Bring Back Real UX Design


Man walks into a bar and asks for a tall, cold glass of fresh local beer. He is surprised when he is handed a bottle of beer instead. He looks up at the bartender with a questioning look on his face and says, “Uh… sorry I asked for a fresh beer.” The bartender points to the label on the bottle which reads, “Fresh beer”. Chuckling to himself the patron says, “What I wanted was a fresh beer on tap – preferably an amber ale or whatever this bar has that’s closest to that”. He points and nods his head in the direction of the tap he sees on the backside of the bar. “Oh!” the bartender replies, “Around here the beer you’re describing is what we call Lean Beer. Cocking his head to one side the patron asks, “What’s lean beer? Is that like – light beer?” The bartender stops wiping the counter and in a condescending tone says, “No, Lean beer is beer that comes out of the beer tap – it’s cold and fresh like you described”. Between scratching his head and shifting in his seat the patron looks around the room, now noticing that everyone in the bar is staring at him with their bottled beer in-hand. He leans forward and tries again, “I guess I’ll have a lean beer.” Standing a little taller, the bartender smiles, walks to a refrigerator and grabs a chilled mug. He returns to the now nervous-looking patron and sets the mug down in front of him. The bartender then pulls the beer tap off the back of the bar, revealing to the patron that it really was not connected to anything, and screws it down on top of the recently-opened bottle of beer with what appears to be some type of beer bottle coupling – made to fit perfectly over the neck of a beer bottle. He then pours the bottled beer with the label “Fresh Beer” using the modified tap into the cold mug and declares, “Lean Beer”!

Confused? Welcome to the industry’s latest design buzzword, Lean UX!

I keep encountering the phrase “Lean UX” at work and in local design circles and it continues to frustrate me. The first time I came across this buzzword, I thought “Lean Design” was a fancy way of saying, “cut corners in your process to get more UX work done” – which is ridiculous and doesn’t make sense. I then thought it meant “we’re too poor to hire more UX designers so here’s a method to produce more work with fewer heads” – which sounds like a crappy job.

Without getting into a epistemological argument around what “Lean UX” really means, I’ve concluded that this concept (other than being a poorly coined term) is in fact something that I practice every day – something that I already call “UX Design”. And it seems to me that Jeff Gothelf and other Lean UX followers are attempting to define a NEW version of UX, which to be honest – isn’t that new. The existence of this movement however, does expose some interesting problems (or dirty secrets) in our discipline: A) there are some practitioners who feel a gap – they feel like they can contribute “upstream” to product development and strategy more than their current situation/role allows; and B) the term “UX Design” is being used by some practitioners and organizations for processes and employees that are practicing “interface design” and in some cases “graphic design”… which are not strategic design roles. The latter is more concerning to me since “UX” practitioners seem to feel like they need a new term to describe something they already should have been doing – UX design – and it also implies these practitioners never were truly doing real User Experience Design.

The “Lean UX” concept is more of a reaction against an ineffective and incomplete notion of UX design being practiced, rather than a useful, complete diagnosis of problems that UX designers face. And without turning this post into a tome and possibly risk offending some of my peers and associates in the space of UX design… I say that most of the problems UX designers face have nothing to do with process, it has to do with your skills and philosophy on designing experiences for technology – which informs process. So simply asking for a process change without evaluating your own skills and fundamental understanding of UX design is like asking for more “fly-bys” so you can eventually hit your target. I believe this disparity between skills and process comes from an individualist point of view supported by the rock-star design mentality. This buzzword, it’s followers, and assertions focus on the process changes that designers want in their organization rather than evaluating the system of making software and their own skills. Instead of A) looking at the entire process of making software, B) the people who make this software, and C) and the skills and thinking needed for UX to be involved more effectively in making software and interacting with other software-makers – it sounds to me like a crowd of UX designers are claiming that they essentially need more time and iteration for their trial-and-error approach. That is the biggest problem I see with this movement. I claim that real User Experience Design in most organizations isn’t happening (never was) and it really isn’t made up of people who know user experience design. It’s mostly made up of visual designers and interaction designers that have some internet knowledge on the topic of UX, but really don’t understand what it means to design something for another person. Simply giving these designers more say in the process of making software will not yield a better product.

Well then, who is a UX designer?

Anyone can throw some buzzwords in their resume and show hi-fidelity mocks of deliverable work in their portfolio… oh and call themselves a UX designer. There are many mock-makers who take on the title of user-experience designer. Many practitioners whose careers began in the humble ranks of the aforementioned production roles (including myself), have become great UX designers because of their natural empathy and understanding of others; but most don’t naturally evolve on their own to that state. It takes conscious hard work, mentoring, schooling (in my opinion) and self-awareness… and an unquenchable appetite to humbly know what you don’t now. When I’m interviewing designers for my team, I often ask them what user-experience design is. If they respond, it’s usually a word salad of buzzwords that came from a popular UX blog. And when I follow up with a question like, “what does it mean to be a human being and have an experience or to go through an experience in life” – I get confused looks. And when I ask, “how are you qualified to understand the human experience?” – I get blank looks. I sometimes run across a potential UX candidate who is really brave and with some confidence will say, “I just put myself in the users shoes and we’ll ask them what they want, then we can think like them and produce good stuff”. It’s usually at that point that I say, “And what skills do you possess that qualify you to ask, interpret and understand the experience they are having?”… and the conversation stops. So Jeff Gothelf, let’s first acknowledge the prevalence of UX design practitioners that are not actually qualified to design upstream, and who can understand what it means to be a human being and have an experience with technology.

So simply proposing, with your ill-coined “Lean UX” term, that somehow giving these designers more iterative space – upstream from deliverables – will not produce better work. Perhaps those designers who consider themselves “clever enough” to understand the human experience or who can “think like the user” with enough time, can produce less-crappy work through trial and error, but this idea of front-loading the designer with more iterative space and time is like saying a plumber with enough time can solve my heart and vascular problems…

Simply put, a process change isn’t enough.

Another point of frustration with Lean UX is that there seems to be too much emphasis on the UX designer as a “creative contributor”, whose saving muses will provide something that the product development process is lacking. My experience has been that a good product manager can do a better job of researching a product’s market, value, and growth better than a good UX designer. Situations where my team and I have designed products with enormous value and success, have come from experiences where good product management is balanced with good (real) UX design: where product informs design, and design informs the product (processes and methods). But that’s not what I’m hearing in Lean UX conversations.

I think what really bothers me most about the Lean UX movement is that it empowers a class of individualists-designers with an idea that: A) he/she doesn’t need to acknowledge their own skill-set gap with what is really needed to design technology-experiences, and B) it doesn’t properly account for the other important contributors in the software/product space. Lean UX is flawed as a movement because it is an attempt to increase the probability of creating a valuable solution by simply changing the process of designers who aren’t really UX designers. Monkey’s typing shakespeare.

So let’s get back to real UX Design and raise the discourse of our discipline by starting with practitioner skills, their design philosophy, research methods and best practices used to understand technology and the human experience – and that can’t be learned by engaging in our community’s latest buzz word or Jeff’s book. And anything less, isn’t a real discipline. It can’t account for rigor, improvement, or the lasting value our community needs to sustain impact.

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