C’mon you guys. Saying that UX is limited to product design is patently false. We’ve been talking systems and context for years.
— Jesse James Garrett (@jjg) March 15, 2013
Every day, the value of UX is being uncovered more and more. It is being recognized as something that contributes to more than just product design. The design of systems, services, and journeys are all becoming legitimate focuses separate from traditional design skills. Even degrees in psychology are starting to appear in job description requirements. A higher-order paradigm of UX is slowly overtaking the outdated view that it is only deliverable discipline. This is the sentiment that UX designers need to start taking to heart.
Raiders of the Lost Art
In the UX is not UI article, I wrote: “UX is the intangible design of a strategy that brings us to a solution.” I think I used the word “strategy” because it is more familiar to people from the business development world. If I were to hone the meaning right now, I would probably trade strategy for systems: “UX is the intangible design of systems that bring us to solutions.” A subtle change, but I think it resonates better with higher-order UX. Moving from thinking of UX as a production skill, and into thinking of it as a systems theory skill.
One of the reasons it has been trapped as a production skill is the idea that the artifacts we create are goal of UX. Creating a wireframe or mockup off the cuff, with no UX work really coming before it, propagated the idea that jumping to endpoint artifact creation was enough. This led to a pushback from the UX community to get away from artifacts as a highlight and focus on the more intangible aspects. I agree with the sentiment, and I think the point of artifacts needs to be reiterated and cast in the appropriate light. A clear message about the purpose of UX and how artifacts are used.
The message is simple: become true UX archaeologist-adventurers and find the lost meanings. Make the switch from designing for artifacts to designing for experiences.
Every clue he followed. Every discovery he made.
Cultures create artifacts. They are discovered by chance, dug up and sent to museums to be analyzed. They are a tangible output of a cultural system, experienced by those who journey through that system. Without knowing that journey and context firsthand, we infer things about the people that created these artifacts and what the world must have been like to influence the design of such creations. The clues are pieced together until we feel that we have some sort of representative picture.
The purpose of artifacts is to symbolize something; to turn the abstract into the concrete. The concepts can be communicated between people and maintain a consistent shared meaning. Without meaning, there would be no emotional impact. Without emotional impact, experiences are dull and forgettable.
I’m not much of a post-structuralist, so let me bring it back into the context of this blog. If we take this idea and apply it to UX, all of the artifacts we create during the design process are just symbols used for shared understanding between the people involved in both the creation and consumption processes. The sketches, flows, wireframes and mockups are symbols that facilitate the design and development process. The interfaces, interactions, sights and sounds are symbols that facilitate the user’s experience. They all serve the purpose of conveying intent and meaning. The quality of what we create depends on the quality of the process we use when trying to document and communicate the intent and purpose behind all of our hastily done drawings and notes.
It belongs in a museum
The problem that teams and organizations run in to is when UX artifacts don’t convey a shared understanding they become ambiguous relics. The value is questionable and the intent unclear. These are the un-validated personas, the nonexistent IA flows, the out-of-context wireframes, the UI based on guesswork or habit. We look down at these relics and say, “Well, let’s build the best thing we can with the knowledge we have.” It’s pseudo-UX on par with cable-news commentators treating the bogus surveys on their website as a valid source of statistical research.
Without the contextual knowledge, we’re simply antiquity raiders stealing things we don’t fully understand. Shiny things that are devoid of meaning. But we know with a little hand-waving they can be sold for a profit. If you’re a real UX archaeologist-adventurer, you know the importance of artifacts and the context and meaning they symbolize. You know how easily they can be misused and fall into the wrong hands. Save them, Obi Wa– (oops wrong movie).
I’m going after a find of incredible historical significance
When we examine an historic artifact; a golden idol or clay tablet, we do our best to peer back in time and figure out the context of why it was created. We dig for clues, make inferences, or just rely on intuition to try and figure out why this artifact exists at all. Applied to design and UX, we look at our creations and judge them as bad experiences, difficult to use, or a solution in search of a problem. It may be a finished product, a service, an interaction, a wireframe, a prototype, literally anything that is “produced.” We end up with pseudo-UX again, artifacts that resemble the tools of UX design, but aren’t linked to any clear shared meaning.
So we look backwards to figure out why the experience is bad, why the product isn’t usable, or in extreme cases why the product even exists at all. We become UX archaeologists-adventurers trying to find the origins of how this thing came to be. We dig towards the center, knowing that when we find what is buried beneath we can venture back out with the knowledge we need to give that artifact meaning.
“And what did you find?” “Me? Illumination.”
The most important thing to remember is that people experience systems, not artifacts. Artifacts are ONLY useful as facilitators of an experience; no exceptions. It is a false assumption to think that your product or service has no “UX.” Everything has a design and everything has a user experience that is judged from bad to good.
Thinking of systems as something UX can design is a bit of a departure from the factory-floor world of delivering Tayloristic artifacts. This is especially true if your organization or team is a top-down structure where all the people in the process aren’t integrated and represented. They are broken into cadres that handle various aspects of the process, passing artifacts down to the next group with the artifact’s intent accepted a priori. It’s the bane of the individual contributor who wants to be more involved in the early stages of a process, and an obstacle of real UX design thinking.
You’re strangely dressed for a knight.
UX is the business of context and meaning. When we start by designing contexts and systems, the emergent artifacts become much more valuable. We won’t be buying and selling them like antiquity smugglers, we’ll be producing things out of a system that has a clear vision of why and how it produces things. These artifacts have a context that creates a shared meaning between stakeholders, and evokes emotion in those who experience it.
As UX continues to evolve, the bullet-list of UX competencies won’t just be artifact-creating skills. It will become list of ways that UX designers contribute to the facilitation of a much larger vision. This is the definition of real UX. Stop trying to solve problems by focusing on building better artifacts. Commit to designing better contexts and designing better systems. Meaningful and relevant artifacts will be the natural result of this process.
We’re all on a UX adventure together. The next time you have the opportunity to choose between context based UX and artifact based UX, choose wisely.