Why UX is becoming UR

When I first started working in this industry back in 1997, we were a Usability company. Pretty much everyone we met asked what that actually meant, and we had to explain that we were about making things easier to use.

Nowadays we are a UX company (with UX standing for User Experience), and little has changed. We still have to explain to many people what that means, and we still say it’s (mostly) about making things easier to use. Sure, the ‘experience’ is sometimes not about easier, it’s about faster, or more exciting, or more rewarding, or less error prone – but mostly, it’s about making things easier to use.

What has changed though, is what many people are seeing as the role of UX in a project.

Let me start by explaining, in very simple terms, what is needed to craft a positive user experience:

  1. Identifying who the user is (sometimes multiple segments)
  2. Identifying what they need
  3. Designing/prototyping how that could work
  4. Testing that design
  5. Improving if necessary (and repeating this process, if necessary)
  6. Building and launching

Now it is often the case that the budget for this full process is not available – in fact, the full process only occurs a fraction of the time, in my experience – but the central tenet of the concept is that the user is at the centre of this picture. We are designing a positive experience for the user.

However, increasingly UX is being used as a badge, the safety and authority of that process placed onto any design project, no matter how small the actual input. In these cases, it’s less UX and more UR – Under Resourced, Under Researched and ‘Under the Radar’.

It is not uncommon to see projects where the entire UX effort consists purely of designing wireframes. Yes, technically that is crafting a User Experience – but crafting is only part of the process! Where is the research, to validate the needs of the end user? Where is the prototyping, to knock out the design flaws early on? Where is the testing, to ensure you got it right?

I’m not saying that UX has to always be part of the process – budget alone will often exclude that – and I’m equally not saying that the full process must be used every time. What I am saying is that when the ‘light’ version is used, sans research and testing, this should be made extremely clear.

I was recently invited to work on a project where there was no time or budget for anything except wireframing – in the words of the agency, I had to “just build it – there’s no time for anything else”. Which I may well have done, if they hadn’t also asked me to tell their end client not to worry, since we were building UX into the project from the ‘ground up’.

The label ‘Made in Australia’ has received a lot of criticism lately, because of the duplicitous use some companies have put it to. It can mean made overseas and packaged here, made here from source ingredients made overseas, or worse. It lost all credibility.

The label UX is in danger of losing credibility in the same way.

To my mind, UX has become a convenient label for any aspect of the design and build process that uses terms such as ‘wireframe’ or ‘specification’. In covering everything that the user experiences, it has come to be associated with anything done to create that.

So it’s time to understand that there are four aspects to good user experience, and that all four are required to really deliver the best possibly outcome. Just like supermarket labelling, it’s time for clarity in project delivery. These elements are:

  • UX: Research
  • UX: Design
  • UX: Test
  • UX: Build

I don’t think we need to get to the point of food labelling (contains 2g of Research per 100 users), but I do think we need to be clear about what elements are included in any project. I think this is key for providers, for agencies, but most importantly for end clients paying for these services.

It’s time that the term UX was – well, easier to use.

Gary Bunker

the Fore