The risks of title proliferation and the boundaries of UX
Starting my current job 15 years ago, I opened my new box of business cards and read: “Michael Zuschlag, Engineering Psychologist.” I’m an engineering psychologist? I had no idea. If I were to choose the title for myself, I probably would’ve gone with “Human Factors Engineer.” After all, I got the job by dropping off my resume in the job center at the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society annual meeting. In prior jobs, working on telecommunications and business enterprise software user interfaces, I might’ve accepted being called a usability engineer, but even then I preferred human factors engineer. Usability engineering wasn’t so much something I was as something I did.
So, “engineering psychologist.” What the hell is that? I suspected it was something made up by some government worker toiling deep in the National Bureau of Occupational Classification, Office of Idiosyncratic Nomenclature. But it turns out to be a well-accepted name, and the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. Engineering. Psychology. Engineering concerns the design and analysis of products to achieve a certain level of performance. Engineers invent things. Psychology is the scientific study of behavior and mental experiences. Psychologists discover things. Hey, that’s what I want to do! I don’t want to be just a human factors engineer, and only make new things, and I don’t want to be just an academic psychologist (a prior career incarnation), and only find new things. I want to be a designer and a researcher, both a builder and an explorer. Comprise the whole research and development life cycle. Be holistic. Who wouldn’t want that?
Well, it would seem, lots of people in the user experience community, because that’s the way they’re heading, dividing and subdividing the field into smaller sub-specializations. Or maybe it’s unintentional, collateral damage from rampant title proliferation. We have:
- Human Computer Interaction
- Usability Engineering
- User Centered Design
- User Experience
- Visual Design
- Information Architecture
- Interaction Design
And those are just the more commonly used ones. I’ve also heard activity centered design, performance centered design, personnel subsystem design, information design, user assistance design, customer experience, contextual design, user experience architecture, and interaction architecture.
Definitions and Differences
After I searched around the web, including making prodigious use of Wikipedia, which is nothing if not the consensus of the interested community on the meaning of things, the definitions seem straightforward enough.
- Human-computer interaction (or HCI, but sometimes CHI, just to have some variety) is a field concerning “the design, evaluation, and implementation of interactive computing systems for human use.”
- Usability engineering (or UE) also concerns the design of human-computer interfaces but specifically seeks to maximize the user’s performance on dimensions such as learning, efficiency, and accuracy. So it provides the goal for user interface design.
- User-centered design (or UCD, but sometimes “human-centered design,” to specifically exclude potential orangutan users, is the process of designing a user interface through iterations of collecting user data (especially by observing user interactions) and creating designs. So that’s the means to the goals annunciated by usability engineering.
- User Experience (or UX) is all a user perceives about a product. That includes the usability the user experiences, but also any emotional and motivational states. Designing a UI for a positive user experience implies expanding the goals beyond user effectiveness and efficiency of usability to include anything else that contributes to user satisfaction. UX also implies designing more than the product itself, but anything else (e.g., the packaging, the technical support) that affect the experience of the product.
- Visual Design is the application of visual details (e.g., color, line, shape, space, images, typography) to create a target user experience, using visuals to communicate both information and emotion. That is, it’s the medium of design. It’s synonymous with graphic design applied to interactive products.
- Information Architecture (or IA) is the design of the “organization, labeling, navigation schemes and retrieval mechanisms… [and] structural design of an information space to facilitate task completion and intuitive access.” That is, it’s another medium of design. While visual design uses visual details to create a targeted user experience, IA uses organization and labeling to create a targeted user experience.
- Interaction Design (or IxD) is the design of “digital products for people’s use,” which is pretty much the same as HCI, expanded beyond computers per se to include anything using digital electronics.
