This weeks post is an interview with Andy Budd, a founding partner and Managing Director of Clearleft. He also goes by the title of User Experience Director depending what mood he’s in. Andy is the founder of the dConstruct and UX London conferences and has always had an interest in the way design affects human behavior.
52WeeksOfUX: You founded Clearleft five years ago with Jeremy Keith and Richard Rutter, effectively becoming one of the premier UX focused agencies in the UK. How have you seen the field of UX change in the last 5 years?
Andy: When we started a lot of people in the UK didn’t know what UX was and a large part of our job was having to explain what UX meant, why it was different than Usability Testing or just regular web design. There was a lot of misunderstanding and even more importantly, people didn’t even know what proper web design was.
Over the last 2 years we started seeing clients get an understanding of UX and the value of what we do and started seeking us out directly, which is a really nice position to be in. A lot of that is due to the visibility of UX in the UK becoming much more prominent — more and more agencies are offering it as a service and more and more agencies claiming to be dedicated UX consultancies. People who are purchasing web design services now are much more savvy and understand that UX is a needed service.
On the other hand, I read somewhere that the title “User Experience Designer” is one of the top 10 job titles of 2009. A lot of agencies are latching onto the UX bandwagon. Agencies who didn’t know what UX was two years ago are now claiming to be UX consultancies. They might have set up a Usability Lab that they never use or they have a staff of 20 but only 1 employee is actually a UX person. With the ubiquity there has also been a watering down, and a “me-too” syndrome. We are having to spend more time explaining that we *really are* a UX agency - differentiating ourselves from those who are talking the talk but not walking the walk. UX has definitely become a buzzword.
52WeeksOfUX: Speaking of buzzword, is there one acronym to rule them all? Or do titles really matter at all in our industry?
Andy: There are nuances between the labels, especially for people who are in the industry. Jesse James Garrett lambasted people who called themselves Information Architects at the IA Summit last year saying we should be describing ourselves as “User Experience Designers”. I kind of thought that was a little bit unfair and short-sighted. There are people within our industry that are *purely* Information Architects, people who deal with the data and don’t have anything to do with interaction. They are not creating a user experience, they are Information Architects. There are Usability Experts who all they do-day in and day out—is run usability tests. I think there are a few competing factors here: there is your job title, there is your practice and there is the discipline you are undertaking at the time.
For example, I am a User Experience Designer, but sometimes I do Information Architecture, sometimes I do usability testing, sometimes I do interface design. These are all practices of a UX designer in the broader sense. When you are looking at big systems, or at really really big projects, its also possible that practice is also a job title in itself. These things are both job titles and disciplines/practices.
Within the industry, I don’t think the conversation is that helpful. Everyone wants to spend time defining what they do and frankly as long as your description is clear to me and I understand what you mean, then it doesn’t really matter if I call myself a User Experience Designer, does it? In some respects, I think the term User Experience Designer is incredibly big-headed. I am not designing experiences in the same way that an Imagineer at Disney is creating an experience. I am designing websites. I would love to be able to get to the level and ability where I can truly say I am designing an experience for somebody. I don’t think we are quite there yet. I am not sure the web has the ability to provide those experiences in the same way. Actually, us big-headed UX people and web-standardistas probably need to look to the Flash community. If anything, Flash designers are doing more of the delivery of an experience—beautifully rendered, narrative-based story art and that kind of stuff.
Sometimes I describe myself as a Product Designer, an online Product Designer. I am not necessarily always being given a product which I need to design the experience for. In fact, I am often more involved in creating the product or forming the bones of the product with the client. I think a closer analogy of what we do is that of product design, we just do it in a digital space on the web. I think thats closer than saying we are User Experience Designers. I don’t really think we are… quite yet…
52WeeksOfUX: Some people have argued that UX is really just a thread that ties together various disciplines. Does the act of codifying principles help to make UX a more legitimate field?
Andy: Guidelines might work 95% of the time but they don’t work every time. We could dress them up in fancy language and call them “heuristics” its exactly the same. Usability heuristics, user experience heuristics - they are just guidelines. There is a danger in guidelines becoming commandments-becoming rules—and people not understanding the nuances. That is a danger with people who are newly entering the industry or people who are wanting to get a handle on user experience.
There are no absolutes on the web. The reality is that like a lot of science—like chemistry or physics—in the beginning we use very simple models and as our knowledge and understanding of the field grows, these models become out of date. As our understanding of the many various edge cases increase we develop newer, more complex models.
These models are actually very difficult for us to describe physically and verbally through diagrams. And this goes back to why there is such a big discussion and debate around “are we IA, are we UX?” Our level of understanding of the problems are so complex and we have internalized this stuff so much that it is very difficult to answer these questions in simple terms because the answers aren’t simple. This is why you turn to experts. Expertise doesn’t come from reading a blog post on “How to Do User Experience in 10 Simple Steps.” Expertise comes from 10+ years, thousands of hours of making lots of mistakes and screwing up again and again and ultimately, getting good at what you do.