front of you. A roller coaster is an experience that can be designed because the variation of experience is limited. But even then, we can’t control the length of the queue, the weather, or the amount of strawberry milkshake the kid sat beside you sucked up before riding. You might also say that a movie director is a UX designer. Sitting in a movie theater watching a film we’re engrossed in a single linear narrative. Provided the spell isn’t broken by someone’s mobile, the entire audience will experience the same emotional highs and lows for two hours plus. One of the first analogies for UX vs. UI that I remember hearing was the bicycle metaphor: UI is the bicycle (the frame, handlebars, tires, etc), UX is the experience of freewheeling down a hill. However unless I’m planning a route for Le Tour, or working as a city planner designing cycle lanes, I have no way to design a cyclist’s experience; I can’t control traffic, I can’t control geography, and I can’t control other road users. I can design a UI (a bicycle) that will function in as many diverse situations as possible, but I don’t design the UX (the act of cycling), that is left to the user.

UX is never singular

UX is not an illusion, it plays a role in every site and app. The mistake is in believing that there’s a singular user experience that can be designed. We can design for user experiences. We can create clear, and functional UIs, engaging micro-interaction, empathic content. We can create a framework within which user experiences can occur, but we cannot design them. [pullquote]We can create a framework within which user experiences can occur, but we cannot design them[/pullquote] At school we learn that there are five senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. As we get older we learn that the definition of sense is a little fuzzier; hunger, balance, temperature can all be considered non-traditional senses. Some psychologists argue that there are more than 20 senses. A print design might involve several traditional senses: sight, touch, perhaps smell. A website typically involves one or two: sight and hearing. And so we are, at best, designing two fifths of a user’s experience. If we take non-traditional senses into account it may be as little as 5% of the user’s actual experience that we affect. I cannot know what soundtrack will be playing when someone visits my site, I cannot know where they were before, or where they will be after, I have no control over the duration of the experience, or on the users’ degree of focus. UX is a deeply personal thing, not only unique to each user, but unique each time that user’s context changes. Responsive design often focuses on different viewport sizes, but it’s much more than that: connection speed, screen resolution, environmental influences (such as light levels), are all factors beyond our control. The core principle of responsive design is to embrace that variation, not as a limitation, but as an inherent quality of the medium. The natural extension of responsive web design is a responsive user experience in which UX is not designed, but rather a framework is created within which a UX can occur. By designing for UX, rather than designing UX itself, we’re building tools for the user to develop their own experience. By relinquishing that process to the user we enable them to become fully engaged, defining their own relationship with a product or service on their own terms. By refraining from attempting to design a UX, we create a more open, egalitarian, and engaging web.

UX vs. Ergonomics

Typography is largely concerned with legibility and readability. In other words, the act of absorbing information. The UX of reading a book goes far beyond typography, it extends to the weight of the tome, the feel of the paper, the smell of the binding, it encompasses all aspects of using a book. We don’t print a book at 2pt, because that’s too small to read. We don’t print a book at 200pt, because there would be too few words on a page. The act of designing for humans, of finding a human-orientated point from which to embark, is called ergonomics. It’s something that has always been part of design. Designing for humans, does not mean designing the act of being human. UX is the result of a design; an end result, not a process.

Keep off the grass

One of the most famous memes on UX is a pathway with a patch of grass. In some variations there’s a gate, in others the path simply turns at a right-angle. In all cases, the pathway is labeled ‘Design’ and the muddy track across the grass created by hundreds of feet is labeled ‘UX’. Like the biscuit metaphor, the path meme perpetuates the myth that UI is about restricting users, whereas UX is about freedom and enjoyment. [pullquote]Designing for humans, does not mean designing the act of being human[/pullquote] What the meme conveniently ignores, is that whilst walking on grass may leave a trail, walking on concrete does not. For every person who walks across the grass, there may be ten thousand who do not. The false narrative on UX is that there’s a definitive user experience, and that by crowd-sourcing our design decisions, a single ‘correct’ path will emerge. We don’t control a user’s context, and we shouldn’t try. Sites, and apps, aren’t films, or events. Truly successful UX isn’t designed, it occurs when users are given a framework to interact with on their own terms. One of the most successful film franchises of all time is Star Wars, not due to the films themselves, but thanks to the accompanying toys. What Star Wars delivers well isn’t a couple of hours of linear narrative, but rather an expansive world in which fans play out their own stories. Without that expandability, George Lucas might as well have made The Last Starfighter.

I’m not a UX Designer, and neither are you

Good design is about achieving engagement. As a designer you can ask for that engagement, but you can’t enforce it. UX is a personal thing, created by the user’s mind in response to stimulation. We’re not film directors, or roller coaster designers, or even novelists; We’re facilitators: we clean up popcorn; we press the ‘launch’ button; we set the type. It may not be glamorous, but it’s good honest work. I’m not a UX Designer, I’m a Designer, and you are too.

Ben Moss

Ben Moss has designed and coded work for award-winning startups, and global names including IBM, UBS, and the FBI. When he’s not in front of a screen he’s probably out trail-running.

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