Goodbye UX, My Heart’s Just Not In It Any More

I’ve hesitated to publish this, as I’m aware I might be massively shooting myself (and my career) in the foot by doing so. But my career is less important to me than speaking my mind, and anyway, I’m retiring. So this is what I’m thinking right now. I may take a different view some day further on. I am also conscious that spending a few years working inside the British Government on a Brexit-related project has massively sapped my energy and left me extremely disillusioned for the UK’s future. So that may well be tainting my view! But for now I think the UX industry needs a few home truths spelling out, and after twenty-five years in it, I don’t really feel any need to hold back, or to try to protect my position. So, here goes… ;-)

I wonder whether I might be the first – or at least one of the first – of my generation to retire from the UX profession?

By generation I mean those of us who grew up with digital media, who have spent our entire careers in “new media”, who started out in the early-to-mid-1990s, at the same time as the Web started to gain traction and become commercialised. Those of us who have spent the last twenty-five years in what is now called User Experience. The veterans. The pioneers.

Why am I retiring?

Primarily because my heart’s just not in it any more.

But isn’t UX supposed to be fun, creative, challenging, fulfilling?

Yes it is. And I still love designing things – understanding problems and trying to solve them. And maybe after a period of recharging my batteries, I might get back into it, perhaps do the odd project here and there, as and when something takes my interest.

But as an industry, as “the UX profession” – I’ve had enough of it.

I’m fed up of the constant navel-gazing, the constant agonising over what UX is. I’m fed up of the debates over processes. I’m fed up of the constant redefining of labels, the never-ending fragmentation of roles, the increasing specialisation of skillsets at the expense of good design. And the constant reinventing of the wheel.

If the time and effort that went into all this self-analysis was instead put into actually doing good design work, maybe we would actually have some good design work to show for it? Maybe we wouldn’t have so much absolutely terrible software out there? Maybe it wouldn’t have been literally years since I last saw a digital product that gave me a “wow, that’s really great” moment?

I’m fed up of people who don’t have the first clue about design being able to get away with calling themselves designers. I’m fed up with ‘UX’ being stuck in front of literally any other job title you care to imagine, as if that’s the panacea for everything.

“UX” has become a cash cow for the under-skilled and ill-equipped.

I’m fed up of seeing bad designs see the light of day because, variously, the designers were inexperienced, or didn’t know how to identify and design for the edge cases, or because someone thought designing only for the happy path was sufficient, or because the project didn’t have the time, resource or inclination to do it properly. Or because no-one thought to think beyond the obvious.

But I’m also fed up with processes and politics that strangle design, stifle innovation, and derail projects. With organisations that don’t give design the support it needs. With businesses that take their customers for granted and think unusable software is acceptable.

And talking of innovation, I’m fed up with people who talk of “doing innovation” as if it’s something you can switch on and miraculously make happen. Spoiler: it’s not. Innovation happens. It is retrospective. It follows on from doing great design work.

I’m fed up with corporate CEOs and Boards who still don’t get the value of design (quite frankly, if that’s you, fire yourself – you’re not doing your job properly).

I’m fed up of seeing designs never come to fruition because projects got cancelled or priorities changed.

I’m fed up of seeing months’ worth of painstaking design devolve to shit due to budget or time constraints, or because the designers were rolled off the project before development had finished, or because developers were allowed to deviate from the design and make their own decisions without referring back to the designers.

I’m fed up with the idea that everyone has an equal voice in the design process. That, say, developers understand users as much as designers. No they don’t. Just look at any number of terrible apps to see that in evidence. Design is not a f*cking democracy.

I’m fed up with the idea that it’s ok to release unfinished and/or untested (and all too often utterly shit) software as a ‘beta’ because “it’s better to fail fast” or “it’s better to get something out there quickly and fix the bugs later”. I’m fed up of the industry thinking it’s ok to inflict pain and frustration on its users.

But I’m also fed up that the UX supply-side doesn’t have the skills, experience, gravitas needed to prove its worth. Too many under-resourced projects, run badly, with inexperienced teams, producing poor results, perpetuating the view that UX isn’t worth proper investment.

And yet the paradox is that demand for it is so great that there isn’t enough skilled supply – so the demand is filled by new entrants with too few skills and too little experience. It says a lot that five years is considered ‘senior’. It becomes a self-fulfilling vicious circle of mediocrity.

UX isn’t a profession. It has become a commodity, a line in a Gantt chart, a box to be ticked, a budget to be spent. Especially in agency-land.

And I’m fed up with recruiters who haven’t got a clue, who keep trying to fit square pegs into round holes (I should probably say something about being fed up with cliches, too ;-) And who keep asking for square pegs that are also triangular, octagonal, and infinitely-sided, while also having perpendicular lines but at the same time parallel.

I’m fed up with the bullshit, basically. Because that’s what UX has become – utter, total, smelly, steaming bullshit.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not disillusioned with Design, by any means. Just with the UX profession, the UX industry.

But I’m also fed up with our education systems that still seem unable to instil the skills, attributes, competencies, that designers, digital professionals, indeed pretty much anyone in the knowledge economy, will need to survive and thrive. We still seem to see skills and careers in terms of industrial-age models, in terms of specialisms rather than all-round cross-disciplinary competencies. We still don’t seem to be instilling critical thinking and problem solving as widely, and as early, as it is desperately needed.

