The Death of User Experience?

That’s perhaps a little premature, and I admit I may be exaggerating for dramatic effect, but I suspect it’s on the horizon.

I’ve long maintained that User Experience is just another in the long line of buzzwords that have afflicted our industry since its inception. Granted it’s now an established buzzword – it’s an absolutely valid discipline, and a role that is becoming increasingly accepted amongst practitioners, managers, recruiters and clients alike, but nonetheless I would argue that the label ‘user experience’, along with the UX acronym, is a non-descript buzzword.

And from where I’m standing, I can’t help feeling it’s one that doesn’t have much longer to run.

The discipline UX represents, as I’ve written elsewhere, is to me really all about product design. It’s about making sure the product is what it needs to be, that it serves the needs of the users as well as of the business. Yet somehow the UX label, for all that it is becoming widely established, has never really had a standard definition. Varying descriptions abound, and in the rush to establish the profession, and in the quest to find a commonly-accepted definition, I can’t help feeling that we’ve lost focus on what it was all about in the first place.

What I’m seeing is a gradual narrowing of the scope of the UX role, the UX discipline, the UX profession. It is becoming much more just a piece in the puzzle, a step in the project plan (which it shouldn’t be, but all too often it is), much more focussed just on the ‘user bit’, and not on the wider experience, the wider product, the overall product conception – the product design.

We don’t yet have an alternative name for that bigger piece. For some reason, we don’t use the term product design – we don’t have digital product designers. We have information architects and user experience architects and interaction designers and web designers and interface designers… and so on.

Certainly, we have product managers – that’s an emerging role, one we’ve  borrowed from other industries. Along with product owner (often used interchangeably, but I think there is a subtle distinction between the two), product manager is – at least client-side, I think – being increasingly seen as the role that owns the product and its conception, that defines the business requirements (though on a lower level that may be the domain of the business analyst role) and makes the decisions about what the product needs to be.

But it seems to me that product managers and product owners are still being seen as separate from user experience, and I wonder whether they shouldn’t be? I think we have (and always have had) a need for a role that is what user experience used to be before it was called user experience – a role that champions both the business and the user, that owns the vision; someone who, put simply, designs the product.

It’s what I’ve started calling the digital architect. (Full disclosure: I am of course describing my own role, so I may be biased!)

Digital simply because we work in the digital domain. I don’t think it’s enough to say ‘web’ or ‘mobile’ or ‘app’ etc, and equally I think ‘interactive media’ is clumsy nowadays – it worked well for a while, because we are after all talking about interactive media, but nobody calls it that any more, and I think ‘digital’ is just simpler.

Architect because in a sense, the role is analogous to what an architect would do on a building project – it’s the person who works with the client to understand their needs; who identifies and understands who is going to be using this product (building), and how they’re going to be using it – what their needs and expectations are, and therefore what the product or building needs to do and be, in order to serve both the user needs and the business requirements. It is only by blending those two, by paying attention to both business and user, that we can create a successful product.

It seems to me that, at the beginning, this was the preserve of those who later got called user experience designers. But increasingly I’m finding this is no longer the case – user experience is becoming more specialist, more targeted, more fragmented. And that’s leaving a gap at the top for someone responsible for the overall design.

Now, I know making predictions is always risky, but I’m going to make one nonetheless. And that is that, within a few years, user experience – and user experience designers, architects, consultants etc. – will have a far narrower role, with less value-add, and a lower day rate to boot. And UX really will be just a line in the project plan, just another role on the team that gets called in after work has started, after the high-level conceptual design has already been done.

And the person doing that high-level conceptual work, the person responsible for designing the product, will have a title that we haven’t defined yet. I’d like to think it will be digital architect, but who knows? Titles are meaningless, after all ;-)


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.

2 thoughts on “The Death of User Experience?

  1. Ian Armstrong

    I mean, UX was making serious inroads on relevance, it was in demand, and user centered design was ascendent. Then paychecks went up due to lack of inventory, so every UI designer slash-lined their title and demanded a raise (UI/UX Design anyone?). That homogenized the field back to nearly square one.

    Right now, what you think of as UX or Product design is the realm of the Interaction Designer; which is a role seen as a luxury to all but the largest of budgets. Thats a mistake, but it is what it is. We’re right back where we started. The only difference is now we call thumbnail sketches wireframes.

    There will be another boom. Maybe next time it’ll be a little smarter.

    1. Jon Post author

      Funnily enough, Interaction Designer was the title we used way back when I was first starting out, twenty years ago. It comes and goes. At the moment I’m seeing it mostly being used as yet another narrowly defined role, that often seems to get involved after UX. Just goes to show – describe a role to five different people and ask them to name it and you’ll likely get five different titles back; or conversely, ask them to describe the same job title and you’ll probably get five different definitions… ;-)


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