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Does UX have a usability problem?

May 02, 2014

I recently sat in a thought-provoking special interest group at the CHI (Computer Human Interaction) Conference 2014 listening to information architects, programmers, human factors (HF) engineers, interaction designers and the like debating the true definition of user experience design (UX). 

During the debate someone mentioned that usability is definitely one of the cornerstones of UX. This sparked a side conversation about what usability itself actually means. Is it subjective? Is it objective? Is it both? I’ll revisit this. With the wide variety of disciplines represented in the room I revisited a categorization exercise which has been going on in my head for some time (I’m an engineer, things need to be categorized) — what disciplines contribute to UX?

There are myriad Venn diagrams that take a whack at this and they all manage to offend someone — exactly the opposite of most traditional disciplines. One diagram leaves out mechanical engineers, which caused one particular mechanical engineer I know to take serious offense (probably warranted). For that matter, it leaves out electrical engineers, too. Hopefully, they don’t see it. Another diagram includes more disciplines but some only connect to UX through others. For instance, HF engineers seem to have to play liaison between psychologists and UX. I’m an HF engineer and I don’t remember seeing that in my job description.

It seems to me that UX itself has a usability problem, which is kind of funny as usability seems to be one of the consistent themes in all the diagrams. Or perhaps it’s a combination of usability and messaging? I think the starting message should be (especially at a product design firm): Look, all of us who care about what we do and have any empathy at all for the end user of this product/software/process/information are essentially UX designers.

If we just started with that fairly simple premise we would at least skip the “I’m offended” step. Then, for the sake of argument, let’s just say that UX design encompasses any and all ways a user may interact with something you’re designing. Could be a digital interface, could be a volume knob, could be label, could be the sound it makes when you close the door that it may or may not have. If we make those statements and assumptions, it seems there can’t possibly be one person who can do all of that (nor quite frankly should he or she).

All of us who care about what we do and have any empathy at all for the end user are essentially UX designers.

Therefore, maybe a successful UX designer can be thought of as the maestro who pulls it all together (kind of like a project manager but from the user perspective). The end result would be a cohesive user experience that leverages the knowledge and talents of all the researchers, designers, engineers and programmers et al. If that’s the case, the UX designer needs to be holding pinkies with the project manager throughout the entire process. They need to be involved in defining product requirements all the way through to ensuring the design is properly communicated to and executed by the engineers and programmers.

Back to usability — ironically, it also has a usability problem. For instance, is the true measure of usability subjective or objective? If a user can successfully perform tasks with a product but is generally dissatisfied with it, is that better or worse than a user who is delighted with how a product works but unknowingly just triple-dosed their patient? I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle and is obviously pulled one way or the other depending on the type of product in question (is it a cell phone app or is it a proton therapy room?). Regulations also play a role. Sometimes it takes a deft hand to navigate.

In the same session, I heard a great quote: “UX is what we do. Usability is what we’re trying to achieve.” Although not the complete picture, it does help clear up a few things.