Whose profession is it anyway?

XII.3 May + June 2005
Page: 16
Digital Citation


Pabini Gabriel-Petit

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This issue of <interactions> addresses the current "controversy" over who owns the user experience (UX). But is that a legitimate question or just a straw man? Can any one person or profession own UX?

In this issue, UX professionals from the United States and Europe express diverse opinions about the ownership of UX. The authors who have contributed articles are UX strategists, designers whose work encompasses the breadth of user experience, and specialists in professions that contribute to user experience such as interaction design, information architecture, usability, user research, and technical communication. All are actively involved in the international UX community, are working to advance their respective professions, and care passionately about user experience. Some authors are speaking from their own points of view, while others represent the viewpoints of specific UX organizations. All were eager to lend their voices to this discussion.

The articles in this issue range from the philosophical to the practical. While the authors look at the ownership of UX from many different perspectives, there is a harmony in their outlooks that is very positive. We hope that reading these articles will stimulate thought and discussion throughout the UX community about how we can share ownership of UX. Where do you stand on this important issue?

Sharing Ownership of UX: Working in Cultures of Collaboration and Vision. Throughout most of my career in digital product design, I've been fortunate to work within cultures of collaboration. For a UX professional, there is no more exhilarating experience than working on a product in close collaboration with a small, multidisciplinary team of people who are experts in their respective professions. Every member of a multidisciplinary team makes a unique contribution to digital product design and, thus, to user experience.

Today, many professionals working within the broader field of UX increasingly focus on specialized disciplines such as interaction design, information architecture, visual interface design, user research, and usability. Each of these UX disciplines has an important role to play in digital product design and, working in concert, we have a much greater potential for making a real impact on our companies' products.

In a culture of collaboration rather than competition, there is a healthy cross-pollination of ideas among all the professional disciplines. Working in a milieu where team members respect one another's expertise but also challenge one another's ideas from the perspectives of their different disciplines, stimulates everyone's creativity.

To deliver great, innovative products, it's essential that there are visionaries behind them who are responsible for all design decisions. Making sure all the best ideas—whatever their source—end up in a product, while ensuring that the product vision remains coherent and the user experience consistent, requires both leadership and shared responsibility.

In a culture of collaboration rather than competition, there is a healthy cross-pollination of ideas among all the professional disciplines.

Who should lead a multidisciplinary product team? Although it's very important to have a capable project manager coordinating the many activities that are essential to a successful product-development project, responsibility for leadership should not rest solely with one individual. While there must always be at least one energetic, passionate visionary driving a product team's effort, who should provide leadership on a particular issue depends on who has the expertise to best deal with that issue. That may be someone in engineering, the product manager, or a UX professional. All team members must assume responsibility for issues relating to their own disciplines and drive them to resolution.

Innovative, high-quality digital products are the result of a strong vision, collaboration, and teamwork. Where true teamwork exists, teammates generously share their knowledge, helping one another to do their jobs better. As UX professionals, we must educate our teammates about the principles of good UX design and involve them in decisions that affect usability. When a product team shares ownership of the user experience, every team member becomes invested in creating a usable, useful, enjoyable product.

Contrast cultures of collaboration and vision with cultures that make decisions by consensus in committee. In committees, the viewpoints of individuals may prevail through the power of their personalities or their political power—even if they have no particular expertise in digital product design—rather than through the merit of their design ideas. Even where people with power don't dominate, it's almost impossible for a large group of people to come up with a clear, unified vision for a product. Too many design decisions result from compromise. Neither is design by committee likely to foster the kind of outside-the-box thinking and risk taking that are essential for innovation. In committees, adventurous ideas tend to get suppressed. The likely result—if not a giant hairball—is a product that lacks a coherent vision, inspiration, and innovation.

Influencing Corporate Culture. As UX professionals, we must take responsibility for creating cultures of vision and collaboration—whether that means influencing executive management in existing companies to create them or starting product-development companies ourselves. The venture capital community has not yet recognized the creative potential that UX professionals can bring to startups, but hopefully that will change soon. UX professionals can play a strategic role in creating new product opportunities.

We must educate executive management about the necessity of creating high-quality products or put ourselves into positions where we can control the quality of products. A well-designed user interface becomes irrelevant if a product constantly hangs, crashes, or destroys user data, as is all too common today. In such a case, instability and betrayal become the user experience, and the response of users is anger, frustration, and mistrust.

Recently, management focus has been on calculating return on investment (ROI) for UX—independent of other factors—with the goal of proving its value. Managers who take this approach perceive UX as something that might add value rather than acknowledging the reality that great UX is essential to the success of digital products. We must change that perception. From the perspective of users, the user experience is the product. Therefore, to understand the true value of UX, executives must look at their products' brand equity, which contributes to a company's bottom line and ensures its long-term survival.

In a company that views product marketing and engineering as indispensable components of a product team, but looks upon UX as merely adding value rather than being integral to the product-development process, a true culture of collaboration cannot exist. A multidisciplinary team must be a team of equals.

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Pabini Gabriel-Petit
Spirit Softworks

About the Guest Editor:

Pabini Gabriel-Petit is publisher and editor-in-chief for UXmatters (www.uxmatters.com), a new user experience Web magazine. She is a BayDUX co-chair, UXnet local ambassador for Silicon Valley; and IxDG managing editor, Publications and Communications Task Force team leader, and face-to-face coordinator for Silicon Valley. Pabini is also principal and user experience architect at Spirit Softworks (www.spiritsoftworks.com), a user experience design and strategy consultancy in Silicon Valley. With over 15 years of software-industry experience, Pabini has designed a wide variety of innovative desktop and Web applications. Before founding Spirit Softworks, she was user experience manager at WebEx.

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©2005 ACM  1072-5220/05/0500  $5.00

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