Obviously, there is a lot of overlap in the definitions and even more in practice. For example, while theoretically HCI can pursue any goal in the design a of UI (e.g., easy implementation), in practice, HCI work almost always seeks to improve usability, or some other part of UX. UCD is sometimes used to mean the philosophy that design should conform to the capabilities and tendencies of the user in order to achieve the best user performance, making it virtually synonymous with UE. Furthermore, while in UE and IxD use a variety of design methods and tools (e.g., cognitive walk-throughs), iterative design with observation of users has the central role, making UE and IxD nearly synonymous with UCD. IxD includes communicating with the user, so it overlaps with visual design (graphic communication) and IA (labeling). UX by definition includes all experiences about the product, which has profound implications for those working on the emotional and motivational aspects of user experience. However, if the questions on UX Stack Exchange are any indication, the dominant concern remains the usability of the product (i.e., making its use clear, easy, and accurate). Put a link on a web page, and you’re simultaneously doing visual design (the color and font of the link), information architecture (specifying what it links to and what its label should be), and interaction design (instantiating it a link -an interactive control that responds to the user).
Practically the greatest differences among these names are in their connotations. HCI implies producing papers for scientific journals, rather than products for the marketplace, like the other names imply. Practitioners of visual design, IA, and IxD tend to be associated with different academic departments (visual arts, library science, and psychology, respectively). UCD tends to emphasize design over testing and analysis and UE vice versa. Also, as Whitney Quesenbery observed, HCI, UCD, and UE also mean you’re old, compared to those who align themselves with the UX or IxD label. (Mental note: add more gray to my beard in the illustration at the top of this blog.)
Personally, I don’t have a problem with any of that. It’s a similar situation with human factors engineering, human performance engineering, engineering psychology, and ergonomics. A job candidate could use any of those labels for his or her knowledge and experience, and I’d see them as pretty much equal; I’d look for more details in their resume to distinguish them. Human factors engineers may graduate from psychology or engineering departments. No one cares which it is.
On the other hand, I have to wonder if UX needs so many overlapping labels, and worry that it sows confusion among ourselves and our clients, employers, and other laypeople. Even more worrying, certain people in the UX community feel a need to define and divide the above into non-overlapping subdisciplines, to inflate the subtle connotations into distinct formal dimensions.
Why so many names for largely the same discipline? The three different academic origins of visual design, IA, and IxD helps explain why those three names exist, but doesn’t explain why we have also have HCI, UE, and IxD, which all come from largely the same academic tradition. I see a couple of reason for name proliferation:
- Keeping it Fresh.
- Expanding the Scope.
Keeping it Fresh
Maybe it’s the way the business world sees the digital age: if it’s something you heard about 18 months ago, then it must be obsolete. In the fast-pace high-tech world, you need to re-invent your title periodically or else you seem outmoded and irrelevant, like ASP programmers. To move your career forward, you re-brand yourself with the latest buzzwords, like “content strategist,” rather than tired old “editor-in-chief.” At one government agency, I learned that information technology (which used to be called data processing) isn’t “information technology” any more. Now it’s “knowledge management.” Except, now they’re changing that to something new, but I can’t remember what. Maybe “solution innovation” or “innovating solutions” or something. Civil engineers don’t have to put up with this. The name of their discipline remains unchanged for over two centuries, even as it has come to sound a little weird (they’re called “civil,” not because they’re necessarily polite and inoffensive, but because they designed and analyzed civilian works, as opposed to military works, which was once the only other kind of engineering there was).
The tech world’s requirement for periodic re-branding surely applies to us, but even more so. Branding itself is the latest business craze, which UXers have embraced, so if we’re going to build credibility for our discipline with the suits outside the UX community, we better be supremely branding ourselves to show that we get it. We gotta have the coolest names.
“Visual design” is cooler than “graphic design.” I mean, you’re designing visually, man, not graphically, the latter sounding like you forgot your pants that morning. More seriously, “graphic” implies physically printed matter, and that’s so twentieth century. I mean, no one uses paper anymore. “Architect,” as in “information architect,” is supremely cool. That carries prestige, so much so that early on there was a push for “interaction architecture” rather than “interaction design.” “Design” won out, maybe because it felt newer and more mystical. Real architecture comes down to bricks and mortar, and we all know that’s precisely what the web is driving to extinction. Design, in contrast, is virtual. Like The Cloud, it doesn’t really exist, so it must be the future.
