UX as Art & Science

In the past few years, I’ve read a number of articles which argue that User Experience (UX) is not just about the User Interface (UI). One of the earliest (perhaps the first) on this theme was Erik Flowers’ piece in late 2012, which was later canonized in a poster. The authors of these various articles make lots of great points – many of which I’ve made myself.  But still it seems the confusion persists.   Why is that the case?  In a recent article about her departure from Forrester and what she’s learned, Leah Buley (formerly of Adaptive Path) states:

With so many people in the conversation—and some of them, frankly, much better at speaking in compelling business terms—the in-house UX teams and the specialized UX service providers are, too often, marginalized as mere UI design while the big work goes to the big kids.

I would agree with Buley that a significant part of our challenge is how (and with whom) we are communicating. But we need to be able to back up that communication with business-relevant delivery of UX. Based on my experience, that is often a challenge as well.

The field of User Experience is only 20 years old, and in many ways is still emergent. The fact that the field an amalgamation of skills and ways of working from a variety of disciplines make it a real challenge for us to communicate our unique value proposition to interested business stakeholders. But I also believe that our approach is defensive – ‘UI IS NOT UX!’, we’re yelling. As UX professionals we are using language that is familiar to us, but doesn’t resonate outside of our field. We’re yelling in an echo chamber.

As I continue to raise awareness – both inside and outside of ZS – about the value of User Experience capabilities, I have felt an increasing need to talk about this in new ways. I believe that the desire to do more than user interface work is about being part of business conversations with our clients and stakeholders. We don’t want to be handed a bunch of decisions and asked to make them look good. So, here I would like to share with you one of the ways that I’m talking about what we do and why it’s important. Hopefully it will not only elevate the conversation within our practitioner community, but also expand it outwards beyond those disciplinary boundaries.

In very simple terms, I explain to my executives sponsors, stakeholders, and clients that the best user experience work is a blend of art and science combined with business acumen. UX draws on concepts, tools, methods, and practitioners from a variety of fields, including the fine arts (industrial, product, and graphic design), psychology, sociology, anthropology, engineering, and ergonomics.

UX as Art & ScienceThe reality is that artistic aspect of User Experience is best understood across many industries today – “help us make our dashboard nicer-looking”. In these cases, User Experience is virtually synonymous with User Experience Design. In fact, many of the designers in our team at ZS today have been trained in the fine arts, and they bring a set of recognizably new skills to the firm. Those skills are what often initially draw clients and colleagues to us; there is a recognition that these skills are different from typical engineering and business school hires. But focusing on the appearance or ‘presentation layer’ of a solution draws almost exclusively on the artistic aspect of UX. In my experience here and elsewhere, the orientation towards appearance also brings with it the tendency for late involvement in projects, which leaves little room for developing human understanding alongside business requirements.

In reality, the scientific aspect of User Experience is absolutely critical for it to be business relevant. Through primary user research, UX professionals can bring empirical data about end-users’ work context, processes, habits, and preferences. Those insights can play a critical role in enabling decision-making by clients and project teams. Here at ZS, the User Research offerings in our service catalog are also strongly aligned with business goals of delivering measurable impact to our customers. We have to understand business context and goals – and be fluent in ways we can contribute to their measurement – if UX is ever to be relevant.

In addition to the power of measurable impact (which I’ll talk more about in a future post), without an adequate understanding of the target users and their behavior, UXers may not solve the right problem, not solve it for the right people, or not solve it correctly. If we don’t advocate for human understanding before design, we risk further undermining our credibility in enabling business decision and change.

Hopefully this will provoke some discussion and perspective from you. How / do you talk about your UX work in a way that resonates with clients and business stakeholders and clients? I’d love to hear from you about what works!

5 Comments on “UX as Art & Science”

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  2. I couldn’t agree more with “I also believe that our approach is defensive – ‘UI IS NOT UX!’, we’re yelling”. I can relate to this very well. Have seen it time and again. As designers, we work very hard to understand what the user feels/wants but we fail to do the same when we have to explain it to the people working with us. Instead of getting defensive, it is important to be able to understand your users(which is the case even in your work environment) and systemically think about how you would help your coworkers understand and see value from what we are able to deliver.

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