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The UX Identity Crisis and the Shifting-T model of Knowledge for Renaissance Technologists

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The thinker

Donald Norman, who perhaps is the father of user experience, defines UX as encompassing all aspects of the end-user's interaction with the company, its services, and its products.

This is a broad definition. One that is not easily captured by a set of skills. How can a UX professional be an expert in all aspects of a user's interaction with the company, its services, and its products? It is simply not possible for one person to have both the breadth of knowledge and depth of skills to take on such a job.

This is why organizations with a "less-mature" design org. typically put all that bourdon on one or a few poor designers, lumping in the terms UX and UI together. The internet is full of vague job postings seeking a UX/UI designer who will do everything from research to design to even writing code. This brings me to another infamous twitter debate, "should designers code?" To that I say, what kind of a technologist are they?

I think the confusion stems from one word, designer, or design. If you were to ask 100 designers to define design you would probably end up with 200 different definitions.

As someone who identifies as a designer, for years while I was doing my Ph.D. in human-computer interaction design. I pondered the definition—after all that's what Ph.D. do! We take long walks and ponder things, including why on earth am I doing a Ph.D.?

The definition that I reached, one which I have yet to hear any objections to, is as follows: Design is the intelligence behind creation.

Design suffers from a PR problem. Because of its broad and vague description, design is not a distinct separated discipline like say computer science. You cannot go to school to just study design. You can study visual design, you can study business strategy, you can study interaction design, but in order to study those you need to go to art school, business school, and computer science or information science schools. Yet as a UX designer you're supposed to work on all things encompassing all aspects of the end-user's interaction with the company, its services, and its products.

So where does that leave us as UX professionals?

  1. We should stop using UX as a catch-all term.

  2. Stop, and I cannot emphasize this enough, using the term UX/UI. The user interface (UI) is merely a subset of the entire user experience. I saw this once online captured beautifully like this: you wouldn't say I drive a vehicle/car or I'm enjoying a vegetable/carrot. This is exactly what you sound like when you say I am a UX/UI designer. You're either a UX designer and a part of your job is doing some UI design. Or, you are a UI design specialist.

  3. Stop perpetuating the myth that one can be a UX professional after taking a 6 month online course. Perhaps the worst offender of this is a company as big with a design culture as mature as Google. Their UX certificate is a broad overview that is nothing but an introductory course to a subset of UX topics. On their website, they claim that after their course you can qualify for "in-demand UX jobs" listing: User experience UX designer; Visual designer; UI designer; Product designer; Interaction designer. I would say after the course, you would know what these things are and maybe can land an entry-level position as a junior UI designer, but you got a long career of both education and skill-development ahead of you. Courses like this are mere spring-boards to introduce you to a new career. They do not a professional make.

  4. Manage expectations. When companies hire UX designers, the expectation is that they can do all the jobs listed in the above point. After all, Google says if you're a UX professional that took the same exact course, you should be able to come up with ideas, research and test them, define how the interface will look like, how users will interact with it at every turn. Some companies with a less-mature design culture might even go further in expecting a marketing plan, or even writing the code and developing the product.

  5. Go back to basics and get our definitions right. Above, I defined design as the intelligence behind creation. Don Norman defined user as encompassing all aspects of the end-user's interaction with the company, its services, and its products. I want to build on his definition by stating that an experience can be a service or a product. I would define a service as a series of steps or interactions that a company takes to provide its customers value. And a product to be a service with a tangible interactive interface, that being a software or a hardware.

  6. Move to a Shifting-T model of knowledge. I see seven areas of knowledge that are covered under the broad user experience umbrella. Most educational programs at universities on both the undergraduate and graduate levels and online certificates hit on some of these areas. After getting an introductory education, a UX professional or what I would like to call a Renaissance Technologist (RT) can choose to further their education and skills by diving deep into one or more areas gaining the depth of skills and expertise over a long career of practice and skill-development.

