red roses

Is UX a “Rose by any other name?”




I’m going to be somewhat honest here: I’m no “spring chicken”. I don’t know if I’m prepared to tell you exactly how old I am, but here’s a story that will give you some hints: When I was in graduate school I had to file a formal appeal with the dean of the graduate school in order to get approval to create and submit my dissertation on a computer rather than typing on a typewriter. That hadn’t been done before and they weren’t sure it would be allowed (they did allow it).

Suffice it to say that I’ve had a long career in my “field”. But even after all this time I, and many others, are still struggling with what the field is, what it is called, and how to describe what we do. You’d think we’d have had it figured out by now, but we apparently haven’t.

So what is it that I do anyway? I use psychology and brain science to predict and direct behavior. A lot of my history has to do with designing the interactions between people and technology. Because I’ve been in the field so long I pre-date the term “user experience”. In fact, I pre-date many terms, including: usability, user friendly, user-centered design. The term I, and many others, tend  to use most often is “user experience” but many object to the term “user”.  And ask 10 “user experience professionals” what they do and they will tell you 10 different things.

Jim Jacoby has a post at the admci website with a great video of Peter Merholz speaking at a conference about what user experience really is, and what the work really is. I don’t agree with everything Peter says, but it is a thought-provoking video, and it got me thinking not only what user experience people do, but about the term “user experience”.

I’d like to use a different term to describe what I do, but I’m not sure what that would be.

Customer experience doesn’t work because a lot of the experiences I am designing aren’t for customers. They might be for employees, or visitors. Is a museum visitor really a “customer”? I know the employees at Wal-Mart aren’t “customers”. And people going to their government website to do self-service are not really customers either. I’ve designed for all of these audiences, so “customer” doesn’t really work.

Then I thought perhaps I’d just describe it as “Experience Design” or “Behavioral Design”. But that brings us into the thorny area of what “design” means. Is it visual design? Interaction design? And sometimes I’m not even designing. I’m evaluating, or strategizing what the experience should or should not be. But the terms “Experience Strategy” or “Behavioral Strategy” seem just as bad as “User Experience”.

A rose by any other name is still a rose?

What do you think? How do you describe and name it?


6 responses to “Is UX a “Rose by any other name?””

  1. Adam Polansky Avatar
    Adam Polansky

    The most important thing a title needs to do is set and support the expectations of the teams immediately around you. Does it create the proper recognition when you’re introduced to a project team?

    Relevant but less important is the perception held by managers who will change your title for you if they think something works better for the previous scenario.

    Lastly, HR needs a search term.

    After that, it’s all about trying to get something other than a glazed-over response when you introduce yourself at parties.

    A title is a symbol and the meaning assigned to it can be specific to a small group or the entire world. The likelihood of having an internationally known symbol goes up when you have the fewest variables associated with the object and it can be perceived the same way by most people. Bathroom icons, Border signs, etc. The UX practice-set has too many variables to codify it once and for all.

    I’ve held several titles including Information Architect, Interaction Designer, UX Architect. Customer Experience Designer, UX Strategist, UX Delivery Manager and Director of User Experience. Each one served it’s purpose at the time. You can call yourself a UX Professional much as you would call yourself a Designer. The details of what that means when you wear it only matter to a small group at any point in time. The moment you try to apply it at-large, you’ll not only find exceptions but people will except themselves sometimes on general principle.

    What describes you to the people who most need to understand what you do for them? I remember when the title debates started at the first IA Summit in Boston, 1999. I made a point of staying out of it all these years. Don’t get caught-up in the naming. Don’t define THE damn thing. Define YOUR damn thing.

  2. Cathy Avatar

    missing “human factors” !

  3. jordisan Avatar

    Let me see… a new term without the connotations of ‘design’…

    I’ve got it! USABILITY!

  4. Peter Bogaards Avatar

    The booby trap is in the word ‘really’. As in “(…) what UX really is (…)”. Nobody knows what is really is. And we’ll have to live with the fact that we’ll never know what it really is.

  5. emma Avatar

    Designers who work in Marketing really nailed this for themselves:
    They don’t use “Designer” cos the general public doesn’t know designers do.
    They don’t use “Marketing” cos it has too many negative connotations.

    They call themselves “Creative”.

    & it beautifully illustrates how good they are at marketing ;)

    Maybe we need to ask some Creatives to help find us a name…?

  6. Don Monge Avatar
    Don Monge

    Back in the 90’s, IBM used to have a “Human Factors” practice in their Global Services unit (they still might but I’m not in software design any longer).

    I was on a consulting assignment at a national retailer to do a post-mortem on why a new data entry system had failed. Among the issues I found where a myriad of issues with screen design, colors, spacing, logical flow, etc. My firm did not have Human Factors expertise in-house so I recommended IBM-GS to the client for this particular skill set.

    The consultant that landed and provided the service did not have your psychology background but the recommendations were right in line with many of the things you write about. Many months later, the revised system was well received and successful for its purpose.

    I agree with you that all the titles you referenced in your post are bad. I don’t know that there is any one perfect title but, if it wasn’t already obvious, I like “Human Factors.”

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