Dr. Strange-Words or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love “User Experience Design”

Inhuman Resources sign from attraction

There are only two industries that refer to their customers as ‘users’  – Edward Tufte.

In recent months, I have grown more sensitive to the language of User Experience Design and how we can use it to shape expectations. The quote above from Edward Tufte is a prime example of the nuanced use of words and the meanings they convey. Of course, we all recognize the importance of copywriting and the selection of language in the user interface. In this post, I instead focus on the words we use when speaking with each other and with the outside world.

In particular, I cite Disney as an example of an organization whose jargon helps reframe simple concepts and load them with meaning. I am also happy when UX authors try to build precision into our field by (re)defining words for specific uses.

What greatly troubles me is the continued debate over the User Experience name itself and the confusion we bring upon ourselves. My two cents on that topic is saved for last. But first, what is your opinion? (Feel free to discuss below)

Overheard at Disney

Maybe more than any other company, “Disney University” has created its own unique vocabulary to guide staff by forming specific images in their mind meant to drive higher quality personal interactions. Some of the terms were borrowed from theater production because the parks themselves represented a show-like experience. Examples of language particular to Disney…

Guest – the actual customers. This word, in particular, imparts a very welcoming connotation. You are much more likely to treat a ‘guest’ better in your home (or web site!) versus a simple ‘visitor.’ A team may feel a “greater obligation to ensure {guest} happiness.” (source)

Cast Member – the employees. These individuals also have ‘roles’ as opposed to job descriptions and maybe even a ‘script’ to help standardize Cast Only Signlanguage.

On-Stage and Back-Stage – park areas that are open and closed to guests, respectively.

Plussing – Walt Disney’s term referring to constant improvement. We might call it iterative design.

Wienie – a large design element which draws the guest’s attention and helps them orient within the parks (like the castles or ‘mountains’).

E-Ticket Attraction – one of the best rides in the park.

Imagineers – the guest experience designers. :-)

Overheard around the office

As a relatively young profession, User Experience Design does not have hundreds of years of literature to draw upon. Instead, we are literally making up words as we go – some gaining more traction than others.

iOS screenshotFor example, what do you call those little dots that appear at the bottom of iOS main screens? I have heard some people refer to them as “breadcrumbs” likely because of their petite visual appearance. Generally, however, “breadcrumbs” actually refer to the hierarchical trail of links at the top of some user interfaces. I believe “page indicators” are the actual UI widget here.

In early editions of Alan Cooper’s About Face book, he makes the case that we need a working language for interaction design. He states that as other sciences have developed, a rich language emerged allowing those in the field to communicate with certainty. In his writing, he then lays out a precise vocabulary. I particularly like his use of the word “idiom” to refer to an interaction that must be learned (like pushing and holding icons in iOS to enter re-arrange mode.)

Additionally, who amongst us has not busted-out Don Norman’s use of “affordance” to sound a little more knowledgeable in a meeting? Ironically, he now wishes he was more clear in his language and used the phrase, “perceived affordance” to refer to what actions the user actually perceives as possible (acknowledging that an affordance could exist, but be overlooked).

We must also acknowledge the different audiences with whom we communicate. When talking with a marketing group, I may be more likely to use the phrase ‘customer’ rather than ‘user’ to help them picture a person with a pocketful of cash. And likewise, when we document our designs for customers, we may call specific UI widgets by a much friendlier name than we use internally.

Because we have no central standardizing body dedicated to our profession, it will be fascinating to see how we can drive consensus as the language and UIs evolve. I’m certain a few years ago, no-one outside of McDonalds was thinking about how to design a “hamburger menu.”  Perhaps that is where all of those breadcrumbs are coming from!

What’s in a title? “User Experience Design”

Within the UX field, no particular bit of language has been more controversial than the name itself. I may have an advanced degree in Human Factors Engineering, but I have never used that title in my career, and now proudly wear the badge of User Experience Designer.

The controversy results from numerous pundits (even Alan Cooper) claiming that Experience Design or User Experience Designer is a misnomer. The typical argument is that it is impossible to design an experience, and that the professional can only design ‘things’ or product/UI ‘behaviors.’ While I am not sure if I agree with that statement, I am sure that we should move beyond these arguments.