We also have to have the coolest abbreviations, on par with AJAX and .Net. Bonus points for mixed-case names for that extra techie edge. It’s widely accepted that “X” is the coolest letter in the alphabet (arguably; I passionately believe “Z” is clearly cooler). From this perspective, the most significant way UX and IxD differs from UE and HCI is that the former have an “X” in their respective abbreviations.
Well, hey, if rebranding works, why not do it? After all, UX needed all the credibility it can get to go up against the entrenched ignore-the-user attitudes that prevailed in the business world. That would be fine as long as we don’t take our own rebranding too seriously, and recognize that the name-of-the-month is for our audience in the business world, not for us. But it seems some do take it seriously, and spend considerable effort picking apart the names, confusing themselves. It can divide us, pitting us against each other. Oh, man, you’re not still doing user-centered design, are you? I’m doing interaction design. Like the latest detergent, it’s new and improved. I should get the consultant contract, not you. What’s new and improved about it? New and improved packaging.
Confusion and conflicts like that end up weakening us, wasting our resources and undermining the unified voice we need for credibility. Sometimes, these conflicts end up looking kind of pathetic, such as a few years ago when a couple of venerable gurus, in what looked like an attempt to re-assert their relevance, tried to rebrand UCD to convince everyone they had a new breakthrough design method. Not that there isn’t progress in UX, but progress in any field is usually gradual. We don’t get a Newton or Einstein every year. It’s counter-productive to come up with new names like activity-centered design or research-informed design (or whatever Spool calls it) just because some people are doing UCD badly. If UXers are not paying enough attention to the task, tell them to pay more attention to the task. If they’re being too dogmatic, tell them to stop being so dogmatic. Don’t pretend you’ve invented a new way of doing design that deserves its own name.
At this point in our short history, I suspect re-branding is reaching the point of diminishing net returns. Pretty soon even the pointiest hair of the pointy hair bosses will pick up that it’s a gimmick. Maybe it’s time we stopped.
Expanding the Scope
We know we got a good thing. Our methods and tools work. We’ve measured dramatic improvements in user interfaces after doing our job. But “user interface” implies computers -that’s what users use (either that or recreational drugs). Surely our methods and tools can work wonders for other forms of technology too. We shouldn’t be limited to user-centered web sites and software applications. The public also needs cook-centered stoves, photographer-centered cameras, nurse-centered medical apparatus, shooter-centered guns, pilot-centered airplanes, audience-centered entertainment systems, and showerer-center showers. It’s natural that we’d seek to expand the scope of our discipline and improve the usability of devices beyond general purpose computers of various form factors.
Oh, wait. That’s already been done. That’s engineering psychology / human factors engineering. Usability engineering is a sub-discipline of it.
Ah, but what about user experience? By including emotional design and addressing user motivation, it overlaps with human factors, rather than falls entirely within it. If we can expand the “user” in user experience to include the operator of any technology, then human factors becomes a subdiscipline of UX. What a coup!
The noble effort to expand UX to everything is apparently the second driver of name proliferation in UX. To do that we need to shed any specific association with computers inherent with names like HCI, user-centered design, and usability engineering, and we certainly don’t want to be associated with physical printing with a name like graphic design. So we came up with the names visual design, information architecture, and interaction design, all technology-neutral names. They apply to anything visible, informative, and interactive, respectively. Like “experience” in UX they raise the level of abstraction, shifting focus from the specific artifacts to be designed, like a computer-user interface, to the psychological -what people sense, feel, know, and do with respect to unspecified artifacts.
Take information architecture, for example. I get the feeling that at the start of the information revolution in 1994, there was excitement about all the new ways of organizing information that will be available by shaking off the shackles of physical space by using a hyperlinked network. However, in the end all we really use is linear and hierarchical structures (or both at once), two forms of organization going back to ancient times. Maybe that’s a human limitation. Maybe we are hardwired to think in sequences and categories (and sub-categories), and anything else becomes too confusing for the typical user. Consider how much training and experience users need to effectively query multiple tables in a relational database (an information structure that is curiously ignored by information architecture). It’s not natural for us.
