Whose profession is it anyway?

XII.3 May + June 2005
Page: 22
Digital Citation

The vision of good user experience

David Hawdale

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There has been much discussion among organizations and practitioners lately about the ownership of the user experience. So, who owns it? Or to put it another way, who is responsible for the user experience and makes it work? What I have found is that the most important contributor to the design of a successful user experience is a leader with a vision.

It's the leader who takes the vision of the total user experience and makes it work. The leader sees the big picture and combines and synthesizes, adding individuals with skill and knowledge in the right places to contribute to the vision. The leader's critically important role is to set the vision and hold tight to it. The vision is the easiest thing to lose, and when a product team loses its vision, the project becomes ordinary and the user experience disjointed.

So, who can take this leadership role and own the user experience? I believe that it could be anybody who cares about the user experience, anybody who can see the bigger picture and who believes that user experiences can be designed. It could be a visual designer, a usability consultant, a creative director, a project manager, an information architect, or a user experience architect—anyone within the user experience field. I don't believe it matters who takes the leadership role. What is important is the inclination of an individual to be responsible and take ownership. It is the caring, the understanding, and the holding of the vision that is important, more than any particular technical ability.

As user experience professionals, our tradition of inclusion can work against us. Our tendency is to make decisions by committee, based on research and analysis, rather than insight and creative impulse. But to create good experiences, we must resist being too egalitarian or we will fail. We need a leader to lead. It is simply a matter of vision and ownership, with experts running their own areas of expertise and keeping their noses out of others'.

Are there any models that provide examples of this viewpoint? Well, yes. A profession that works exactly like this is the film business. Before working in user experience design, I worked on TV and film production crews, and it is their working practices that I look to use on my design projects rather than the more usual production models of architecture or print.

Take the fractured nature of both user experience and film production. Film crews rarely shoot films in narrative sequence; location and the availability of actors usually determine the order of shooting. They capture the scenes piecemeal, and then add the audio, effects, and soundtrack during editing. This makes both a clear vision and an extensive pre-production-planning process a requirement, not a nice-to-have. Not until editing is complete can anyone share the vision of the filmmaker in its totality. The same is true of the user experiences we design, with the different elements assembled bit by bit, by different experts, often in different places. But do we typically prepare so well and adhere so closely to a single vision? Often, we do not. We need leadership and vision to achieve coherence in our user experiences.

For a film production, it is the director who holds on to the vision and employs and engages experts to make the vision real. Steven Spielberg didn't write Jaws, he didn't wield the camera, he didn't act in it, and he didn't record the music for it. He didn't do anything, ostensibly, but stand around. But his thriller broke new ground by using the camera as the shark's point of view, with a rising heartbeat thumping in the soundtrack to stir our visceral fears about an attacker in the water coming closer and closer.

It is time to stop talking about who owns the user experience and look at the big picture. Whatever your title, you can own the user experience by taking the lead and pursuing your vision.

Spielberg made all the elements work together, making the film much more than the sum of its parts. The actors and crew could never have made Jaws by committee; they wouldn't have had a singular vision. But Spielberg had a vision. He took responsibility and made it work. Film directors might come from any walk of life. It doesn't matter what they've done before. What does matter is that they have a vision, they hold on to it, and they make it work.

It is time to stop talking about who owns the user experience and look at the big picture. Just get on with it, take responsibility, and make it work as you see it. Whatever your title, you can own the user experience by taking the lead, leaving the committees behind you, getting good people around you, and pursuing your vision.

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David Hawdale
Hawdale Associates Limited

About the Author:

David Hawdale is chief experience officer with Hawdale Associates Limited based in Manchester, UK. He has degrees in Experimental Psychology and Cognitive Science. His interests focus around how the internet fits in a multi-channel commercial environment, and how this matches the psychology and the needs of the customer. Contact him at david@hawdale-associates.com.

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©2005 ACM  1072-5220/05/0500  $5.00

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