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How The Popularization Of User Experience Is Diluting The Details

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On 08, Jul 2012 | 4 Comments | In Design, User Experience | By Sarah Doody

“The details are not the details, they make the design.” – Charles Eames

Most people think that design is just about deliverables. But, every great designer knows that it’s really about the process of discovery, problem, and solve that we go through to ultimately reach the design. What design is really about, is the million little details and the thoughtful decisions that we make along the way. Unfortunately, with the democratization of design, comes a focus on deliverables, and a sacrifice of the details.

Today, everyone thinks they’re a designer. This can be attributed to the ever growing popularity of the fields of user experience and design (in fact, the field is in such demand, that Inc Magazine listed it as one of the 5 hardest jobs to fill in 2012.) Needless to say, in a very short amount of time, the field has gone from being relatively unknown to now a buzzword – something that everyone feels they’re qualified to govern. As a result, the very details that “make the design” are at risk.

The popularization of the field of user experience is causing a growing focus on the deliverable and not enough attention on the details. Why? I think it’s because it’s easy for people who are not trained in user experience to focus on the deliverable and to base input on opinion instead of objective reasoning. People who don’t have experience in practicing user experience don’t want to go through the process – they don’t want to do the time and focus on the details that matter. Don’t get me wrong, I completely agree that ideas can come from anywhere in a team. However, I also believe that in order for an idea to be great, it needs to fit into, and add value to, the entire story of the product (I’m big on storytelling, read more in UX Magazine). It needs to be a vetted detail that fits into the entire experience.

Picasso said that “Good artists copy; great artists steal”. It certainly makes sense to steal ideas, especially when it comes to interfaces that consumers are familiar with. However, it doesn’t make sense to steal when you haven’t considered the context and the story. Too many times, people steal simply because “the other guys did it” or because “it’s a popular ux pattern”. But the truth is, unless you’ve considered the effect that an element has on the entire experience, unless you’ve considered the details, your product probably isn’t going anywhere. Stealing can make you good; design will make you great.

So what can we do? How can we help ensure that the details are not diluted? How can we bring a focus back to process and away from deliverables? I think that a key part of the solution lies in figuring out how to help organizations adopt more design thinking and apply more ideas from the design process to every part of the organization. If we can allow everyone to participate in the process, then they’ll appreciate the details. Not easy, but something to think about.

Anyone else there have ideas or see other risks associated with the popularization of user experience?

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  • Bergen Larsen

    I’ve recently taken up the title of “User Interface Architect”. A dream job for me after having a passion for all things UX [and I'm talking UX, not just Usability] for many years and recently having gone through the motions of starting to acquire a degree in Industrial and Organisation Psych. 

    My challenge right now is to get people who are involved in the details to care about the overall design rather than leave it up to the interpretation of those more accustomed to database design than UI design.  I am setting up frameworks and patterns which need to be created. My biggest challenge right now: How do I create evangelists. Your comments about the details becoming diluted though, I’ve seen it happen in past experiences.  On the flip side, I have seen projects get derailed as people who proclaim knowledge of the various personas being designed for  want features changed or added which are contradictory to the goals of usability without enough thought. In this case, I felt that too much they dived into the detail too much and didn’t think about the bigger picture.  

    • http://www.sarahdoody.com/ Sarah Doody

      Such a great point you bring up. A large part of the value that someone working in user experience brings is their ability to identify when a team is starting to lose focus and help bring the bigger picture into focus. Just a few days ago I was reviewing a user-flow with some clients and the discussion started to become focused on the font size of some numbers on a wireframe! I quickly reminded them that we were far from the stage of visual design and that we had to think back to the larger picture, what those numbers represented, why they were important to the user and the user’s goals. In short, you constantly have to bring everything back to how it is contributing to the end goal or desired behavior of the user. Imagine you’re writing an essay, it’s your job to constantly remind everyone of the thesis so that every paragraph fully supports that thesis and that there’s not one wasted word within the body of text.

  • olliewells

    Brilliant article. I lead a team of UX designers, as well as creative designers and front end developers. I do this because not one person can design the full user experience. The teams are made up of very talented people, but I truly do believe that “doing UX” is both a falsehood as well as an impossibility. The work we do as designers helps to create a (hopefully) pleasant user experience, but it is not something that is added as a single entity.

    • http://www.sarahdoody.com/ Sarah Doody

      Hi @olliewells:disqus!! Yes, so true. UX is the output of a collaboration across so many teams. Unless those teams are intertwined from concept to launch (and beyond) then there will never be an amazing user experience. For example, in a perfect world, I would have access to the developers both during their build cycle as well as before launch (so I could QA the interaction / interface design) as well as after launch (so I could track, measure, and glean insights into how the experience is working and if assumptions made are right).

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