A little UX knowledge is a dangerous thing

Picture the scene: a meeting room. A board meeting perhaps, or a presentation. Certainly something to do with commercials. Before too long the acronyms begin to fly thick and fast. Those coming out with the acronyms seem confident enough saying them, so everyone else nods along sagely, never daring to stop the flow to ask what anything means.

For most of the time, you keep up.

“’CRM’… yep, got that one. ‘ROI’? Schoolboy stuff. ‘C–suite’? Hang on hang on, I know this one… nope, I’ll just have to nod like the others and get past it.”

If that doesn’t sound familiar in any way, let’s (ahem) say it’s just me then.

You’ll forgive my sensitivity about something so close to my own heart, but ‘UX’ has now joined the buzzword bingo list. In many ways it’s understandable – it has an X in it after all, so it sounds edgy. User experience is ‘hot’ at the moment, and anything hot will inevitably get misappropriated. Some will be quick to pursue the credibility they assume will come from adopting a faux interest in customer needs.

Last year, one of the most blundering commentaries on user experience I’ve had the misfortune to read appeared on a popular professional networking platform, written by the MD of a prominent advertising agency. With a promise to explain UX to the reader, this individual went on to stumble their way through an incoherent, rambling essay in which UX was thrown haphazardly into – and I quote – “lots of different stuff” that delivers the power to steal customers from competitors.

The kind of zero sum thinking reflected in the piece smacked of the marketing and advertising of 20 or 30 years ago, where brand was the dominant force pulling the strings, and a ‘by–any–means–necessary’ approach to customer acquisition ruled the day. Any means, that is, except focusing on the goals of the customer.

I often re-read the piece, each time more convinced it was authored on the wrong side of a bottle of wine. But also because it typifies the greatest distortion of user experience thinking; that it is somehow a natural extension of traditional advertising or marketing, and pertains to “the experience that we will impose on them”. User experience is in fact anathema to that worldview.

The trouble is that simply talking about UX, dropping it into the meeting room game of buzzword bingo, suggests a fait accompli; that simply referring to it ticks the box. Beauty pageants are an archaic concept nowadays, but one version of them pops up regularly in the business world: the presentation of graphics when not one question has been asked of the end user. There is no ‘U’ in UX if the user hasn’t been represented in the outputs.

UX is primarily about solving problems, not merely the amplification of a marketing message or delivery of a brand style guide. User-centred design is not a fatuous term. It requires a process, one that starts with the user.

UX doesn’t exist within a set of graphics, or a piece of content, or navigation labels, or any single component. A user experience exists in the mind and memory of those people that have engaged with a product or service. This must be understood before it can begin to be addressed.

Of course, such simple facts have never got in the way of some people just opening their mouths (or taking to their keyboards) and letting the buzzwords flow.

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