Last month I intentionally wrote an article about a horrific experience working with a developer on a multi-disciplinary project. In doing so, I unintentionally inspired a fierce dialogue with one of my personal UX heroes -- Stephen Taylor (otherwise known as Anomalogue) that revolved around the concept of whether or not a person can refer to themselves as a "UX practitioner" if the project they are working on does not have direct user research in it.
The debate, online and off, was a little raucous and we have yet to get to a fully shared perspective. In trying to see my counterpart's point of view, I thought about what a well defined UX litmus test would look like in the hope that it might yield some answers.
A Practitioner's Perspective
What goes into a UX project? Generically, it is research, strategy, design and implementation. While these phases can be broken down further or categorized differently, I would argue that it is not the phases that lead to a qualification of a project as "being UX". Instead, I would offer up three levers, none of which are sufficient themselves.
1. Informed -- How much, if any, has the project been informed by real first-hand interactions with users? Optimal UX projects tend to have multiple stages of research woven throughout all of the phases. Research at the beginning of a project tends to take the form of qualitative and quantitative research activities. Each activity is designed to yield insight and guidance to the disciplines that take precedence down-stream in the project timeline (e.g., strategists, designers to engineers). Informative research is at its most valuable when it is not constrained to the beginning of a project. Research activities like usability studies and multi-variant testing complement the insight that drove a concept to fine tune a design and implementation.
2. Aligned / Intentional -- How intentional, if at all, has the project been in articulating a strategy or qualitative outcome for the stakeholders involved? Optimal UX projects align the different wants, needs and desires of users with the objectives of the sponsors of the projects. To quote another of my UX heroes (Patrick Quattlebaum of Adaptive Path) when they were commenting on one of my more controversial articles -- "Designers are neither the "advocate" for nor the "defender" of the user. They understand the lens of the user needs to be applied to solve problems but not at the expense of business and technology. In other words, they advocate the alignment of these lenses."
3. Ethical -- How much, if at all, has the project held true to, or strayed from, the humanist principles of respect, inclusion and empathy as a lever to improve society? Optimal UX projects assume that a higher ground can be attained when these principles are deeply baked into a project and practiced throughout it.
By stratifying each one of these levers, a "UX Litmus Test" could be made to indicate points at which a project is no-longer truly UX. My colleague held fast to the idea that "inclusion of users" was the only test that mattered. While he did not relent from this perspective, he did expose what I took as intent that was driving his narrative -- There are a whole bunch of posers out there who call themselves UX designers or technology consulting shops who offer "UX" as a component of what they do. When we allow others to call themselves or their project approaches as "UX", then we hurt the discipline and we enable the posers to sell a visio-literate person as a UX expert.
An Intentional Economist's Perspective
What goes into a UX project? There is no perfect recipe. The "Must-Include-Users" Litmus test approach breaks down in so many ways. Here are a few examples:
Dark Patterns: Dark Patterns are places where a designer purposefully introduces design elements to trick a user into doing something against their interest. Harry Brignull has been hunting for and exposing the dirty little tricks that companies from Apple to Wired have been playing on their customers for the last few years. If the designer had tested the patterns to see how successful they would be in tricking their users, would this be a UX project? I think not.
UX Designers: There is a world full of super talented UX architects and visual designers who know how to apply heuristics in creating usable and desirable experiences that make clients and users very happy. To put an item like "No Research = No UX" in the foreground of describing them or a singular project they happened to work on is not only grossly imprecise; it's mean. Including users in every project is not always practical or achievable and to verbally punish talented designers who participate in these projects doesn't do anyone any good (especially if they tried to include users but were shut down by PMs and clients).
Second Hand Research: Let's say a project team has a designer who happens to have done numerous research and design engagements with a particular population set that matches the population set for whom the current project is designing. Does he have to engage in new first-hand research to call the project a UX project? I'm not saying testing is a bad idea, but there might be better uses for the time and cost of running a test. Having team members who have a wealth of experience in a space can sometimes be a problem (if you are trying to create something radically new and unique), but is more often an advantage to be leveraged.
Antithetical Argument: If we assume that the purpose behind the UX discipline is one of "respect, inclusion and empathy as a lever to improve society" and we believe that the more teams that use UX methods, techniques and approaches, the better our chances are at advancing towards our purpose, then why would we believe that forming a "litmus test" would help us achieve our aims? I don't know of any field that has gained greater acceptance in the market place by forming a rigid boundary and casting judgement on those who honestly attempt to use the methods and approaches.
I'm not saying that purposefully selling yourself as a UX practitioner with no education or experience in the field is fair game. What I am saying is that asking questions like: "How can you say your role was UX in nature if the project did not talk to users?" is not a good way to advance the field. Of course there are people misappropriating themselves in order to close a sale but that doesn't mean that walking around with a big "NOT UX" stamp is a great idea if your mission in life is to use empathy as tool to create a better world one experience at a time.
An Attempt To Transcend
Is there a perspective that sums up the idea that "posing is detrimental" AND "encouragement is good"? My statement to Stephen was to "call it a good start" but I think one of Stephen's statements was closer to the mark -- "Research is the bargain of the century". Remembering that research can be done in micro-bites can help even the most budget and time constrained projects. Whether it is done informally with friends and family, or through a single walkthrough of a prototype with an actual user to make critical adjustments, the smallest bit of research can be the catalyst to encourage the broader appetite for the methods. In short -- Preach and Teach (in small doses).