Do we need a new name for doing in HTML the same thing we’ve been doing for hundreds of years with things like book chapters and shelves, card catalogues, and the Dewey decimal system? IA seeks to apply the “principles of design and architecture to the digital landscape.” But while physical space is defined by three continuous dimensions, hyper-linked information is defined by one discrete dimension: the number of links. Merely linking web pages together is Little IA. How do we expand it to Big IA? Well, if you take “architecture” to mean “the designed form of something,” then you expand the scope of information architecture to encompass all ways of representing information, and not just on web pages. That implies all sorts of things: IA may include how information is arranged on the screen, how graphics are used to convey structure and information,and what displays and controls are used to represent what information, including information acquired from the user.
Unfortunately visual and interaction designers were also thinking big. In the process of expanding their scopes, they collided with the information architects. For example, successfully retrieving information clearly depends on the information architecture, but the act of retrieving is clearly interactive and therefore legitimate turf for interaction designers to claim. The information hierarchy on a page is marked by the graphic use of space, color, line, shape, and font, implying it’s visual design, not information architecture.
Well, we can’t have this. We have to have clearly defined and divided roles, practices, and even job positions.
The problem is there isn’t that much to web site design, which is where UX is currently concentrated. You probably make a UI that users use to access informative or entertaining content. For the vast majority of projects, the only information of consequence is text, the only interaction is clicking links, and the only visuals are the template for the page. Pictures typically provide secondary illustration of the text content, and occasionally there’s audio and video, but mostly text is the medium for the content. In theory, IxD involves designing how users accomplish many operations with content: create, modified, delete, and transfer it. If you’re lucky enough to work on bespoke web apps for industrial use, then you may get to make a sophisticated UI for a database. But if you work on consumer web sites, interaction is mostly navigation -clicking links. Occasionally, you take a little content from the user, maybe a paragraph of text or the choice of a picture or a delivery address and credit card number. Occasionally, the user does something other than consume content, such as clicking a Purchase or Share button. Contrast that to applications like word processing, where navigation is a small part of the interaction (confined largely to the Open dialog), and complex content manipulation is the bulk of the interactions. In web sites, there’s just not much IxD that isn’t also IA.
Try to divide web work up among each subdiscipline, and each gets so little. You have absurdly limited roles for each discipline, such as information architecture only dividing text into pages, interaction design only laying out the pages, visual design only determining the emotional “feel” of the page, and usability engineering only doing usability testing. Dividing web design into such narrow roles may lead to navigation structure, pages, and templates each designed in isolation resulting in imbalanced and uncoordinated sites with awkward task flows. These limited roles are not consistent with how these disciplines have been practiced. In effort to expand UX to encompass more, we each end up getting less.
Conflict and division are not productive, but the feeling seems to be that this is a temporary state. We’re expanding UX beyond computer UIs, after all, which will accentuate our differences. Not everything is both informative and interactive, for example. A lot of things are one or the other. Soon there will be plenty of work for everyone. Above the interaction designers, visual designers, information architects, and usability engineers will be UX managers, strategizing and coordinating the whole experience of a corporation -all the touch points with customers: all the communications, marketing, services, products, and support. The customer experience with a company determines if the customer buys from company, so UX is central to company survival and growth. We UXers should be in charge of running companies. And we will be.
We’re Just UI Design
I’ve been hearing how UX will soon expand throughout the business world for ten years now. While some are impressed with the progress we’ve made, I don’t see much progress on that front. The truth is we are software user interface designers. We have been successful in convincing most businesses they need UX for their web sites and apps, and that’s a substantial accomplishment that has ensured our long-term viability.
But expand beyond the UI? No. There are no UXers designing theater, dining, weddings, retail outlets, packaging, and customer service experiences. We’re in no position to specify that web-selected merchandise be in stock for in-store pickup. Very few of us made the short step to digital hardware or embedded software design. Over 90% of the questions on UX Stack Exchange concern UI design. Even saying “we’re UI design” is being generous if you’re limited to doing consumer web sites or web apps. Our only expansion in the past decade has been to add mobile, which mostly means web sites and apps for a different form factor and technology. Our aspirations have exceeded acquisitions. In all my non-web-related work, I have never encountered anyone with titles like visual designer, information architect, or interaction designer. Despite the ambitions of these disciplines, you don’t see them in the making of airplanes, cars, ships, or trains, or even the computer-user interfaces to these technologies.