So, you may ask, why don’t I dive in, get involved, help to educate those coming into the industry now, try to change the conversation? I don’t have the energy quite frankly. Been there, done that. I’ve tried. But it’s just too big.

The blind are leading the blind, and the sighted are poking their eyes out in frustration.

I’ve had an amazing career. I’ve done some fantastic and fun projects. I’ve learned a huge amount, won some awards, and I hope along the way given something back.

From the early days of developing interactive CD-ROMs and pushing the boundaries of what could be achieved with tools like Macromedia Director. To developing the first corporate web site for the then-biggest company in the world. To designing systems and processes for governments. To authoring National Occupational Standards and National Skills Strategies. To setting up a trade association for freelancers. To being a visiting lecturer and tutor at The Royal College of Art and other universities. To giving conference talks and workshops. To mentoring and supporting young innovators, entrepreneurs and designers. I’ve had some fantastic opportunities, and I hope I’ve done them justice.

I do still love designing – the process of understanding and solving problems, of getting creative and trying out ideas. And the UX (aka good design) process remains absolutely valid. I have no intention of giving up design. I just don’t really want to be part of the industry that UX has become.

I dare say there are still enough enlightened organisations out there that I may find an occasional interesting project or consultancy gig to get involved with here and there in future. Something will tempt me back, I’m sure ;-) Or maybe I’ll just do stuff for myself – I have 25 years’ worth of project ideas kicking around after all, that perhaps I can now find time for…

I know that there are some truly great people around, and I hope that, given the right environment, they will have the chance to shine. But there are not enough of them. And they are surrounded by a sea of mediocrity, wallowing in bullshit, politics, and procrastination. Even some of the best will drown in it.

Perhaps I’m drowning in it. Whatever. I need to get out.

To those staying in:

  • Stop agonising over what UX is. It’s design.
  • Stop thinking you’ve invented something new when all you’ve done is re-invented the wheel yet again.
  • Stop worrying about the differences between UX, Product Design, Service Design, UX Product Design, UX vs UI, Interaction Design vs Information Architecture, etc etc. It’s all Design. And it’s really boring seeing that discussion still going on.
  • Stop inventing new roles. A UX Developer is a Developer. A UX Copywriter is a Copywriter.
  • Stop worrying that everything is changing so fast. No it’s not. The basic principles of good design (understand the problem, hypothesise solutions, test them, iterate) haven’t changed in thousands of years.
  • Stop agonising over which tools to use, or whether Sketch is better than Axure is better than Adobe XD or whatever. You should know enough to be able to quickly adapt to any of them.
  • Stop worrying about your next career move, or your job title.
  • Don’t specialise. Learn as much as you can, get exposure to as many aspects of work, projects, business as you can. The role you have right now might be specialist, but your career won’t be. You’re going to need a lot of different specialisms, and the more you have, the better you’ll be at each.
  • Have a vision. Yes user input is important; design research and testing with actual users is vital. But what they tell you is just an input. You need to interpret that. Balance it with other considerations. See how it fits in with the overall product intention.
  • Make the decision. Don’t delegate to users. Users don’t always know what they want or what they can have. They are not always right. As a designer that’s your job. Design like you’re right, test like you’re wrong.
  • Yes you do need to know some code.
  • Yes you do need to be able to write interface copy.
  • Yes you do need an attention span greater than a few seconds. You do need to be able to read and absorb specifications, briefs, analysis, reports, contracts.
  • And you need to be able to pay attention to detail: understand the brief, make sure objects in your design are aligned, proofread copy, check your work, make sure it’s of a professional standard.
  • And for god’s sake stop flooding LinkedIn, Twitter, Medium etc with yet more bullshit self-promoting blind-leading-the-blind articles.

Above all, just focus on doing good design.

And if you don’t yet know how to do good design, do this:

  1. Go to university and get your Bachelor’s degree. Take a combination of subjects that includes at least one of: psychology, human factors, industrial or product design, architecture, computer science. Do not take anything with ‘media studies’ in the name. But keep in mind the value of studying for a degree is as much in the academic rigour, critical thinking skills, and ‘learning how to learn’ you’ll acquire, as it is in the subject itself.
  2. Do a Masters degree in a design-related subject: e.g. interaction design / HCI, computer-related design, human factors, industrial or product design, architecture etc. Yes, good UX requires Masters-degree-level thinking skills.
  3. Spend the next 3 to 5 years serving your apprenticeship – join an agency, join or found a start-up or small business, join a client-side UX team. Better yet, do all three – spend a year to eighteen months in each. Get as much experience as you can of as many different aspects of the business, clients, projects, and production as you can get access to.
  4. Now you’re ready to call yourself a junior designer. Go looking for jobs accordingly.
  5. After another ten years or so, with any luck you’ll have enough experience to call yourself senior. Notwithstanding that the job ads will tell you three years is mid-weight and five is senior. Bullshit. There’s no shortcut to experience.
  6. Once you’ve got maybe 20 years’ experience behind you, you can probably confidently claim you’ve mastered your craft. But of course if you’re really a good designer, you’ll know that the craft is never truly mastered – you can only ever get closer… and closer… and closer… And then you die ;-)

That’s all folks. (For now…)

About Jonathan Hirsch

I've been working in the interactive media industry since 1995. I'm a problem-solver with a multi-disciplinary skill set. I work on a freelance / contract basis. I help clients create great digital products.

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