On a daily basis, I am surrounded by Industrial Design colleagues, whom, the last I checked, do not engage in frequent philosophical debates about their discipline’s name. I have never heard them say, “our name is confusing because we don’t design industry” or “it is impossible to design industry.”  Instead, they seem satisfied with the implied ‘for’… they design *for* the industry. Can we not say similarly that we design *for* the users’ experience?

As a discipline, we often run the risk of being overly pedantic and critical. We’ve called many babies ugly, and even enjoy doing it. It is possible to over-think an issue and let the perfect be the enemy of good. In a field that is very comfortable with metaphor, why do we feel the need to be so literal with the title? Imagineers don’t engineer imagination, but it is a great metaphorical and aspirational title.

As the importance of user-centered design has grown, so have the number of specialties. Even a recent CNN/Money listing of best jobs CNN-UXdifferentiated User Experience Designer and Information Architect. While it was an honor to be listed twice, I’m not sure if the differences are meaningful enough for the average CNN reader.

In many ways, I wish we could agree on one name just to advance the discipline by helping people build a mental model of our role. For example, running into someone in the supermarket who says they are a ‘doctor’ immediately conjures up an image of a healer of people. I would be happy to see the phrase ‘UX’ conjure up an image of a healer of products. A more thorough conversation could reveal specific specialties and areas of focus. Unfortunately, right now, most people are not familiar with any of our many names.

Sadly, there will always be charlatans in any field that co-op the name either to be trendy (i.e., people without formal training who are jumping on a bandwagon) or just to leverage the metaphor (i.e., a ‘rug doctor’ probably has less training than a hair surgeon). I see this as less of a name issue and more of an education issue. We must bring attention to the benefits of hiring people with the appropriate background.

Of all the possible names that have been tried, why pick “user experience” - a phrase with that unthoughtful word in it? Why not “usability engineer” (yeah, I used that once) or “cognitive ergonomist” or “interaction designer”? At this moment, I simply cite momentum. We should select a title not for ourselves, but for others outside the field to easily understand. If UX is on a journey to becoming the most familiar phrase amongst the public, then let us adopt it and end the confusion that we are ironically creating for others.

Thanks for visiting

With all this ink spilled, I reserve the right to change my opinion again especially should some major technological or methodological advance occur! Perhaps someday I will call myself a “guest experience designer” and read a critique of that title. It is unlikely that we can ever be 100% accurate in describing our role in a couple words, but having a more precise agreement would signal greater maturity in the discipline.

Comments (10) Add yours ↓
  1. Tim

    I have 2 takeaways from this article. The name for what we do – my preference is “cognitive ergonomist”. IT piques my geekiness! In our organisation we are referred to as User Experience Analysts. The idea being that we are not necessarily graphic designers and we grew out of a business analysis role. But once you have the UX prefix people know what you do. So the surname is almost irrelevant.

    And the opening quote. What great insight. It also speaks to how users are oft characterised as unintelligent and do not know what is good for them.

    March 19, 2014 Reply
    • Brandon Satanek

      Thanks for reading and sharing your perspective. Great point about the organizational impact on the name. Depending on the role and focus, User Experience could easily be followed by “Analyst”, “Researcher”, “Designer” or others. My hope is that people should not feel ashamed about using “UX” with any of them – they are all valid.

      March 19, 2014 Reply
  2. Deborah J. Mayhew, PhD

    Well written article with very good points Brandon. I think that the problem that is bigger than what we call ourselves is the understanding – or lack there of – of what we actually do. I just wrote a blog on this topic in case you are interested: http://community.bestica.com/profiles/blogs/uxers-who-are-we-anyway

    March 26, 2014 Reply
    • Brandon Satanek

      Deborah, thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts! It is a great irony that a discipline which prides itself on making things simple has trouble helping others understand what we “actually do.”

      I love that your article extends the health care analogy with the different specialties. The (internal) need and (external) recognition for the specialties seems to be a mark of maturity for a discipline.

      March 26, 2014 Reply
  3. Craig J Willis

    I found your pragmatic approach to this question refreshing considering some of the other opinions out there.

