Why web design needs UX experts

A common refrain I've seen on social media is the notion that UX is everybody's responsibility. Who would argue with that? After all, the experience you have of a product is the sum total of all the work that went into creating it: the design, content, performance, QA. Of course UX is everybody's responsibility. These sentiments get tweeted and re-tweeted, and everybody nods along in agreement. 

But if everybody is responsible, why do we need dedicated user experience designers? Maybe UX designer is just a bullshit job title after all. This type of throwaway comment is actually quite insidious, and creates tension in the industry. It dismisses the contribution of an entire discipline, while causing confusion amongst new graduates as they try and make sense of the career paths ahead. 

You never see this sentiment applied to code. You never see articles saying that code quality is everybody's responsibility, because we know developers have specialist knowledge here. Unfortunately there's something about the visibility of design that makes it a fair target. As a result, this sentiment is used to diminish the role of the expert and turn design into an opinion battle.

Shared blame

The reality is slightly different from what the social-media bumper sticker hyperbole would imply. When something is truly everybody's responsibility it also becomes nobody's responsibility. It becomes distributed across a wider team, fitted around their primary duties. Sadly, for all but the most conscientious designers and developers, when the pressure is on we focus on the task at hand and assume somebody else has picked up the mantle.

In smaller teams this approach is understandable. After all, they may not have the resources to hire a dedicated UX designer. In larger organisations – especially tech companies – UX responsibility often becomes a management function; shared between product managers, design managers, and – if you're lucky – the research team. 

In these situations the quality of the resulting experience depends greatly on the backgrounds of those involved. If the product manager and design manager have a strong UX background, the results are often pretty good. If the product manager comes from business or IT, and the designer from brand or marketing, the resulting experience may be slightly more varied. 

Hiring experts

With UX playing such an important role, it feels risky not to have an expert at the helm. It's like making a film with a producer and a cinematographer-turned-director: you may end up with a beautiful-looking, commercially successful film, but the quality of the performances will invariably suffer. Wouldn't it be better to let the producers focus on business logistics, the cinematographer on visual storytelling, and have an experienced director get the best out of the actors, script and narrative? While everybody on set contributes to the movie experience, some are ultimately more responsible than others.

The same is true of digital teams. It's perfectly possible for talented teams to ship great products without the help of a UX designer. It's also true that having somebody responsible for UX is no guarantee of success. However, I believe that having somebody with the sole responsibility of looking after the UX of your product makes a positive outcome more likely. 

This could be a great product manager, a talented lead designer or a UX director. The only necessity is that they have a deep knowledge of interaction design, product strategy, information architecture and human behaviour, along with the authority to represent the user's needs at the highest level of the organisation. 

While UX is everybody's responsibility, it also needs to be somebody's responsibility. To that end, I believe we need UX experts at the helm now more than ever.

This article originally appeared in issue 286 of net magazine; buy it here!

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Andy Budd co-founded Clearleft, one of the first UX agencies in the UK. In 2015 he curated the dConstruct conference on the theme of designing for the future.