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You like us, but do you know who we are?

User Experience as a discipline is finally starting to be recognized by a wider audience. Two recent press mentions in major publications help to expose the value of our expertise, but as usual I find that they’re creating a greater distinction between design and usability than I’m comfortable with. I consider myself a user experience designer, which to me encompasses interaction design, interface design, information architecture and usability evaluation. The issue of what we’re called and how we present ourselves has been hashed out in many circles, and is particularly well articulated at Montparnas. The discussion is far from over, but I don’t think these articles will help the public perception.

Montparnas’ User Experience Diagram

Ten Jobs You Didn’t Know You Wanted
Fast Company

Right up there with “flavorist,” “sensory brander” and “metaverse evangelist,” is the apparently equally fantastical INTERACTION DESIGNER!! Listed under “Enhancing Life and the Bottom Line.” That is quite a tall order! Who are these lucky suckers and how do they do their voodoo?

According to Fast Company, we “design innovative and user-friendly products.” While I’d hoped that we moved beyond technology simply being friendly to actually being usable, I still appreciate the effort.

It is noted that we investigate user behavior by creating personas of representative users, however they fail to mention that we actually — gasp! — talk to our users in order to get there. And by talk, of course I mean: observe, survey, interview, mind-read and bully.

The entry-level salary range they listed was certainly not something I experienced first-hand, despite the lovely framed piece of paper I have with my name on it. I’m curious to know where they got the figure, and question why they didn’t qualify it by company type (ad agency, design shop, in-house, consulting, etc) or industry.

Usability/User Experience Specialist
A Day in the Life

U.S. News & World Report

On the flip side is the usability specialist, who too has “relentless curiosity about how to make products more user-friendly.” However the role is described as conducting research to determine potential users’ needs and then once a prototype is built to observe them use the product and recommend improvements. The in-between part? I suppose that’s the interaction designer’s job.

I particularly appreciated the list of resources they provided. At least that will allow readers to get a broader sense of what we actually do. Unfortunately all of the books they listed were written before 2000 — no disrespect to Norman, Nielsen or Krug. I understand that they’ve updated their books more recently (Norman in 2002 and Krug in 2005) and they’re certainly biblical works in our field, but a lot more has been published on the subject in the past few years.

The thing that bugs me most about the article is the “Day in the Life” — describing the variety of activities a usability specialist endures as the only person at the company who actually cares about the user –because again they fail to mention, even allude to, the mountain of energy, creative thought, synthesis, genius and discipline that goes into actually CREATING THE PRODUCT. Instead they painfully note that “engineers develop a prototype,” glossing over the how. I think it goes without saying that I find this to be the most critical part of the process. It’s the difference between great intentions and great results.

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  • http://www.chaosscenario.com Cam Beck

    What a surprise. The old media still like their silos and neatly-packaged job descriptions (not unlike how they prefer neatly-packaged politicians, but that’s another story, at another blog).

    This “discipline” (if you can classify it as such) is constantly evolving to the needs of the client, to the needs of the project, and to the needs of the environment. We do what we must to deliver a better product that meets and exceeds the requirements of the consumer.

    We’re tough to pigeonhole, which is both a blessing and a curse.

    It’s a blessing because we can be flexible. It’s a curse because we constantly must prove our value to people who are trying to associate with us a familiar frame of reference that they don’t have.

  • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog whitney
  • http://blog.zszaiss.com Sam

    Funny story from my time at Microsoft. An employee survey asked us to classify our role in the company, and like Cam, I found they were trying too hard to pigeon-hole the UCD function into buckets that didn’t quite work.

    I sent it out to my team, and I some great responses. One is worth sharing; it went something like this: “It’s not even just usability disciplines. I’m technical support at the end of usability studies when a user didn’t get something. I’m QA when I’m arguing for bugs on the same level as other testers to impact the product. And I’m *constantly* selling – not the product, but my own skills and abilities to help people to understand what I do.”

    I’m not sure the need for such a broad skill set is *unique* to our discipline, per se, but with how much its emerging (as Whit points out), we’re going to need to be generalists for a long time to come.