What Flavour is Your User Experience?

by Jessica Ramesh we are experience

Your indispensible guide to the UX industry

So you’re working more closely with UX agencies? This is good. You might even have forced the board into an epiphany and allocated yourself a chunky annual budget. You’ve got them thinking about UX strategically. Superb.

We’re in a new, more solid growth phase in the UX industry (although we’re far from final maturity). And I’ve heard talk of a bubble (although you didn’t hear that from me.)

It’s taken maybe a decade of evangelising, lobbying, and pitching for UX to fully anchor its place in the often more progressive corporation as a key enabler that helps to deliver more effective services and propositions.

Now that we’re a bit older and the commerce and media landscape is increasingly complex, grown-up relationships – in which we both understand each other and can speak with candour – are important. There’s uncertainty in the world right now but we can think of this as a good opportunity-might-present-itself type of uncertainty. And to meet minds with the client in this spirit of partnership reduces waste and increases value. We strive for it.


But I have a problem (not insurmountable). While we UX-ers have a responsibility to make ourselves understood, there remain some questions within the industry about how to label the thing that makes us who we are. This is set against the background of an industry which has over the past ten years or so developed its vocabulary and then urged clients to learn it in order to buy more expertly. Within this vocabulary there are a handful of common principles but many different interpretations and practices.

Alphabetti spaghetti

I’ve seen arguments presented – very well – for the difference between an Information Architect (IA), Interaction Designer (IXD), User Experience Architect (UXA), and User Experience Designer (UXD). Then there are the Experience Planners, (XPs) and Human Factors Consultants. All sitting within a context of what was a strand of Human Computer Interaction (HCI) – usability (dry), then user-centred-design. (UCD – let’s think about designing for the user!) Then user experience (UX – now this is cool!), tentatively and tangentially (flash in the pan but in no way dead) Service Design and now the Next Big Thing that is Customer Experience (CX).

I’ve seen a few wacky infographics and bonkers Venn diagrams which try to rationalise design disciplines that might or might not be interconnected. These can make sense in isolation but then contradict each other wildly when compared. And I’ve heard people argue convincingly enough that all this designy stuff we do is approximately the same thing.

Excitement about what could be

Then there’s the added problem that we have a natural tendency in our professional community to get excited by ‘what could be’ when we see new opportunities presented by the latest technology. And this isn’t really monetary – there’s the kudos and opportunity to make and play with cool stuff. For example, I see a lot of chatter about hyper-local and hyper-social services, fluid, kinetic and haptic interfaces, and ubiquitous/mobile computing. Yes, these are hugely exciting to us and our kind (more please!). But while we define ourselves and make our discipline inclusive, our lexicon can be equally exclusive to the yet-to-be-initiated. From the perspective of a client this could be another bucket-load of jargon from an industry that often doesn’t talk consistently about its present. This could make them uncertain about the future.

Different flavours of UX consultant

There is another way to think. I believe it’s time to use some frames that allow clients to think about how they use an agency or consultant in this industry. There are some common roles that we play with our set of tools (whatever we like to call them). And these common roles are not mutually exclusive. Many UX practitioners have found themselves wearing a number of these hats – some, all of them.

• Validator: ‘Help me understand whether I’m doing it right’
In this role the agency or consultant assumes the role of a neutrally-positioned vendor of research and testing services on a third party’s implementation – often the client’s creative or technology agency or team. They are expected to remain detached, impartial and will often be encouraged not to engage in any hands-on design practise. Most UX agencies will have done this at some time.

• Process activist: ‘Help me get it done; do it quickly’
Sometimes a client just doesn’t know where to start, doesn’t have the confidence in existing vendors, those within the organisation or the time to get a project off the ground. They want someone to come in, get a project up to speed, help lay out a process and cut a path through corporate inertia or politics. This is ‘get it done; do it quickly’.

• Convergence catalyst: ‘Help me make my project work across channels’
Use the considerable perspective of your UX agency or consultant to catalyse design across channels. The rationale is simple: UX professionals cut their teeth with online in the years while they strove for ascendency. Senior practitioners are highly likely to have been exposed to people playing different roles in the past and they themselves have had to play well with others, learning how to integrate and make relevant in order to get their voices heard. Now that digital channels are at the core of the funnel or are working as enablers for other channels, a senior UX professional often has experience and perspective across a number of connected channels and disciplines.

Insight-driven strategist: ‘Help me understand the user and think creatively about how I make solutions for them’
This role promotes the voice of the user and keeps it front of mind to ensure that the executed strategy is in tune with the target audience. This is a role which is akin, in part, to the role provided by an ad-agency planner. It’s worth reinforcing that the huge majority of practitioners in this marketplace seek to make evidence-based decisions. In this role, research (audience alone or market research) provides insight prior to design. It serves as a tool to inform the design process rather than as a post-design quality assurance and validation exercise. This is a crucial difference.

• Design planner and expert: ‘Be my guru and show me the best way’
In this situation the practitioner is expected to design from a position of best practice. The assumption is that there is a position of considered authority and this is often gained through experience or learning – often very much self-directed. Many creative and advertising agencies prefer to operate the classic role of IA/UX practitioner as design planner and expert. Many UX professionals tend to feel constrained by spending too much time in this role alone.

• Business consultant: ‘Help me and my business to be better at doing what we do’
For a project to be a success it should have identifiable objectives and sit in the context of a business case that delivers value. When engaging with a client, agencies sometimes find that questions asked in order to gain clarity around a client brief highlight the need for further work. And in turn more fundamental business challenges arise around how organisations are set up to deliver a good experience for their target audience. Or the assumptions that the business made in briefing turn out to be wrong; symptoms often appear without an appreciation of the underlying cause. UX agencies – like ad agencies – find themselves being asked to deliver varied process change, strategic consultancy or training.

• Product developer: ‘My product/service is online so can you help me build a prototype and test it?’
Any product which is to be successful in the marketplace will need to be fit for purpose and perform credibly in order to promote loyalty or build traction. In an increasingly knowledge-based economy in which services are delivered online a UX agency is increasingly high on the list of people to call for those improving existing or developing new products.

So, in summary, I have two requests. To us UX people – let’s continue to work together to develop our practise and the labels which we use to define it, but let’s keep it simple. To clients – ignore the sometimes esoteric techno-babble. Just revel in all the extra value you could get from the different flavours of project available from your UX/CX/IA consultant or agency.

Jason Till, Head of User Experience, we are: london