The seven areas of the Shifting-T model of knowledge for Renaissance Technologist are—unless you know better:

  1. Human Behavior

  2. Artifact Creation

  3. Fabrication

  4. Knowledge Creation

  5. Data Analysis and Statistics

  6. Linguistics and Communications

  7. Programming

blow I give a brief description of each one of the areas of knowledge, include typical educational backgrounds, skills, and activities.

Human Behavior: You put the user in user experience. You are obsessed with human factors, ergonomics, mental models, interaction behavior. You have a background in sociology, anthropology, psychology, ethnography, human-computer-interaction. Your job is to determine the who and uncover their why for any given experience.

Artifact Creation: Visual designers, motion designers, audio engineers, and the UX cannibals: the UI designers. Your job is draw the lines, storyboard the movies, and make the sound waves bend to your will. You went to an art school most likely. You are the poster child for this entire field. When people hear the word design, they think of you and your plain black tees. You are the Steve Wozniaks of the world.

Fabrication: You are the 3D modelers and industrial designers who get their hands dirty. You love the smell of a laser-cutter in the morning. While you share a lot with the Artifact Creators in terms of bringing a vision to life and making concepts into tangible artifacts. You however, don't play in the virtual world, but are instead confined to the laws of physics. You have a background in mechanical engineering or architecture. You know a lot about materials, angles, weight, and share the love of ergonomics with your Human Behaviorist siblings.

Knowledge Creation: Aka research and strategy. You are big thinkers. You are the why people. The Steve Jobs to the creationist and fabricationist Woz. You most likely have a Ph.D. and know that research is not merely a lit review, rather it is the creation one new unfound knowledge. You know exactly how to design an experiment to create that new knowledge. You might have went to an information school and followed it up with an MBA. You have sharp business and management skills. You operate at the ten thousand foot view finding out where and how does the experience you’re building, be it a service or a product, fit into our world.

Data analysis and Statistics: You are analytical, you understand data types, and statistical analysis and modeling. You know which t-test you need to perform to determine the statistical significance, if any, resulted from the experiment you worked closely on with your knowledge creator siblings. You are an expert in qualitative or quantitative methods of data analysis, or perhaps you've got a big heart and are a mixed methods type of person. You are our factual backbone and your work separates us from wild-guessing.

Linguistics and Communication: You put your English, communications, or journalism degree to work. You are obsessed with the Oxford comma and have probably been judging my writing style while reading this article. You define an experience’s tone of voice, write experience copy, help all your RT siblings communicate their work clearly and effective to their intended audiences, and you are close friends with our buddies in marketing.

Programming: Your ambition and impatience lead you to take things into your own hands and just “do it yourself”. Wanting to bring your ideas to life, you probably started out adjusting some CSS and HTML, then discovered javascript which was your gateway into more advanced programming languages. Or vice versa, you started out in computer science but were more interested in the impact of your programs rather than making them work. However you ended up here, a programmer who does more than writing code and committing it to a git repository. Your hands-on keyboard skills and knowledge of algorithm is an invaluable asset to your Human Behavior and Knowledge Creation siblings. Always keeping them on their toes by explaining what is technologically feasible.

It is easy to see how interconnected and inter-dependent these areas of knowledge are on another. And how easy it is for one person to be taking on more than one area of knowledge. The point of this article is not to say that one person cannot be the ultimate RT with deep knowledge in all areas. One, over a long career of education and practice, certainly can. The point here is to not expect somebody who took a six month online course to be able to perform all the jobs listed above. I challenge any UX course graduate without a background in statistics to analyze the results of a quantitative study using the appropriate statistical test. Hell, I challenge them to even choose the right experimental setup given a clearly stated research question. The point of this article is to stop expecting UX professionals to do it all, confusing them with user interface creators, and expecting them to write code.

Rather, we would have teams of renaissance technologists: a person with the breadth of knowledge of experience design and the depth of expertise in some areas they are passionate about complementing the skills of their teammates.

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