The UX language debate — why it's not a bad thing

Kathryn Reeves

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You’ve heard the conversations, scanned the blogs, and read the comment threads. You’ve disagreed, or partially agreed and added your own twist, or heartily concurred. You’ve pondered, reneged, and revisited, and chances are you’ve concluded, and now you think you’ve got it down pat.

I’m talking about the words you use to name your discipline, practice, approach, philosophy, or role — and whether or not the phrase ‘User Experience design’ is a vital part of this.

I binge-read everything I could about UX before I took on a role within the industry.  And I kept stumbling across work that attempted to taxonomize and define the language of UX.

I learnt that user experience is strategy and not design, and that there is no such thing as UX strategy, only product strategy, and that IA is the new (old) UX. Someone told me that user experience design does not exist, and the 44 people who commented on the post told me variations on the opposite. I now know that 'UX Developer' is a misleading job title, and I've read that the field can be split into 4 (UX Design, Information Architecture, Interaction Design, User Interface Design) or into 5 (UX Design, Visual Design, Code, Content Strategy, Research & Usability). And I've trawled UX glossaries and eyed Venn diagrams like these ones (which, while beautiful, can take a bit of effort to comprehend—click for source):

venn1Screen Shot 2014-06-26 at 12.36.22 pmScreen Shot 2014-06-27 at 4.09.01 pm
 
 

This content barely scratches the surface of the views that are out there. Of course, at first I thought I might join in and attempt to create my own version of 'right' — to survey UX professionals using using OptimalSort, and to pull apart the terms and piece them back together in a new taxonomy.

Ha! How laughable in hindsight. Because, actually, there is no right answer. And nowhere is this clearer than in comment threads on blogs about what UX Design actually is. Read the following comments (sourced at random from different threads). You can sense that in disagreeing with the writers' arguments and other comments, people are establishing and reinforcing their own opinions about what means what:

'While I agree you can design to affect a user's experience with something, I do feel this is just one of those terms that's meaningless because User Experience comes out of other design decisions.' Maurice

'Perhaps we should use this term only as a way of understanding parts of a process, rather than using it as this somewhat ambiguous and commonly misunderstood title.' jsw

'I like the term Visual Designer for the person doing the look and feel.' Sacha

'What people define as user experience design I think is really just good design management. It's been around for decades.' Brian

'For me, UX is web design, and web design is UX.' Michael

Humans are prone to categorizing the world. We're obsessed with labels, frameworks, hierarchies, definitions, groupings, and orders. It's normal for us to want the one perfect word or title that sums up what we do. And in contrast to more established industries like medicine and academia, it makes sense this normal tendency to define and redefine is in overdrive in UX. Why?

We're young. OK, we're not toddler young. And it's been suggested that our industry has its roots in 19th and 20th century industrial revolution, and Frederick Winslow Taylor's research into the interactions between people and machines. But considering that the majority of UX professionals work on web projects, UX as we know it today has only been around for a couple of decades, and it has evolved rapidly and dynamically.

And we're diverse. UX professionals hail from many different backgrounds — software development, graphic design, industrial design, web design, web development, product development, psychology, anthropology, and market research, just to name a few. Each field adds depth and rigour to UX practice, and each brings with them a whole new world of language and theory. Our backgrounds include plying our trade on different platforms and, in one survey run by Susan Farrell and Jakob Nielson, on 75 different categories of products.

It's a world in which phrases like  ‘materialities of space’, ‘cognitive walkthrough’ and ‘mental models’ sit alongside initialisms like HCI, CSS, and HTML, and words like 'interface', 'wireframe' and 'prototype'. It's dictionary soup, and the conversations, debates, disagreements, and new taxonomies give us a deeper understanding of how it all fits together — and also help us to ensure we're recognised for the skills we actually have.

Rather than a laborious, unending problem that needs to be solved, the UX language conversation helps us to refine what we know and understand to be true about our practice. And it's damn interesting as well.

Kathryn Reeves

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