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UX design has a dirty secret

Too often in UX design, people are asked to perform UX Theatre, which doesn’t actually center the user at all.

UX design has a dirty secret
[Source Photos: cosmin4000/iStock, u.u./iStock]

There is a strange phenomenon in the world of user experience design.

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It happens when designers are asked to pretend to do the work of design and aren’t actually permitted to do the work of design. It happens when we are asked to conduct research that never gets used. When we deliver findings that get shelved because they don’t align with executive or shareholder expectations. When we’re asked to facilitate workshops in which staff pretend to be users because it’s cheaper and faster than doing research with actual users. Or when we only get to review the design when the product is about to hit the street, and it’s much too late for any actual design improvements.

This frustrating reality is an open secret within the user experience industry and one we have long accepted as a normal consequence of working in a field that balances creativity and research.

We call this UX Theatre.

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UX Theatre is easy to spot: It’s the application of any sort of design methodology without including a single user in the process, or including users but merely for show.

Now, let me reassure you that it’s actually a great time to be a user experience designer. The terms “user experience,” “UX,” and “user-centered design” have become staples of corporate vocabulary. And everywhere you look, UX design is being held up as a critical success factor in the development and delivery of products and services that meet the needs of target audiences.

But when you dig beyond the surface of the many projects touting themselves as beacons of user-centricity, it seems there are almost more projects branding themselves as user-centered design than there are projects that are actually user-centered design.

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When you get past the rhetoric and the post-its, you can start to see that there’s very little “user” in the user experience. It’s all lip service: Everyone is role-playing the part of the user, and the requirements are make-believe. And the resulting experiences are difficult to use, costing users time, money, privacy, or even safety.

You might be willing to forgive a small upstart company for not having the time and money to conduct user research. But it’s less forgivable when a large company, or even a government department, invests large sums without involving users.

So how does UX Theatre happen? I believe it is the result of two fundamental problems in our practice.

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First, UX design is a vague concept and isn’t as well defined as something like accounting or law. When executives adopt the term “user experience,” their teams aren’t necessarily empowered to do all the work that user experience design entails. Designers find themselves on understaffed, or wrongly staffed, or underfunded teams. Or worse, working as a team of one (the solitary “UX unicorn.”) Budgets and schedules are cited as excuses to fast-track design and user research. From the outside, these organizations might look like a shining example of user-centricity; but on the inside, more effort is spent on telling a user-centered story than on producing user-centered results.

Among designers, we’re constantly debating what we do and how we do it. On any day, you will find all sorts of tweets and Medium articles about design methodologies, tools, and the perennial “Should designers code?” discussion. Not to mention: “What is UX design?” Generally, there is agreement that user experience design is the process of defining the interaction that your intended audience will have with your product or service. Any attempt to further define the scope of our practice devolves into debates over whether that includes product design, digital design, interaction design, service design, and so on.

The struggle to define our practice clearly among ourselves, let alone explain it to non-practitioners, can actually hinder our ability to integrate user experience design deeply into the workings of our organizations.

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This confusion over the breadth and scope of UX design can be seen in the misapplication of concepts and methodologies like Design Thinking. Design Thinking was developed as a consulting tool to help management take a more deliberate approach in innovating on new services and products. The model includes five steps: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test. At face value, this seems like a robust approach, however Design Thinking is often adopted as a substitute for actual user-centered design, with activities being led internally and without users, ultimately resulting in UX Theatre.

The second issue that leads to UX Theatre is that design is touted as something everyone can do. In Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change, Victor Papanek wrote, “All men are designers. All that we do, almost all the time, is design, for design is basic to all human activity.” This sentiment was meant to convey that humans all have the ability to think in a designerly way and that design is an inherently human activity.

However, just because everyone can do math doesn’t mean everyone is an accountant.

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When organizations adopt the perspective that “everyone is a designer,” UX design is less recognized as a practice led by skilled practitioners and perceived more as a thought process that anyone can adopt and implement. Executives seem to misinterpret user-centered design as a euphemism for “thinking from the user’s perspective.” They don’t fund user research or provide project owners the latitude to create teams that include the right mix of user experience practitioners.

The design process does benefit from the contributions of users and non-designers. In fact, everyone can and should participate in design. But the process needs to be led by design practitioners, who have skills in research, facilitation, systems thinking, prototyping, information architecture, writing, and visual communication. They are trained to design experiences that actually put users first, which reduces the likelihood of UX Theatre.

Organizations that don’t understand design, and invest minimally in it, tend to generate poor design outputs and results. The end results don’t meet user needs, which generates complaints, returns, poor reviews, and even lowered profits. As a result, they may further devalue user experience design since it didn’t generate the intended results. In this case, bad UX begets no UX. It’s a destructive cycle.

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If the root causes of UX Theatre are so broad, what can individual designers do to prevent it?

Preventing UX Theatre requires user experience designers to do more than design. Because our practice is nascent and we are still in the educating phase, designers often need to evangelize for UX design in their organizations. We have to advocate for the needs of users during the design and delivery process. And then we have to advocate for the very existence and funding of design teams in our organizations.

Much like design, design advocacy requires empathy and collaboration. We can help our organizations improve if we approach UX Theatre from the perspective of critique instead of criticism. We can call out UX Theatre. We can show how testing and research help us design solutions to customer problems, and even anticipate potential problems with new products and services. We can widely share research results to reinforce the use of data over opinions in design-related decisions. We can encourage the move from “we think” to “we saw” and “we heard.”

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We can mentor upwards and build design champions among the executives. We can get excited that they’re interested in user experience design even if they don’t quite understand it, and we can use their interest as an opportunity to show them what it really entails. We can share stories about doing design the right way.

Designers don’t always have a say in how projects are structured or run. And we may get frustrated, making small inroads only to find ourselves doing UX Theatre once again. UX Theatre is an open secret within the user experience industry, but it doesn’t have to be. As long as we can keep the “user” in the user experience.

Tanya Snook is a user experience designer in the Government of Canada. Tanya is a founder and cochair of CanUX, Canada’s longest-running user experience conference. She is also the cohost of the Government of Canada UX Network. You can find Tanya online at spydergrrl.com.

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