Lars Damgaard
strategic user experience designer
November 27th 2012

User Experience Design is a slippery concept. But that’s good.

Back when I studied sociology, it always struck me how obsessed academic sociologists were with defining the field of sociology. The fundamental question  “what is sociology” was a very important one that occupied (and probably still does occupy) many sociologists around the world.

In the field of practical and theoretical user experience design, I have started to notice the exact same phenomenon: User Experience Designers / Information Architects / Interaction Designers are just as obsessed with defining their professional whereabouts and the boundaries of the field as sociologists are. Why is this so?

History of Sociology. Very short version.

Intellectual inquiries about social behavior among human beings have existed forever, but I don’t think anyone will disagree with me if I claim that sociology basically started out as philosophy. Auguste Comte was the first one to actually coin the term sociology in 1838. Actually some other guy used it first, but Comte was the first one to use it anywhere near the way we use it today. Since its very beginning, sociology has progressed and evolved as a battlefield for  contending definitions and dichotomies: methodological individualism vs. methodological collectivism, rational action theory vs. marxist notions of false consciousness  to name just a very few. Add to this that sociology has evolved as a science that had to struggle not only with internal defining battles, but also, to a large extent, had to struggle (perhaps even more) to define itself as something different than the related fields of anthropology, psychology, economy and philosophy.

According to this mini analysis there are two reasons why sociology is preoccupied with defining itself: in order to be something in itself, sociology has to differentiate itself from other related areas and further, sociology being a very multifaceted field has to constantly ask itself: if this thing we call sociology can be so many different things, then what is the core of sociology. In this perspective, sociology has become what different sociologists have historically been able to define it as. If what they were doing didn’t fit into the existing definitions they had revise or expand it to their purpose.

History of User Experience Design. Even shorter version.

In my introduction, I mentioned User Experience Designers / Information Architects / Interaction Designers rather than just one of the titles since this is part of the point that I want to make. But let’s look at how it all started. The Auguste Comte of User Experience Design is a guy called Don(ald) Norman.

He used to be Vice President of the Advanced Technology Group at Apple by the way. Now he has his own company, writes books and gives speeches, but in an interview about the term, he states the following about the term user experience design:

I invented the term because I thought human interface and usability were too narrow. I wanted to cover all aspects of the person’s experience with the system including industrial design graphics, the interface, the physical interaction and the manual.

If Auguste Comte had been interviewed about the invention of sociology, he would probably have argued along the exact same lines: he needed a term that could describe something that the old terms could not. So when a professional discipline evolves (be it sociology or user experience design), it does so because the people involved feel constrained by the old disciplines, just like Don Norman felt constrained by usability and human interface.

User Experience Design is maturing rather than loosing its meaning

A bit later in the same interview, Don Norman argues that the term has started to loose its meaning, because people use it for just about anything.

They sort of entered the vocabulary and no longer have any special meaning. People use them often without having any idea why, what the word means, its origin, history, or what it’s about.

I don’t think he is right that the term is loosing its meaning. Of course he is right in a very strict linguistic sense (if it can literally refer to anything, then it has no meaning in itself) and maybe that is what he is aiming at.

But in a more practical sense, I would argue the opposite: user experience design is maturing and gaining social meaning. Not as a clearly defined concept that describes one singular professional activity, but as a social phenomenon that is semantically wide enough to contain related disciplines of creating good digital solutions that people will actually enjoy using because it gives them a good user experience.

A slippery concept. But that’s good.

On the same note, it does not suffice for most information architects I know (myself included) to say that they create information architecture only. Nor does it suffice for interaction designers (myself included) to say that they do interaction design only and nor does it suffice for good graphic designers to say that they do graphic design only. For most information architects, interaction designers and graphic designers I know, it makes sense to refer to what we do as user experience design, because all of these activities somehow magically falls into (or under) the concept of user experience design. If you have ever been at a UX conference, you will probably have noticed that people working with user experience design have extremely different educational backgrounds. Some are straight up designers, some are programmers, some are journalists, some are psychologists, some are anthropologists, some are sociologists and so on.

This plethora of professional backgrounds among UX practitioners is one of the keys to understand my initial inquiry: why we are so obsessed about defining what we do. The journalists “gone ux” will look at user experience design from a content strategy perspective. The social science people “gone ux” will perhaps emphasize analysis and the understanding of the user’s needs whereas programmers “gone ux” will try to define user experience as a matter of performance or frontend development and so on.

I am exaggerating and stereotyping here, but the point is that user experience design is such a fluid and slippery concept and this is perhaps something that we should embrace rather than try to fight, because the loose boundaries, the many truly different practitioners and the ongoing debates are some of the main reasons why the field of user experience design is so interesting and vivid.

Thanks for reading.