Every discipline thinks it’s the lynch pin, the solution to all problems, and the deeper you go into a discipline, the more likely you feel that way, because the deeper you go, the more abstract it becomes, and the more you see connections and inclusions of other fields. I bet the same thing happens in non-UX disciplines: smart economists, geographers, anthropologists, biologists, physicists, medical doctors probably all think they have The Solution to things. In the business world, expert marketers think marketing should drive the whole company, and I bet finance experts think finance should drive it, and likewise for experts in accounting, project management, engineers, personnel, and probably even the lawyers.
Frankly, everyone probably can make a pretty good argument on why they’re so important. The result is no one is going to get the sole control of the business world. UXers are not going to be running corporations, at least, no more often than anyone from any other business-related discipline.
The best case scenario for UX expansion is that you convince the suits that UX covers all touch points. But if we succeed on that, we still lose. If everyone believes UX to encompasses everything in addition to web sites, then people from other disciplines -the people already working on everything else -will commandeer the UX name. They will put the latest buzzword on their resume if we succeed in making it trendy. And soon, like so many buzzwords before, it’ll come to mean nothing. Meanwhile, we’ll still be doing only the web site.
More likely others will redefine our names for us. We may think that a name like interaction design will give us leverage to expand beyond web sites. Words are powerful, as any politician knows, but ultimately, their effect is transitory. Names are ultimately defined not by their components or etymology but by what people currently associate them with. “Ethnic cleansing” was originally coined by Serbian politicians because it made their policies sound good, but then the world saw what ethnic cleansing really was, and now no politician in the world will say they favor it. So, you can call yourself an information architect or interaction designer or whatever, but ultimately to everyone else, you’re the web guy.
Crossing, Not Expanding
The main reason that UX hasn’t expanded beyond UI is there’s already other disciplines controlling the territory we want to expand into. Human factors engineers and industrial designers got the hardware covered. Marketers got the customer experience, packaging, and retail. Theater professionals have theaters, restaurant management has restaurants, wedding planners have weddings, and so on. And you know what? The people in these disciplines are better at it than us. They’ve been doing it far longer and have all the specialized knowledge.
I don’t want to discourage UX from making forays beyond UI. I’m as biased as the next UXer, so naturally I think that UX has more to offer than nice web sites. However, it’s more realistic to aim to cross UX with other disciplines, rather than expand UX to encompass roles already covered by other disciplines. There’s a difference between cross-discipline exchange and taking something over. In the latter, you get conflict. In the former you get embraced. I was hired into a transportation human factors division partially because my UI design experience was regarded as relevant with vehicles becoming more computerized.
User experience and its subdisciplines are touted as vertical, being relevant across technologies, and I believe that’s true. But to work in any horizontal discipline requires unique knowledge specific to that discipline. We need to recognize that we have as much to learn from other fields as they have to learn from us. For instance, if you want to apply UX methods to cartography, go study cartography for year or two, then bring over your UX skills. It’ll work well. But now you’re as much a cartographer as a UX designer. Similarly, a UX manager is basically a marketing manager who knows what goes into web design. Both management and marketing are disciplines of their own, so if you want to be an UX manager, get an MBA in marketing to compliment your bachelor’s degree in UX/IxA/IA/whatever. You’ll succeed.
Along with acquiring the knowledge, crossing UX with a non-software field implies you also must leave some traditional UX knowledge behind. Take service design, for example. From what I can see, it’s not so much an expansion of UX from UI design, but a branch, merging with the market research branch of marketing. Service design took only the user research and task analysis skills from UX (i.e., the usability part, narrowly defined), and left behind most of the UX knowledge and skills. Knowing how to organize information, knowing which GUI control or pattern is for what, knowing how to make a 100-by-200 pixel image recognizable -none of that is relevant for general service design, unless you’re designing a software UI as part of the service.