    I’ve seen problems caused by the meanings of words for many years. The problem is that people develop their own understanding of different words based on their life experiences. This is further complicated by the huge number of different areas of interest and disciplines that now exist and all compete to share a common vocabulary.

    The normal solution, as you mentioned here, is to bring domain specific meaning to words. But this brings further problems, people in those domains may need retrained and there are long periods of time when people in those domains cannot even agree on specific meanings. Or refuse to meet a compromise thereby fragmenting the domain.

    Worse still those outside the domain probably won’t know that a common word has been taken and repurposed for a specific use. I think this is a huge issue for a domain such as User Experience because it starts to alienate the very people we are trying engage. The user experience of User Experience becomes poor.

    I have nothing against domain specific language but it must be recognised as expert to expert communication and not used for cross domain collaboration. Here’s an example, you are working with a customer that needs help with improving the experience of their product. In my experience the customer usually has a very deep understanding of the area they work in, they understand it better than I do. The best ideas for improving the experience come from the customer, not from me. My job is to facilitate, to show the customer what User Experience means so that they can see where they have gone wrong and suggest improvements. I can challenge and make suggestions based on previous experience but it’s really guided by the customer.

    Here the customer is an expert in their domain, not User Experience, if we start using lots of UX specific terminology you will not only lose their engagement but they will not really understand what they were doing wrong in the first place. They will place different meanings on the words you use, because they are not UX experts, and will have different expectations as a result. It may lead to mistrust and disappointment over what is finally delivered. I’m sure most readers will have had at least one experience where the customer just “didn’t get it”, this is probably why, it just hadn’t been explained in a way that they understood yet.

    We are working on some tools to solve the challenges of cross domain collaboration by using a simple visual language to drive out the ambiguities. You can see the first here at http://www.the-skore.com. I think UX, more than most fields, requires high levels of cross collaboration.

    March 27, 2014 Reply
    • Brandon Satanek

      Craig, thank you for your thoughtful analysis. I am in complete agreement with you that we need to carefully understand our audience when communicating. Speaking with a customer like we do with other experts is bound to cause confusion. However, within the technical community (or designers), I would not necessarily shy away from some UX jargon. Sometimes we need to make a clear point that UX is not simply the application common sense and there is some scientific rigor behind what we do.

      March 27, 2014 Reply
  4. Mike Donahue

    People say emotions are messy, words are so much worse. Great article. There’s not a word in the title that doesn’t potentially cause confusion and misunderstanding about who we are and what we do. Personally I’m quite comfortable with UX {insert preferred suffix here} as a title but have had similar discussions with others that seem to feel the need to argue it’s “correctness.”

    That said I usually have to reduce my description of what I do down to “I try to make things work better” when asked. I like your idea of being thought of a “product healers”, that’s rich.

    As for the idea that we can’t actually design an experience, I think we can. What we can’t do is guarantee that someone else experience that experience as we designed and intended, and we can’t guarantee what that users experience will mean to them.

    March 28, 2014 Reply
    • Brandon Satanek

      Mike, I appreciate the comment and your reading. Thinking about whether we can actually design an experience really “bakes my noodle” (to use another strange turn of words from the Matrix movie)! If we design an experience and no-one is there to use it, did we really design it to begin with? Ahh, the sound trees falling in the woods without anyone there to listen. FWIW, I agree with you and think your last sentence is spot-on.

      March 28, 2014 Reply
  5. Keith Karn

    Nice opinion piece. Here is some of the history behind some of these terms, which I believe you have already read: http://bit.ly/MQuYHX

    March 30, 2014 Reply
    • Brandon Satanek

      Thanks for reading and sharing your article. I would recommend others interested in the history to read it as well as the one you linked to (http://belveal.net/2012/06/13/when-hfs-became-hfes/). There is an interesting point made that the title of societies often points to where we think the discipline should be focused. “User Experience” seems to highlight that we believe ‘usability’ or ‘ergonomics’ is not enough anymore and that we need to tackle elements beyond them (pleasurability, meaninfulness etc).

      March 31, 2014 Reply

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