If you want to know about the state of the user experience profession today, Andy Budd is the man to ask. Clearleft’s MD talks to Tom May about the rise in demand for UX skills, the lack of good practitioners and abuse of the term ‘Lean UX’
This article first appeared in issue 225 of .net magazine – the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.
When Andy Budd, Jeremy Keith and Richard Rutter decided to found a British company devoted specifically to user experience in 2005, they were taking a big gamble. “It was a relatively new term then,” reveals Budd. “It was something that was really being pioneered in the States. We hadn’t met any other UX people in the UK. There were lots of usability testing companies, but no user experience companies.”
The early years for Clearleft were an uphill struggle, Budd recalls. “For the first four years, we were pitching against agencies who’d be charging half as much as we did, because we’d be doing all this research and discovery whereas they’d just be jumping straight into design. And clients didn’t really get why we couldn’t just open up Photoshop and start designing things.”
But they were persistent. “We kept on pushing on it, getting better clients and increasing the engagement we had with them. And after three or four years, they stopped asking what this UX thing was and started requesting it.”
In the last couple of years, the tables have turned: there’s been a sea of change in attitudes to user experience across the industry, and consultancies like Clearleft have become massively in demand. “Now every client’s coming to us looking for UX expertise,” Budd smiles. “Companies have suddenly realised they need this higher level skill if they’re going to push their site forward, if they’re going to be converting more visitors.”
But while in general that’s a happy situation, it’s causing problems of its own.
“At the moment we’re in a position where we can’t fill the demand,” Budd reveals. “There aren’t enough good UX practitioners around to hire.” And he worries that this is leading to a dilution in the quality of practitioners across the industry, damaging the profession as a whole.
“Right now, there are lots of people who’ve only been calling themselves a UX designer for a year or two at most,” says Budd. “But when you actually unpack their skillset, they’re not really UX designers, they’re just using it as a label. And that is having a negative effect on the perception of user experience.”
Budd gives his take on how this has come about. “Two things have happened,” he says. “There have been a lot of newcomers into the industry who are not as good as they should be. At the same time all these experienced people are getting more and more experienced. But there aren’t enough mid-level people coming in to fill the gap.
“So there’s a weird imbalance of around 200 senior people in the UK and then lots of junior people with one or two years’ experience. And a lot of the latter are being hired into senior UX positions without the confidence to live up to that ability. So they’re not able to do really good work, and the clients who hired the agency start thinking: ‘Maybe UX isn’t such a good thing’.”
The bulk of UX work these days is design thinking and design facilitation, and then a lot of sketching on paper
It’s not all bad news, though: Budd also points to a positive trend within the profession. “For senior practitioners, UX has changed from being a very formal, document-heavy process to a more ‘lean’ process,” he says.
“Five years ago, the bulk of our work was more formal wireframing, sitemapping, producing lots more formal documentation. But when budgets are being cut and clients are wanting more value, a lot of the senior designers have stopped focusing on documentation and are going more lean and more sketchy.
“The bulk of UX work these days is actually more research, leading discussions and workshops with clients – and so design thinking and design facilitation, and then a lot of sketching on paper.
“Nowadays we often jump straight from sketches into working prototypes without having to do that Visio/OmniGraffle kind of intermediary step. And I think this lean, flexible approach to user experience is definitely a growing trend in the industry.”
It’s a trend that Budd heartily approves of – but there’s a caveat, and it’s a big one. “What I dislike is the ‘Lean UX’ brand and how it’s been misused,” he complains.
“A lot of good UX people have been doing this for a really long time, but some people have come along and jumped on the bandwagon,” Budd contends. “They’ve been using ‘Lean UX’ as a brand, to sell books, to sell conferences, and are making out that this is a new thing that’s been invented by them. And that’s just not the case.”
The result can be pure misinformation, Budd argues. “When you’ve been doing a discipline like UX for a long time, that’s the point where you can decide which parts of the process you can leave out, and which parts are important. But what I’m seeing now is ‘Lean UX’ advocates teaching people that you can leave out 80 per cent of the process. And I don’t think that’s always the case.
“Unfortunately, what seems to be happening is that we’re making people think they’re experts in user experience – when actually they’re not necessarily doing all the right things in the right order.
“A developer can come along and scratch out a few wireframes, and then think ‘That’s the user experience done’ and ‘Now I’m a UX designer’.” In fact, user experience has to be a lot more subtle and a lot more complex than that. “You’re teaching people to cook fast food, when you should be driving them to be really good chefs.”
And since 2005 Clearleft has been on a mission to do just that, helping educate and train fellow design professionals through its UX London and dConstruct conferences. The idea came for dConstruct came about in 2005 after Budd came back from his first SXSW. “There was no other web conference in the UK at the time, and we felt passionately that somebody needed to be doing this,” he recalls.
“They’re our way of giving back to a community that we love – and which none of us would have our jobs without,” Budd adds. “I became a web designer by reading the work of Jeffrey Zeldman and being helped by people on the Brighton New Media mailing list, and various other people and groups. And we want to give new people coming up the same opportunities.”
Something that annoys Budd intensely is the idea that the conference circuit is a closed network. “There’s a misconception that’s it’s an old boys’ club; that you can’t break into the speaking circuit.” In fact, he contends, web design conferences are incredibly open. “For example, the reason I know Jeffrey Zeldman is that I went to SXSW in 2005, and I saw this guy, who was my hero, chatting in a pub, and went up and started talking to him. The more you speak to people, the more you get to know them and they become friends.”
And if you fancy speaking yourself, you have every opportunity to do so, adds Budd. “It’s really easy to get into the speaking circuit if you’re a good speaker and have a really interesting subject to talk about that you’re a specialist on but nobody’s already talking about. But you have to put yourself out there.
“This isn’t X-Factor: you have to do what most bands do. You have to do the equivalent of gigs in dingy pubs – you need to be speaking at local events. Eventually you’ll make a name for yourself and get an invitation to speak to a larger audience.
“Every conference organiser I know is looking for that next great speaker. We go to 50 events each year to find them. So there’s an active desire to get people involved in the speaker fraternity. But it’s down to you to put yourself forward.”