The Web is Enough
I don’t bemoan the failure of UX to expand beyond software user interfaces. I don’t even bemoan that it’s concentrated in web design, although I would personally be bored if that’s all I did. The fact is the web is a whole lot. It’s a technology that has fundamentally changed our lives. In just two decades it’s become part of most peoples everyday interactions, and, with mobile, it’s becoming more ubiquitous.
We should be proud that we’re making a central contribution to that revolution, putting the awesome power of exabytes of information in everyone’s hands wherever they are. If a layperson asks what you do, don’t tell them, “I structure information to support findability,” don’t say “I shape interactive systems for use by people,” or “I manage the growth of complexity,” and certainly don’t say, “I design experiences.” Say, “I design web sites.” If they ask what that means, you can say something like, ”Have you ever not been able to find something on a web site that you knew had to be there? I fix that.” Let’s stand up and clearly say what we are, rather than shroud ourselves in abstract language that will more likely confuse our listeners than impress them.
More formally, we can take a cue from our sibling vertical discipline, industrial design. Industrial design seeks to make physical products look well and work well for people. That’s what UX is, only substitute software for physical products. I’m not saying it’s easy to do UX. You need a comprehensive background in computer technologies, psychology, information management, and aesthetics to do it. You need to be a well-rounded professional that understands categorization, layout, behavior, graphics, testing, and analysis. What I’m saying is it’s easy to define. For the purpose of clear communication, we don’t really need names like usability engineer, interaction designer, and so on.
Characteristics, not Specializations
Pick a Name
Recognizing the close relation among IxD, IA, usability, and visual design doesn’t resolve the problem of what to call yourself. I can sympathize that you don’t want to go with “web site designer” or, “user interface designer” (if you do more than web sites). However accurate it is, I understand that it’s not a good career move given certain audiences.
Fine. Call yourself whatever you want to the suits. Change it every 18 months so you appear to have the latest business-critical skills. Save time, and make a Title Generator app that randomly combines the trendiest terms, coming up with things like Experience Engineer, or Knowledge Strategist, or Engagement Synergist.
Oh, but what should we call ourselves to ourselves? Well, if you don’t want to use “UI designer,” I’m okay with “user experience designer.” UX seems to have gained widespread use and understanding. Some seem hung up on the thought that you can’t design experiences, only artifacts (the same can be said about interaction and visual design). But, seriously, we know what we mean: “UX designer” is shorthand for someone who designs artifacts in effort to achieve a specific user experience. The name is not going to lead to delusions of power. We already have those.
I’m also okay with user experience practitioner, user experience specialist, and, of course, simply UXer (”uckser”? “oosker”? “oozer”? “youkser”? Just not “uzer” to avoid confusion). If you lean towards working with one characteristic of UI more than others, than go ahead and use one of the subdiscipline names consistent with its connotations.
I really don’t care.
On second thought, maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the potential of UX to expand beyond software UIs. Let’s have a discipline name we can grow into, with latitude to expand, however improbable that is. Just because it hasn’t happened in 10 years, doesn’t mean it won’t ever happen. We should have a name that avoids “user” or other specific association with computers. We could go with simply “experience designers,” but the problem with that is “experience” isn’t the whole thing. That’s only sensations, perceptions, cognition, motivation, and emotion. To fully include interaction design, we need to cover human behavior in addition to human experience. And “designer” is also too specific. To include usability testing we also need to cover the empirical and analytic activities. The name should emphasize the centrality of the human mind in our work on products. It should pay homage to the scientific tradition from which our methods spring, but still indicate the practical applied nature of our work.
I’ve just the name: Engineering psychology.
Problem: Title proliferation in our discipline causing confusion and conflict.
- Embrace the overlap among our subdisciplines.
- Don’t take efforts to be trendy too seriously.
- Expect that we will remain user interface designers.
- Look to cross with those working outside UI, not replace or subsume them.
- Celebrate that we make significant contributions to the information revolution.
- Use subdiscipline names to characterize the UI rather than than each other.