If you listen to the current buzz around user experience (UX) design, you could be led to believe that it’s a relatively new and ill-defined field. This couldn’t be further from the truth: UX design is a mixture of several disciplines – usability, information architecture, interaction design and more – that have roots in a time before the existence of the internet.
There were plenty of companies following the same approach as us when Clearleft was set up as a UX consultancy in 2005, although almost all were based in the US. Conferences like the IA Summit have been around for over 15 years and Lou Rosenfeld’s Information Architecture for the World Wide Web (known as ‘The polar bear book’) is approaching its 15th birthday.
A lot has changed in the UX world, however. Most of my peers cut their teeth in large organisations: public broadcasters, universities and financial institutions, for instance. As such, UX used to be a much more formal discipline rooted in academia. It’s only in the last five or six years that a new wave of design-focused practitioners has emerged. These are people who learnt their skills not through degrees in HCI (human-computer interaction) or information science, but at the coalface; and these designers and developers have brought a new, more practical approach to UX problem-solving.
The current trend is a move away from formal, document-driven processes towards a more lightweight approach. Low-fidelity sketches and working prototypes; not large reams of paper and wireframes. The old-fashioned way of spending months producing documentation is fine in a big corporate environment, but UX design isn’t about churning through documents. It’s a mode of understanding and interrogation – a process of discovery. A lot of what we do can’t be represented physically. We do more sketches on paper than anything else these days.
While UX design has been around for a long time, it has suddenly become the hot new thing – companies have woken up to the need for a more considered approach to designing interactive systems, but a lot of agencies have rebranded as UX agencies without any real experience or understanding. A lot of under-experienced people are being hired into roles that they’re not really qualified to undertake, which is serving to have a profoundly negative effect on the perception of UX.
User experience is a huge field of enquiry. To legitimately call yourself a UX designer, it needs to be your primary focus – the bulk of your working life will be involved with activities like user research, wireframing, prototyping and testing. If you’re still spending a lot of your time in Photoshop or writing production-ready code, calling yourself a UX designer is somewhat misleading in terms of the expectations that employers or clients might have. That’s not to say designers and developers shouldn’t take an interest in all things UX – but there’s a very large difference between knowing a little and making it your full-time career.