Years ago, it was fairly easy to answer the question, “what do you do for a living?”. I would say “web designer”, and pretty much everyone would know that I was magical and could make websites appear with a whisk of my wand. Nowadays, it is a little harder. Not just because I have stretched my skillset to the limit over the past 16 years, but also because the web industry has a new “hip” title that everyone wants. I am speaking, of course, of UX, or User Experience, which now comes before “Designer” and “Analyst”, “Researcher”, and even “Developer”.
My first issue with my title is that I do so much more than merely design websites. I have been a web development team lead, managed a corporate intranet, and served as an interactive creative director. I have acted as a product manager, project manager, tester, and trainer. I have designed web sites, intranets, internal and external web applications, and have even designed multiple native mobile apps. I have always built the user interfaces for every site and application that I have designed, so add front-end web developer to the mix. Lastly, I have been involved in creating user task flows, information architecture diagrams, user stories, task analysis, and writing complex functional specifications filled with wireframes and diagrams and detailed interaction designs. Add user research, competitive audits, web site analytics analysis, user testing, and survey creation and you have an idea of just what I can do. So, what am I?
What title best describes what I do? Interactive Creative Director suggests that I sit in a cushy office all day and direct the work of others, safely out of the trenches. Nope. I have always been in the trenches, even when directing the work of others. Interaction Designer suggests I spend my days involved in creating task and user flows. My old standby, Web Designer, now sounds as antiquated as Webmaster. What about my newest title, that of Senior UX Designer? It suggests I spend my days talking to users and running tests. None of these titles accurately expresses the totality of my skills or the various roles that I take on within each position I have held.
I started using Full Stack UXD Practitioner lately because it suggests someone who is involved in all phases of a digital product’s lifecycle-research, design, and development. This too seems incomplete.
When I started out 16 years ago, UX activities were just activities you did to make sure you were designing the right solution. Research, stakeholder interviews, writing functional specs, IA diagrams, task flows, wireframes, prototypes-I have been doing all of these activities long before Jesse James Garret came out The Elements of User Experience. I was a UXer and didn’t even know it. I was just doing my job.
In the past few years, UX has become the newest “discipline” to demand specialization and recognition. It reminds me of the early 2000s when people endlessly tried to explain what Information Architecture was, and how some of these IA specialists wanted so desperately to be considered essential. IA was always a role to me, a set of activities within the whole of creating a digital product, not a singular position to be carried out by one person to the exclusion of all other activities. Now IA has been rolled up into the UX umbrella.
What confuses me about this newfound specialization is how un-special it is, how unspecific. The activities that are currently being pulled into UX are vast, with the consequence that those old school web designers like me, folks who can do research, interaction and visual design, and can do front-end web development, are being reduced to decorators and code monkeys. In many companies, all of the “thought” activities are given to UX Analysts or UX Designers, leaving only graphic design and production activities for everyone else. Everything that added intellectual value to the job of creating has been stripped from so many job titles. The whole “UX as field and title” situation has been plaguing me lately because these are activities, essential activities that help a team understand the users, uncover business needs and goals, and provide the intellectual and user-focused background to a project. Stripping away the activities from the titles that have traditionally performed them have elevated one group of people and lessened the value and input of traditional designers and developers.
My concerns are primarily targeted to the hoards of companies who have heard the term UX and decided that they needed these magic folks, oblivious to the reality that they probably already had UX practitioners on staff, just with different titles. Specialization makes sense sometimes, but there is immense value to being experienced in the whole of a field, and companies should really know what they need, and why, before they go the specialization route. Companies are missing out on old school unicorns like myself, and people like me are being pushed into specialization to the detriment of their intellectual and creative capacities.
As for that final title to rule them all, how about Creative Facilitator of Awesomeness, or maybe just The Facilitator? Yea, I dig it.