Digital goods have been around for some time now. Graphical user interfaces haven’t really evolved all that much since the first ones popped up – we still have windows, desktops, icons, and cursors. Cursors are starting to disappear, but the concept remains the same. Our cursors are just getting fatter, and we have five of them on each hand.
But somewhere along the way, we decided to make up an aspect of design that no one had ever really thought about – or at least, we hadn’t given it a name. Enter the “User Experience Designer”. I’ve had a bit of trouble wrapping my head around what it is a UX Designer actually does for some time now, and I keep coming back to the same conclusion; a User Experience Designer doesn’t do anything special. They’re just a designer.
Before I begin insulting those of you who bear this title, let’s think about design. You see, a great designer is perfectly comfortable in any medium. A great designer can design a spoon with as much ease as they can a website, or a poster. It’s the measure by which I test my own abilities, and I think it’s an accurate one. I see designers such as Dieter Rams, Bruno Munari, and Josef Müller-Brockmann as perfectly capable beyond their specialism. Their principles and practices go way beyond any one medium, and extend to all areas of design.
All products have a user experience. And that user experience is not explicitly designed; it is a byproduct of designing an entire interface. And I don’t mean an interface as in a GUI or a website; once again, I’m talking about design as a whole. All things that are designed have an interface. A spoon has an interface that you interact with when you use it to eat with, or scoop with. With that interaction comes an experience, either pleasant or unpleasant. A poster has an interface; one that we interact with using our eyes. The experience is the sum of the effect that the design and interface has on us; how effective it is in communicating a message, or fulfilling a function, without being distracting, patronising, or jarring.
User experience isn’t an extra layer of design that can be brought in later or delegated to another party; it’s woven into the fibres of a design from the very start of a project. When a change between two states of an application or website is noticeable and disorienting, that’s a user experience problem – but user experience problems are solved with design solutions. User experience problems are design problems.
A great designer should have a solid understanding of the psychological effects of their designs on top of all the typographic, colour, and layout techniques they use on a daily basis. Each decision in those categories will have an effect on the overall user experience, and we should be conscious of those effects. User experience is not something that should be considered separately from any design processes, let alone given a separate job description or department. User experience design is just design. Whether you’re designing a static mockup for a website, or considering the psychological effect of a particular user flow, you’re designing.
Maybe, like with Preprocessors, I’m just not approaching this topic in the right way. Maybe there’s a part of the picture I’m missing. But having thought this way for some time, I’m quite confident that is not the case. Call me old fashioned, but I simply can’t imagine Dieter Rams using his Vitsœ Universal Shelving System for the first time, discovering a slightly unpleasant process, and saying “We’ll leave that to the UX department.”