The Rise of User Experience Design

The past few years has seen a major rise in the use of the term “user experience design” or UX as it is commonly known. It seems to be everywhere, especially in the digital space. Companies now have dedicated teams working specifically on it and new job titles like ‘User Experience Specialist’ or ‘User Experience Architect’ are surfacing. So what has caused this sudden rise in popularity? And what are people really talking about when they use the term ‘User Experience Design’.

The Wikipedia page on “User Experience” states that “ User Experience Design (UX) refers to a person’s emotions and attitudes about using a particular product, system or service.” My take on this is that essentially UX is about designing a product, system or service that a user feels good about, that encourages engagement and generally leaves a positive impression.

I think the first point to make is that although user experience has become very popular in the last few years it is far from a new concept. I can only really speak for the design and digital industry but I am pretty sure that designers don’t design with the intention of creating bad user experiences. Designers have experimented with layout, stocks, print finishes, packaging all in the art of creating a good user experience. Equally developers don’t set out with the intentions of creating something that users will hate, therefore why weren’t we happy with just calling it design?

In recent years, the industry as a whole has focussed on digital. These days even the term graphic design gets automatically associated with the web. A few years ago that wasn’t the case, and while this evolution has been happening, UX has created it’s own little niche. The rise of websites, apps, smart phones, tablets and everything else that comes with modern technology means that this was inevitable. My theory is it started with major organisations who needed to dominate and lead the digital space. Someone like the BBC, who developed a User Experience and Design team to work on creating a seamless cross platform experience that left users wanting more. After that UX just became infectious and then everyone started using it.

I came across this article by Michael Beirut on Twitter (via @kaeru) that implies designers want to be admired for their thinking instead of their making and that we want respect as a business brain not just a stylist. The article seems to suggest a change in attitude towards visual design and I can’t help but think the rise in UX is related. It suggests that user interface/interaction design is potentially being moved aside and that the focus has turned towards UX. I can understand where this change in mindset has come from but we also need to be careful not to lose the craft.

A simple search for user experience in Google brings up multiple UX websites that ironically have awful user experience. There are many online UX Audits that now help you determine how good or bad your website is and I am yet to find one that has anything in it that we don’t do at Cargo. Now thats not because we can’t improve our products or service in any way, it’s just that the points raised in the majority of these checks are standard design considerations.

As professionals, I think we need to be weary of its misrepresentation and misuse. I don’t doubt UX has it’s place, on the right project it can be absolutely vital to it’s success. However we need to make sure we aren’t milking it for all its worth. At times I am left very frustrated by its misuse and I worry if we over use the term people will just grow immune. People will fear it rather than embracing the good it can bring to a project.

Personally, User Experience Design has to focus on strategy and understanding the emotions and trends of your users. It is about how a user feels as they interact with the user interface of a website, application or software etc. It has to be much more analytical and at times critical, but it has to come hand in hand with visual design. I feel it really adds value on projects that have a complex user journeys like an e-commerce website or recruitment website. It also has massive value for companies who have user based software or applications, like Facebook and Trello.

People will tell you we are in the time of user-centred design, therefore it is vital to have a UX specialist on your project. I would argue that we have always been in a time of user-centred design. We need to be realistic and understand that not all projects or companies will require a specialist. By having a good team of designers, developers and marketers who understand their fields you will have more than enough user experience expertise at your disposal.