Is it me or has UX become a marketing tool rather than a discipline.

cropped-bgbackground12.pngThis idea stems from a seeming disconnect between LinkedIn and LinkIn’s professional forums. I use LinkedIn readers in the areas of talent aquisition/HR as an example instead of LinkedIn’s professionals in various disciplines.

I know that the primary reason that I read and respond to these forums is to both provide a potential solution or direction for the original poster’s comment or question (or in some cases a subsequent poser), as well as forcing me to carefully consider a well reasoned and cohesive response. The occasional responses that I get are typically excellent descriptions of gaps in my thought process, presentation of facts that I was uninformed of, or just great alternative approaches. Having been a design major in college, I long ago learned to leave the ego at the door and carefully consider constructive criticism and simply add that new information or perspective to my UX or analytical toolbox.

Perhaps the forums give an individual an unrealistic perspective of  self evaluation. I will use myself as the example. I belong to 42 professional forums. Out of all of these there are 12 that I participate in fairly regularly and they are:

Interaction Design Association
UX / UI Designer
User Experience Professionals Association
User Experience Professionals Network
UX Professionals
UX Thought
User Experience
User Experience || UX Professionals
UX Strategy and Planning
Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES)
Mobile User Experience Professionals
Graphic Design

In these groups, my input ranges, according to LinkedIn, from “Getting Started” to “Top Contributor”, and it is apparent that these designations have more to do with quantity of input rather than quality. There may be other metrics such as numbers of ‘likes’ to a post, but I haven’t found and statement of this.

Granted, I try to answer queries with reasoned and well considered statements, facts and examples. I don’t feel that it’s a soapbox to proclaim my expertise (particularly when there are a number of people contributing who are better than I am.) I try merely to be helpful, provide additional insight based on experience, or occasionally correct “common knowledge” which is often information that ranges from outdated to superstition with actual up-to date facts based on real testing , data and sometime merely commonly known and yet misrepresented facts which are well known in the scientific community. I defend when poorly challenged and rescind when genuinely corrected. (My father, a scientist, once said to me, that the more surety I had in being correct, the more resistance and barriers I would create to learning the truth.)

Additionally, I try to segregate the theory, from theorem, from fact. I’m also careful and diligent in parsing the selective use of qualifiers like “The fact is…”, “Peer reviewed testing has shown…”, “[a] is a perception, whereas [b] is a fact…”, as well as the more open ended qualifiers such as “In my experience…”, “My user testing results have shown…”, and even the broadest “In my professional opinion…”

more and less

Here’s where I find UX becomes a marketing tool rather than a discipline. In response to several jobs, it seems that my skills have nothing to do with my process but almost entirely to do with my portfolio. My original portfolio had detailed process showing UX development (from a proactive team of three following the presentation of the idea to upper management, presentation of ROI and cost analysis research, user task analysis, personae, environment and context study, taxonomy and wireframes, first round prototypes, asset design and creation for proprietary systems, first production releases, international awards, and astounding returns (6 months inventory sold out in 3 days.) The response I got was that it was “too much to go through” even though it told a complete story of all the aspects of a product life cycle.

So, I pared down my portfolio and additionally broadened the various markets I’d created UX designs for from B2B, to B2C, to service, etc. as well as focusing of specific skills. It became the superficial overview that everyone was asking for. Except for one small aspect. A new, and rather ironic complaint. “I need to see more wireframes and examples of whether or not you can take a project from ideation to deployment and release.”

This is the Catch 22 between superficial and trivial ‘dazzle’ and substantive UX design. I feel often at a loss of trying to ask, “Do you want me to provide an exceptional UX or would you prefer the Laser show with confetti cannons?

This attitude that I’ve been presented with isn’t unique to HR and Talent Scouts but often hiring managers are choosing UX people based on flash and dazzle rather than genuinely good UX principles. I guess this should come at no surprise, since the first thing a UX designer needs to know is “You are not the user.” and that need to be conveyed to the hiring manager and/or decision makers. I don’t have a problem doing that successfully, but I can’t do it until I’m in front of  them.  It is a hard sell to tell someone that what they think the customer loves (based on highly limited and biased anecdotal feedback) is often the exact opposite of what the customer actually thinks.

