Whose profession is it anyway?

XII.3 May + June 2005
Page: 32
Digital Citation

Why engineers own user experience design

Bruce Tognazzini

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Researchers, usability practitioners, and design practitioners form the cornerstones of the user experience field. Two of these three groups work in recognized professions. Members of the third group, the design practitioners—even after more than 25 years—still work in obscurity. This obscurity comes with a terrible penalty for the designers: reduced job opportunities and lower salaries. Because so few companies today employ interaction designers, instead leaving engineers with no design training in charge of design, this obscurity comes with an even greater penalty for society through lowered productivity.

I used to think companies were at fault for not recognizing our intrinsic worth. That excuse was good for around 20 years. Now, we designers must accept responsibility.

If you ask companies why they think it is okay to have engineers do the design, they'll respond with "designers only slow things down" or "I wouldn't know who or what to hire if I wanted one."

We can no longer afford to sit around waiting to be discovered. We need to change their perceptions.

Select a Name, Stick with it, and Market it. If we can't even get organized enough to decide what to call our profession, how can we expect others to recognize and respect us? Over the years, I've been called a human interface designer, user interface designer, user experience designer, interaction architect, and HCI designer. Many of you reading this article will find yet another title on your business cards, even though we all do exactly the same thing.

Use the title "Interaction Designer." It may not be perfect, but what's important is that potential employers hear and see a single, unified term.

A decade ago, the usability people—sick of everyone calling them "user testers"—all got together and settled on the term usability professional. They then formed a "guild" to formalize and promote the name: The Usability Professionals' Association (UPA). I can tell you they have been highly successful. When I talk to CEOs and engineering managers of companies, both in Europe and America, a very high percentage know the term and hold respect for its practitioners—something not true a decade ago.

We are Interaction Designers. Last year, I proposed it was time for designers to select a single name for us. Challis Hodge ran with the ball, starting up a grassroots discussion group (see www.ixdg.org/en) for that purpose. After great debate by scores of correspondents, the group reached consensus: interaction designer.

Next Steps — It's not enough to just select a brand name. We have to build our brand by selling the value proposition of interaction designers. (Such terminology may sound foreign and just a little icky to my design colleagues, but avoiding the icky is what has led us to spend more than a quarter century in obscurity.)

Help Wanted from the Research Community — Companies want hard evidence that involving interaction designers is good for the bottom line. We know, from our own individual experiences, that interaction design and the iterative design methodology save time and money, but we don't have sufficient scientific proof.

We need help from the research community. We need studies of companies and/or projects that do and do not have professional interaction designers, employing iterative design processes. We need to understand the real costs of doing without interaction design and an iterative design process in terms of:

  • time to market
  • budget
  • customer support costs
  • fire drills
  • headaches

With research backing up clear and simple messages about how, why, and how well our design methodologies work, we can go to work selling our name and our services.

Interaction Designers Must Deliver the Message. We must have one name, one voice. Nothing will happen until all design practitioners draw together.

Use the Title "Interaction Designer" — It may not be perfect, and it may not be your first choice; it wasn't even mine. That just doesn't matter. What's important is that potential employers all over the planet start hearing and seeing a single, unified term, and a large community of your peers has agreed upon interaction designer.

Today, you are likely to find both usability professionals and graphic designers working within groups with names like the HCI Group or User Experience Group. A usability professional's business card might say, for example:

  • Brenda Smith
  • Usability Professional
  • HCI Group

We can build our own brand by explicitly and consistently listing our profession as interaction designer, regardless of our group's latest name. For example:

  • Donald Jones
  • Interaction Designer
  • User Experience Group

Support Your Community. The computing world is still a dangerous place for most people to venture. A minefield of bad design is ready to explode in their faces at every step.

Over the last quarter century, the three cornerstones of HCI-researchers, usability professionals, and interaction designers—have honed a proven process and methodology for achieving successful design.

The only thing perpetuating bad design today is the failure of interaction designers to convince the people who need them the most to hire them.

CHI will continue to be the fountainhead for our design profession, but interaction designers also need a "guild" similar to the UPA. Following the lead of the usability professionals, the same grassroots group that chose our name has launched a new organization called the Interaction Design Group, or IxDG. For more information about IxDG, see Elizabeth Bacon's article in this issue, "Defining Interaction Design."

I urge interaction designers to become active members of IxDG and, following in the footsteps of UPA, help move IxDG toward maturity.

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Bruce "Tog" Tognazzini
Neilsen Norman Group

About the Author:

Bruce "Tog" Tognazzini has been part of personal computing from the beginning. He built his first electro-mechanical computer in 1959, was employee #66 at Apple, where he spent 14 years before going on to be a distinguished engineer at Sun Microsystems, then chief designer at Healtheon/WebMD, finally becoming the third principal at the Nielsen Norman Group. He publishes asktog.com, has written two books, co-authored three others, and currently has 49 patents issued in HCI, automotive safety, and aviation.

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