After 10 years in the field, I woke up one day to realise that my service as a UX practitioner had become a commodity. Usability had become the ‘in thing’ and everyone could do it and show that their products were better than the competition. Usability as a buzzword, populated Product Lifecycle processes in many organizations. So it comes as no suprise when the general attitude of stakeholders these days is one of a shopper saying: ‘One McUser Experience with usability fries please.’
Usability as Commodity
Usability, as a practice, has evolved over the years with the primary goal of understanding the product use by ‘representative users.’ Around the same time our field shed its more academic title of “Human Factors” to eventually become User Experience. We started focusing on the overall experience a person had as a result of their interactions with a particular product or service.
The term User Experience for the most part has been adopted as the operational title for many firms and other in-house teams encapsulating interaction design, user research and visual design. In some organizations the groups evolved to include other peripheral groups such as audio-visual designers and in rare instances brand & marketing. Nonetheless what is evident is that field as practice has become a commodity.
We aren’t rare anymore
A working definition of commodity means “a good for which there is demand.” But these goods are produced without qualitative differentiation across a marketplace. I will take creative liberty to also add to the definition and include “service” as well. Today across the board, it seems, that “anyone can do usability” – harkening to Chef Gusteau’s motto from the movie, Ratatouille, that “anyone can cook.”
Like usability, UX is also slowly becoming commoditized. As a practitioner the evidence is blatant and often disturbing. As companies add visual and interaction design to their stable less attention is being paid to the the quality of the designs. For proof of this only look at the mobile field where it seems that every mobile phone is slowly beginning to look the same in aesthetic appeal. The absurdity of this is more evident when seen in analogy to plastic surgery where the surgeons craft of redesigning body parts has evolved into a store front where someone can ask for a J-Lo behind and a Halle Berry nose. But perhaps this is the nature and end game of design as we know it. Or is it what happens when Right Brainers are thrust into a Left Brain environment with the only goal of design production.
And we wonder why Designers are often of a melancholic nature… I feel the sudden urge to scream back at Gasteau that in fact: “not everyone can do it!”
From Clicks to Sexy
Incidentally in the last year I have had four different job titles as my peers and I continued to remold and refocus to stay relevant in the technical space. This fluidity of titles signals the ever-present lack of comfort we feel, where we constantly have to justify our collective existence as necessary appendages to development teams. And if you are a UX professional who has never had your value questions, I stand corrected and ask: “How can I join you in this mystical world?”
Today UX is once again on the verge becoming as institutionalized commodity of the technological landscape. Earlier our focus shifted from purely functional to both functional and aesthetic. But is that the end? When the first iPhone was released in the US in 2007 – the technological design space was like “Whoa.” Apple brought sexy back in stroke of creative genius by turning a little box into the most desirable piece of metal and plastic on many minds. Time magazine even went on the name the iPhone “Invention of the Year” in 2007. With the debut of Apple’s iPhone just about everyone in the industry started wondering how they could also make technology sexy.
A friend of mine, then working at Microsoft, called me wondering if I knew any designers who would be interested in working on new server designs. They wanted to make the products more desirable. “Servers?” I asked, just completely puzzled and blown away by the impact one little sexy device was having. Designers had arrived. We had entered the age of Aesthetics in Technology. Usability and UX in all its sentience had come a long way…Baby!
What had happened was that UX morphed to understand, not only the functional aspects of product use, but also the more aesthetic and experiential parts of product design. A few years back the most critical aspect of user experience was lessening the number of steps in an interaction. “How can we be faster and more efficient?” was the prevailing question of the day. In the post iPhone launch CEOs everywhere were hushed up in boardrooms using the “S” word, asking questions like “How can we create a sexy solution?”
But now we have reached the point of aesthetics, and there’s already the feeling that it’s a commodity again. So we have to keep on evolving. Fortunately the next traveler on the way to design paradise has arrived, but more about that in my next column.