Is ‘User Experience’ A Real Discipline?

Ryan Carson, the impresario behind The Future Of Web Apps and other web conferences, attacked the premise of ‘User Experience’ being a legitimate job title — or a discipline of its own — and asserted that UX is just a subset of what web designers and developers should be capable of doing:

Ryan Carson, ‘UX Professional’ isn’t a Real Job

A web site or app should be the product of a Web Designer and a Web Developer (who occasionally are the same person, as demonstrated by Shaun Inman). Anyone else who is added into this equation is a waste of money and time.


You cannot be a ‘UX Professional’ if you are not an experienced Web Designer and involved in the day-to-day process of designing, building, testing, marketing and updating a web project.

This sounds a lot like saying that anesthesia could be provided by the doctor performing surgery on your brain: why have a separate discipline for it, when most of what anesthesiologists know is learned by all other doctors?

Well, in that case, few would argue. So what is it about UX that arouses this contention? Trust me, Ryan Carson is not the only person out there who doesn’t buy UX as its own discipline.

My sense is that UX is perceived as too touchy-feely, too oriented toward people’s (user’s) inner states and motivations. Many folks want software design to be functional — gather requirements, come up with a design that meets those requirements, write code, test — and simply don’t believe that human beings deserve more consideration than that.

Of course, the same arguments could be made about preparing dinner, as Cennydd Bowles points out:

The post’s [Carson’s] misrepresentation of UX is easily refuted: everyone should know how to cook, so why have chefs? The generalist/specialist debate has been replayed in knowledge work for decades, and answered recently by folk smarter than I. But three days later, the rebuttal doesn’t particularly interest me. Nor do I bear Ryan any grudge. Instead, my mind lingers on the painful and disheartening truths behind his post and our discussion.

As I read his tweet, I immediately forsaw the reaction: a hundred angry replies, and a hundred crowing retweets. It confirmed what I have long feared: the UX industry faces a credibility crisis. Victims of our success, we’ve created a rush of interest that has indeed caused some appalling job title inflation. Thousands of mediocre web generalists are now calling themselves UX designers in an effort to gain cash and authority.

The UX industry is becoming polluted by dilettantism. It’s no surprise then that people are attacking the field. We can expect more of it, and there’s a real chance that the fury and division we see in the conversation surrounding Ryan’s post will soon drown out the cause we espouse—designing technology that helps people be productive, empowered, and happy. Our peers are divided, with thousands eager to denounce our work. We have been unable to convince an influential web figure of our value. And this is a real shame since, alongside the flash-in-the-pan opportunists, there are exceptional people in UX who have formed a community of intelligence, generosity and thoughtful action. To see their work and passion decried as quackery makes me tremendously sad.

Andy Budd of Clearleft responds with more personal vitriol, since Carson made his case while attending dConstruct, a conference about user experience and design organized by Clearleft:

I think the reason Ryan thinks that “‘UX professional’ is a bullshit job title” designed to “over-charge naive clients” is because he’s never actually been in the position to need one. If you look at Ryans’ background, he worked for agencies in the late nineties and early noughties when the field of user experience was still in it’s infancy. As such I suspect that he’s never worked with a team of dedicated UX people.

In more recent years Ryan has become a conference organiser and content publisher, producing relatively straightforward websites which really don’t need a dedicated UX person. He’s also dabbled as a start-up entrepreneur, although sadly none have been a huge commercial success as of yet. In fact, Ryan is very much embedded in the bootstrapped start-up culture where all you need is a smart designer and developer to see your ideas come to life. So in early stage start-ups where you’re designing for people like yourselves, you can definitely get away without a dedicated UX person if you’ve got a talented team with enough overlap. However once the project grows, you’ll probably benefit from the help of a dedicated UX professional.

10 years ago I thought much the same way as Ryan. I couldn’t understand how companies could spend millions on a website when a designer and developer could knock something together in a weekend. Similarly why would anybody need a pretentious title like Information Architect when I’m perfectly capable of putting together the site map for the brochureware site I was working on myself?


Sadly I do think Ryan has accidentally hit on something here, and it’s a trend I’m seeing more and more of; web designers with an interest in user experience re-branding themselves as UX professionals. So there are an increasing number of people out there who are calling themselves UX designers because they’ve sketched out some wireframes and sat in on a couple of usability tests.

By contrast a typical UX person will have a much deeper understanding of cognitive psychology, human computer interaction and design research than their graphically focused colleagues. They will have more experience running stake-holder interviews, usability evaluations and ethnographic studies. They will be more versed in the creation of personas, concept models, scenarios, user-flows and storyboards. They will be able to create wireframes and experience prototypes using a wide range of tools and to differing levels of fidelity depending on the questions being asked and the intended audience. In fact there are a whole host of skills that differentiate a UX designer from a more general web designer.

I argue that nearly every time a specialized discipline breaks free of a more general one, the generalists will generally (ha) complain that the speciality is unneeded. And in some cases that may be true, but often there is a shift of worldview involved, not just a deepening of skills possessed by the generalists.

That is certainly the case with user experience: it represents a distinctly different approach to considering the various factors that go into devising the territory where users interact with software. UX values factors differently that traditional software design, and brings some elements to design that traditional software design and development seldom examined, such as social context, user motivations, and cognitive science.

I expect we won’t hear the end of this argument in the near term, and that Cennyd’s concerns about the backlash against UX is realistic: there will be more voices calling ‘bullshit’, although it is unwarranted. Loud cat calls from lot of people who don’t really understand what is behind UX and won’t take the time to understand it.

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