I remember a VP saying to me,
“We have a customer that doesn’t like this. So know we have a data point that shows customers [clearly implying all customers] don’t like this.”
There was no further evidence nor an opportunity to gather more background information. We know had a single piece of evidence, based, no less, on a single anecdote that was being presented not only as fact, but also as a fact that no time of effort would be spent in verification.

So know I’m in the process of redoing my portfolio and pounding my head trying to figure out what the proper balance between useless superficial dazzle and substantial example of detailed process and result.

Trying to come up with a ‘happy medium’ may be a futile experiment. Here’s why. As a UX designer, unless you are comfortable working a single sector (e.g. consumer eCommerce, B2B massive data analytics, etc.) and your job is stable you will probably (no guarantees) be fortunate to remain in that area.
My problem is that I’m interested in UX regardless of the sector. My jobs have been in different sectors: telecom (at ShoreTel), postal process development (Pitney Bowes) , instructional design, multimedia development and computer based training (Xerox), Data Visualization and presentation (Gartner Group), commercial home products (Conair corporation), medical publication and advertising (Patient Care Magazine), and retail advertising (Ad Agency). Because of this, I have learned that Don Norman’s statement that as technology improves and cultures become more collectively aligned in user expectation, the fundamentals of UX have not changed.

So when I lose a job to someone else, I realize that in 90% of the cases one of three things,

  1. They have a greater domain knowledge of the sector and that commonly though incorrectly outweighs UX capabilities and experience or
  2. The job was focused primarily on a skill that wasn’t specifically UX (such as coding  or graphic design) or
  3. They are a better UX designer than me

This isn’t a sour grapes response though. I know when someone’s knowledge of UX is greater than mine and I’m thrilled when I get to work with such people. On the other hand, I’ve learned that there are many people who’ve devoted tremendous great amounts of time marketing themselves instead of expanding and improving their UX knowledge and skills. When you think about it, being well known is not necessarily a direct correlation to being better. Charlatans can (and often require) being well known in order to be successful.

The lack of comprehension of what constitutes being a good UX designer is something that hiring managers and talent recruiters are unwilling to admit. When the hiring manager is a UX designer, the problem may come from having a competitive personality that they want to remain unchallenged, or perhaps insecurity. The later is often more detrimental to the company since it puts the hiring manger in the precarious position of being bettered then ousted by a subordinate, even though any good company wants the best and having the skill and knowledge to hire someone better than yourself is good for the company in the long run and a well known company will recognize that skill in itself.

Ideally I enjoy working for someone I consider smarter than me and who recognizes that I bring something to the table that is genuinely useful and innovative. I had that experience recently and am thankful for both the opportunity as well as the knowledge that I was fortunate to leave with.

So, in all, there’s still the paradox. People want to know who you solved a complex problem, but at the same time, they don’t want to know what the complexities of the problem were, nor the extremely relevant (I know that’s superfluous, but it’s for emphasis) problem solving methods you used to alleviate it. So the simple answer is both palatable to them, but presents little in your capabilities and methods for solving the problem and therefor eliminates your competitive edge.

My favorite irony of all is that coming up with an entirely new, innovative and successful solution to a problem that has, though good UX design, been made into a simple process, seems obvious to the listener, mostly because, like the world 15-20 years ago when the cell phone was not ubiquitous, they can no longer imaging the world without it in spite of the short time they’ve been here.

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About rrglaser

Sr. UX Architect/director, with avocations in music, science & technology, fine arts & culture. Finding ways of connecting disparate ideas, facts, and concepts into solving problems. In the last 30 years, I have worked at (among others) various Ad agencies, Xerox, Pitney Bowes, Shortel, Philips (medical imaging R&D), CloudCar. I prefer to stand at the vertex of art, technology, culture and design since there is the where the best view of the future exists. "Always learning, since I can't apply what I haven't yet learned."
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