XX.3 May + June 2013
Page: 10
Digital Citation

Why it’s not damning to define the thing

Dave Malouf

I’ve been known to be obsessed with defining things. I’m addicted to semantics—you might call me a semant-aholic. I believe deeply in the importance of words and get really annoyed at dual meanings and misunderstandings, ambiguities caused by rampant misuse of terms, and just lack of agreement on the meaning of things.

I have found being a teacher amplifies this constant drive toward clarity in language and form. I would like to further argue that this is even more important for user experience (UX) and its related disciplines. At the crux of our practice is the mitigation of complexity, and we do so by bringing clarity to the complicated.

But defining UX and its related disciplines has been challenging—not for lack of trying, that’s for sure. Great contributions by Jesse James Garrett, Challis Hodge, Dan Saffer, Peter Morville, and a host of others have tried to visualize definitions of UX as relationships with other disciplines. I feel this has been a flawed approach, mainly because each of the other disciplines are as fuzzy as the ones they are being related to, in almost all cases.

While the corollary goes that if A = x and B = x then A = B, I am not so sure you can do the same thing with “is related to” as with “is equal to.” We have had a strong tendency to focus on the overlaps between disciplines in our world. We’ve done so because our practice has been one big overlap. The problem is that while A overlaps B and B overlaps C, this does not mean that A is related to C in a meaningful way, as many would like to believe.

Because the collection of disciplines that make up UX practice overlap, and often very closely, we need to have more clarity about the discreet units of the disciplines themselves. The overlap of disciplines such as HCI, information architecture, and interaction design creates confusion and complication for those who have to consume, manage, negotiate, and value our services. They can do so better if we ourselves work on creating clear, uncomplicated messages and definitions.

If our true job is clarity and meaning, it is fundamental that we describe our value to others in a clear and meaningful way. Otherwise, how can we, with any integrity, claim to be good at what we do?

But this goes beyond saying A = x. It is also says that A is good at being = x. Maybe B is better at being = x. This is where A and B are two solutions that lead a user through an experience of similar intent. We have to be able to be critical, and to be critical, we need to know what it is we are criticizing. We need a shared language of criticism that is not built on top of fungible, fuzzy, ambiguous properties. They need to be firm while at the same time flexible enough to evolve.

I have always asked my peers, what is so horrible about this attempt to Define the Damn Thing (DTDT), as it is often called? Some tout it as a waste of time. As I hope I have illustrated here, this is far from the truth. Others find that it can’t be done and that creating the examples is all the clarity we need, as we can point to X and say, “Yes, that is X and X is good.” Yes, we’ve done this with Apple’s iPod and iPhone for what feels like Internet centuries, but what I’ve noticed is that when everyone points to it and says, “Yes! That! I want that!” they are all talking about a different part of “that.” This just leads to no one knowing what X really is.

This all leads me back to clarity. Every time we accept when someone uses “usability” when they mean “user experience”—or worse, vice versa—we are fighting our own cause. We are demonstrating that we cannot create the content strategy and information architecture of our own work environment. When we proclaim that Apple iTunes has a great UX at the same time we point out—almost equally fervently—how much we hate iTunes, we are confusing each other.


Lastly, and most recently, I have heard, “UX has won, so we should just use it.” For whom has it won? I believe we are so eager to have anyone understand what it is we do in any way at all that we equate some usage of any of our terms as affirmation that the world understands them. I would argue that no matter how many Fast Company or Forbes articles allude to UX, or job descriptions list UX, usage is not the same as understanding or acceptance. It’s like when my six-year-old son uses a big word, and I’m stunned for a moment until I probe further to realize that he has no idea what he’s saying. He just likes the idea of what he thinks he’s saying.

So our work as practitioners and researchers is not done in this arena. Am I suggesting we remain paralyzed, waiting for an epiphany? Of course not. Keep working, keep critiquing, keep writing, keep discussing. It is part of the work, not a distraction from it. Your work, all of it, will only get stronger from the exercise.


Dave Malouf is a passionate advocate for the power behind the culture of design. He is a 20-year veteran of interaction design. Feel free to follow him on Twitter (@daveixd) or Google+ (+dave.ixd).

©2013 ACM  1072-5220/13/05  $15.00

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