Don Draper is the Antithesis of User Experience

Earlier this month, Fast Company began publishing a series on user experience written by industry analyst Brian Solis.

As soon as I read the first article, I reached out to Brian on Twitter to say that I thought it was crucial that he incorporate the perspectives of practicing user experience designers in order for his series to carry any weight. There has been a lot of pontification on UX by non-practitioners who often get the facts wrong and, though well-meaning, end up causing more harm than good. Brian has a rare opportunity to evangelize User Experience to the broader business community using the highly esteemed platform of Fast Company. It’s a big break that UX folks have been working towards for a long time.

Brian immediately responded that he wanted to do things right and only has the best of intentions. I appreciated his openness and willingness to hear me out. Since I was on my way to the airport for 9 days in Asia, we set up a time to chat a few weeks out.

The second article in the series was published last week, and I certainly never expected that I would be the focus of it — before we’d even had the chance to talk.

The piece is titled User Experience The Don Draper Way and it’s been making waves in the user experience community, not only for being a loose paraphrase of some of my work, but also for his fairly large misinterpretation of its underlying purpose.

Given that I’m the subject of the article and also somehow accidentally responsible for getting myself written about, I felt that it was necessary to formally respond here.

What Brian shared in great detail is the content of my presentation “Design Principles: The Philosophy of UX,” which I have been giving around the world since last May. What he deduced from it is that products should be designed with emotion in mind, and that businesses must take their customers’ feelings into account when creating online and offline experiences for them. This is very much the crux of my message.

However, a big misstep in my opinion is that Brian related emotional design to the creative process of fictional hero Don Draper of AMC’s Mad Men. The highly anticipated return of Mad Men is on March 25, and I too am one of many people with a history working in advertising who adore the characters, feel the nostalgia for times past, and recognize a lot of the drama from our own working environments. But let me make this very clear: Don Draper is the antithesis of user experience. Don Draper is public enemy no. 1 of the user experience community, and relating his approach to generating solutions for his clients to anything that user experience designers do is misguided and borderline offensive.

User Experience is about gaining insight on customers and prospects, and guiding the design of products and services based on direct input from those people on a regular basis. UX is NOT about getting people to do what companies just want them to do. UX is OPPOSITE of advertising. UX is about making things that people actually need, not trying to convince people that they should want them.

Don Draper’s work is self-expression, meaning it comes entirely from his own mind. He drinks a glass of whiskey, kicks his feet up on his desk, daydreams, and ends up with an epiphany of a “big idea” that’ll knock his clients’ socks off — delivering it with affect, poise, and his patented charm. The process of a user experience designer is NOTHING like this. We gather as much intel as we can possibly get our hands on, and we guide the companies we work with to empathize with the needs of their constituents. UX isn’t about expert intuition, it’s about expert listening. Don Draper doesn’t listen.

Brian is open to better understanding the perspectives of UX practitioners and I’m thankful that I get to help educate him on the complexities of our practice. But I have to admit it was a bit embarrassing to be the focus of an article that extolled the virtues of my work and then immediately cut them down with a poor analogy. I don’t believe it was intentional on Brian’s part, I just think that this stuff is way more subtle than most non-practitioners realize.

User experience design is incredibly hard work, and we’re all working our tails off day in and day out trying to help the business world understand where we’re coming from. We have a long way to go, but I know we’re going to get there. And it isn’t by demonizing industry thought leaders like Brian and his counterparts who are only trying to help us along the way.

I thank Brian for his devotion to the topic and I look forward to supporting his effort to better understand it, better share it, and ultimately create a better platform for all of us to stand on.

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  1. says

    This is great. In the past couple months, whenever I’m educating people about design I’ve been using Mad Men as a humorous example of what the design process is NOT. As much as I love that show, it definitely perpetuates some misconceptions about what we do. And, did people really drink and smoke THAT MUCH back then? Sheesh!

  2. says

    I’m a big fan of Whitney and I must say that to not portray her and UX perfectly is something that I will more than make up.

