UX is Dead, Long Live UX

Originally published in Ad Age.

In the state of UX, something is off. And I'm voting for the term itself. "UX" is out of date, misused, misunderstood, and it may even be holding brands back from making the best products they can.

To understand why, we have start with a little history. Back in the in the early days of the web, you were a "web designer." That meant you designed and coded pages yourself, often by hand and more often than not in the browser. Sometimes, if you were extra confident, you worked directly off the server. Editing live was an extreme sport, not to be taken lightly.

Along the way, things got complicated and roles started to be more strongly defined. There were designers and technologists. Then design itself started to split between visual and UX, and finally UX itself split into two largely distinct roles.

The first UX role was tactical, a person who created wireframes that spell out the interaction design of a product or service. Such a designer typically produced large documents filled with exacting specifications of how each aspect of the product or service -- every button, selector and menu item -- would work.

The second role occupied a more cerebral space. This person was more like an academic researcher, looking at behavioral data, sociographic studies, and other research to determine how things ought to work.

But no matter which you were, in the end, you delivered something that others would pick up and use. Your end-products included wireframes, storyboards and user journeys. You had a distinct and defined role, and served in a discrete step in a bigger process.

What's changed? Well, everything for starters. As we learned to do more with code and hardware, the tension between the UX and technologists grew. A common complaint was that designers supplied things to the developers that were ridiculous or impossible to build, given time and technology constraints. Developers saw designers as reckless or clueless; designers saw developers as stuck-in-the-mud and resistant to pushing beyond the status quo.

And so, a gap emerged in the market, one that only a few brands have managed to fill. Brands, such as Dollar Shave Club and Amazon in its many forms, have realized that the experience a person has of a modern product, service or brand is shaped by all the disciplines involved in a project. To create a holistic experience, where every "i" must dotted and "t" crossed, every project manager has to think about UX, and so does every designer, coder, salesperson and customer-service rep. Everyone has to understand that they own their own facet of the user experience and must work together to make something useful, engaging and memorable.

In this sense, UX ceases to be a role, but an overarching responsibility. Even if a team has a dedicated UX designer, that no longer means that everyone else can abdicate their responsibilities for delivering a great experience. The best work always results from the whole team being focused on making experiences that have a meaningful impact in people's lives.

In this ideal world, what happens to our old friend, the UX designer? Perhaps she should take on an expanded role. After all, we still need somebody who understands how all the pieces come together to form a complete experience, and who is able to connect the micro to the macro. Such a person is both a team leader and enabler, keeping the big picture in mind and the team motivated.

So UX as a distinct role is dead, but only because UX has taken over everything else. It's no longer a job, it's a duty and the most important goal of everyone in a company.

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