UX: a Process or a Task?

May 26th, 2015
Published on
May 26th, 2015

Gene is an interaction designer. During a sales call, he’s asked if he “does UX.” He assures the client that he does, and the client asks why he isn’t a “UX designer?” Gene explains that either term fits his work. The client wants to know if Gene will conduct usability testing, and Gene says no, he works with a researcher who will do that. The client is confused: if Gene “does UX,” doesn’t that include both design and testing?

For some, UX is associated with process, rather than a specific job or activity. The “UX process” is the steps taken by a design team in order to create… something. For others, UX is a job, or a responsibility that feeds into many jobs, or perhaps it’s just a fancy word for “design.” The language can be a bit circular, but the questions are important ones: if UX is a process, then what is it we are creating? And if it’s not a process, then what is it? And perhaps above all, who is responsible for ensuring that “UX” happens?

In this UX Booth roundup we’ll take a look at three articles that explore the most recent iteration of the term “user experience.” Each article shares a different perspective on how we should approach UX, and what UX really is—a process, a job, or an abstract concept.

    Why should this matter to UX designers in the field? Several reasons.

  1. The first step to breaking the rules is learning the rules. In other words, a UX designer will be stronger and better at her job if she understands the rationale behind following the process or breaking it.
  2. Clients rely on UX practitioners to be the experts. We are expected to understand the smallest details of our rapidly changing field.
  3. 91% of millennials plan to stay at a job for less than three years. Which means there’s a high likelihood of working with different people in just a few years. The transitions will be easier if we keep up with the varying perspectives on UX.

Since this roundup is looking at trends in UX, it’s only fitting that the articles we’re looking at all come from a currently trending site: Medium. As an added benefit, Medium allows readers to comment on specific paragraphs and phrases, so if any of these articles ring true or bring up new ideas, readers are welcome to comment on the articles and hopefully spark further conversations and insights.

User Experience for Product Designers

To begin with, we’ll look at an article by Paul Hershey about the UX process. In this very popular how-to, Hershey explains a step-by-step for conducting the UX process while building products. He incorporates best practices and outlines five steps, each containing a handful of activities.

  • Preplanning (user stories, user flows)
  • Exploration (sketching, IA, prototypes)
  • Design (mockups, hand-off)
  • Quality Assurance (speed and errors, microdetails)
  • Feedback

Hershey explains that the reason for this article is because “on small teams where time resources are limited user experience can often be overlooked.” Therefore, this article is intended to provide a “low impact” UX cycle that can be easily followed. In other words, Hershey is providing a variation on the UX process, to incorporate the specific needs of the product design process.

This image belongs to Paul Hershey

Caption: The UX process for product design, by Paul Hershey.

Here’s what makes Hershey’s article something special: he made the ambiguous into something concrete. By identifying a step-by-step UX process, and putting it in a very specific context (product design), he wrote an article that serves as a guiding light that others can follow. To the many UX aficionados who believe that UX is a concept, or an overarching goal, Hershey is saying no: here is a process, a concrete one, and a replicable one.

Debunking the UX Myth. Over Again.

What if user experience could be defined as a specific role, done by a specific person with the job title “UX designer,” and could result in “adding UX” to a product or service? In her article Debunking the UX Myth. Over Again. Catalina Rusu says exactly that. Now, to the many UX professionals starting to boo, and say “UX is more than that!” wait before you judge and look at the details Rusu brings up.

Most importantly, Rusu is not saying that UX is minor or unimportant. However, she does say it is a single element, and not a giant, overarching concept. She believes the UX designer is essentially the business designer.

The UX designer is ultimately a strategist that tailors a well documented plan to build a solution, and whose way of thinking is deeply rooted in the Design Thinking process the way it was defined and popularized by IDEO.”
-Catalina Rusu

Rusu then goes on to explain that though a UI designer may also be a UX designer, it is entirely possible to design user interfaces (and be good at it!) without being responsible for the full user experience. She concludes by asking others to consider hiring separately for a “UX designer” (i.e. business designer) and a “UI designer.” All in all, her view of the UX designer is quite a lofty one, and expects quite a bit out of one person—part behavior analyst, part content strategist, part IA, part interaction designer—and yet she seems to bypass the possibility that each role (UI designer, content strategist, IA, interaction designer, and even business designer) might be held responsible to carry out the user experience.

In short, Rusu argues that (contrary to Hershey’s concrete UX process), user experience is the process of designing the business’s goals and strategies.

UX is UI

Which brings us to Mike Atherton, and his recent article UX is UI. Atherton begins by reminding readers of something we too often forget: when memes become popular, they are sometimes retold without context, and thus lose all meaning. Specifically, Atherton points out the phrase “UX is not UI,” which began as a reminder not to conflate visual design with usability, but has now become a sort of battle cry for semantical specificity.

Atherton goes on to remind us what a user interface is: a command line, a GUI, a mobile device, even wearables have an interface through which to communicate. Since there is no one-size-fits-all solution for user interfaces, the creation of any interface requires research and analysis, in short: the UX process. Which brings Atherton to the conclusion:

Explicitly or implicitly, the user interface is the interface between the customer and the business… So UX design is UI design; we’re building all the enabling means by which the business and customer connect.”

In this way, Atherton puts the responsibility on everyone working in the user experience field, which is to say everyone who designs systems, creates communications, or develops digital and physical tools. He says that UX is a mentality, a concept, a beacon for us to use to light our way. He reminds us that we are all, at heart, designing relationships.

Where to go from here?

As Atherton says, “there’s no one-size-fits-all.” It’s as true in UX as it is when talking about UX. For some of us, UX is the process we follow. For others, UX is the mentality we manifest. For still others, it is the role we have. The most important thing is not to let UX become “someone else’s job,” thereby removing ourselves from the field. For readers who want to dig deeper and continue discussing what user experience really is, here are a few resources to get started:

Comment on these three articles on Medium, and add your own perspective there or in the comments here.
Read the transcript of Jon Colman’s Confab keynote, Wicked Ambiguity, and explore other ways that content strategists and other UX professionals can make a difference.
Watch Mike Montiero’s award winning talk, How Designers Destroyed the World. Think about what he’s saying, and to what degree we are all responsible for what we put out into the world.