    I absolutely agree that Mad Men is the antithesis of UX and Draper, well, he doesn’t listen. I almost wish that the “carousel” video was from another show, because in that moment…the moment alone, Draper was a human being. It’s as if he empathized with customers because of his own pain…as if he was listening to the customers he was trying to reach, starting with himself. I realize that it only goes so far and that I too have much to learn.

    Thank you Whitney for your help and I look forward to working together.

  3. Kathy Sierra says

    I was relieved to read this post, and to see Brian’s comment here, because I, too, found his Draper post REALLY disturbing. But then I have grown every more weary of discussions around “customer engagement” because they are all about “customers engaging with the BRAND”.

    And the Draper references were all about using empathy to create a feeling in the customer, but again, it is entirely the ad model of creating a feeling ABOUT THE BRAND. The only feeling I care about creating for a user is the one where they are doing something they can feel proud of. Period. Not a fluffy “emotional connection to the brand”, but a powerful, strong feeling of ,”NAILED it,” that comes when they solve a problem and actually DO something they can sit back, look at, and think, “wow, I did that.”

    I agree with Brian’s overall sentiment that UX should be about the customer and not the brand, but what he is saying in the piece does not (to me) support that, and it sure does not support what I think of as user experience. It is STIL the narcissistic brand view but somehow packaged as a user-centered view. But it sounds just like the old joke about brands discovering social media so they could “engage” with customers and find out what was really important to them…

    “But enough about us… We want to hear what YOU think! So, tell is, what do YOU think of us?”

    Real empathy is when you quit viewing empathy as a way to get users to connect with YOU and instead use empathy as a way to connect users to *whatever it is they really want to do*. That is where UX practitioners (or people doing work related to the user’s experience) recognize that the Draper approach is, yeah, the opposite of what actually matters.

    • says

      Kathy, you said it so much better than I ever could. Thank you! I was struggling with how to communicate this, but you just made it so clear for me.

      Don Draper uses empathy to sell a product more effectively. A user experience designer uses empathy to shape a product more effectively — ultimately in the hopes of bettering people’s lives. Just because it’s employing emotion doesn’t make it anywhere near the same thing.

      Advertising is about getting the customer to love the company. UX is about getting the company to love the customer.

      • Kathy Sierra says

        :). If a company has a goal of getting the user to love them (which, you know, ewwwww), at best we get something REALLY dysfunctional. (you already know how I feel about “loyalty” programs… If you had to bribe them for it, it wasn’t actually loyalty).

        The one thing I wish brands understood is that with truly, deeply, sustainably successful products and services — we don’t buy from them because we love the brand… we buy from them because we love *ourselves*.
        Thanks again, Whitney.

      • Terence Wight says

        I like this conversation. Another way to express this difference is that Draper uses emotion to manipulate customers, whereas UX uses emotion as a means to understand the customer in a deeper way so a real, lasting connection can grow from it.
        It’s the shallow -vs- the deep; the trickery -vs- the truth; the sale -vs- the relationship.
        Great reading.

      • says

        “UX is about getting the company to love the customer.”

        I think it is also about getting the customer actually enjoy what the company does or provide.

        Advertising make customers return for the brand, while UX make customers return because they wish to have more of the same experience using a product or service.

  4. Scott says

    Handled with class. Well done Whitney. Perhaps Fast Company and Mr. Solos should allow you to continue writing the series in UX design in order to avoid any further confusion on an already confusing topic.

  5. says

    Hi Whitney,

    I think you’re mistaking product design as user experience. I agree with you that to create a great UX (which basically means how users feel about a product) you need to talk to people to understand their underlying implicit needs (not what they tell you, because obviously they have no clue of how a new product will help improve their lifestyle). Don Draper comes in after the product is built and you need to communicate it’s value to users to entice them to sample it, let’s call it Product Marketing, but it’s all part of overall umbrella of UX which also includes product design, packaging, shipping and after sales among other things


  1. […] between Brian Solis, a social media expert, and Whitney Hess, a UX thinker and strategist (Whitney carried the day, I thought..) Mr Solis had written an article in Fast Company titled User experience the Don Draper […]

  2. […] But sadly as the field of User Experience has matured, it still seems it isn’t any better understood. […]

  3. […] Don Draper is the Antithesis of User Experience […]

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