Is UX becoming a commodity?

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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.

 

Kem Kramer

Kem-Laurin is a User Experience Strategist, Innovator and Dreamer of Solutions; she is also author of User Experience in the Age of Sustainability: A Practitioner’s Blueprint and a pioneer of formal User Experience research practice at Research in Motion (makers of the Blackberry). She currently works at Autodesk as the User Experience Design Manager for Online/Mobile Team. In her spare, you can find her at home with her two young boys or weeding her perennial garden – two of her passions.

16 comments on this article

  1. really? I’m not seeing it at all. EVEN in the consumer world the lack of understanding of what UX or even design is REALLY all about is staggering, demonstrated fully by the lack of mojo in your own organization’s products. Yes, the iPhone has gotten people’s attention and everyone is clamoring for an “expert” but there are so few experts who truly know how to bring it all together, coupled with the reality that a 24-mo lifecycle is not enough time to do it, demonstrates to me that true design (forget about UX) is not anywhere close to a commodity in the pejorative sense of the term beyond mere “ease of use” and even that well isn’t really done right either.

    Let’s not confuse lip service with actual reality.

  2. Nurit Peres on

    “But now we have reached the point of aesthetics”

    Is aesthetics our primary goal as UX’s ?
    Not that I don’t appreciate aesthetics, but I think that it is actually easier for poeple to understand, than other UX goals which are more difficult to communicate and yet more valuable to me.

  3. mTp on

    I am going to also put in my, Really?

    I have been working in interaction design for 15 years. I can agree with a couple of things here: 1) that there is more attention being given to the human in the equation of making software products and 2) that the title changes many times. Otherwise, a commodity, really? Not according to any economics theories I have read.

    Software features are a commodity. The thing companies have realized is that user experience is the main tool they have to differentiate their software in the great sea of stuff out there.

    Interaction designers are still hard to come by. I get contacted every 2 weeks for another position that a company has been searching for someone for months. With a large lack of qualified interaction designers in the world it is really hard to get interaction design to the level of commodity. Maybe once you write code that can create average user experiences from a feature lists and problem sets, then we might get to commodity.

    I think you have your definition all wrong. For example here is what Wikipedia defines commodity as: “A commodity is some good for which there is demand, but which is supplied without qualitative differentiation across a market.”

    Commodity? The qualitative differentiation across the marketplace of software products and services is enormous. User experience is not a commodity – by definition.

    mTp

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  5. “Interaction designers are still hard to come by. I get contacted every 2 weeks for another position that a company has been searching for someone for months. With a large lack of qualified interaction designers in the world it is really hard to get interaction design to the level of commodity.”
    That is because the worlds education systems do not support the nature of IxD, which, is really a systemic and creative approach to problem solving that is outside of ivory towers and corporate silos. In the book Cradle-2-Cradle, a challenge is laid before the world’s education systems. That challenge involves creating skills for highly effective teams designing products that are part of systems that are biological, mechanical, etc. It seems that the term “IxD” is somehow being equated with “genius”…

    “Maybe once you write code that can create average user experiences from a feature lists and problem sets, then we might get to commodity.”

    Many large companies have working schematic frameworks that do just that. It still doesn’t do the design for you. A paintbrush can be used to do many tings that are independent of both the user, their experience, and their expressed intent. What is really called for, really, is for creative people that understand the dynamic interplay of physical, cultural, and mental systems of systems. Artist/Engineers. It’s exciting for thos who are born today to know that your pallet will include tools that are made by nature.

  6. Anna Maria D. on

    I find this article very insightful as I work in an environment where “stakeholders” indeed think usability is like product from a shop where they can tack on usability before they ship. Our designers are often looked upon to push out designs at a pace that is not right as if on a production line. To be a commodity for the field is a good and a bad thing. On one hand we should be at a point where people see it as a staple (a thing) or as the writer says: ‘ a commodity’ but one the other it should be of quality. Well done article and nice to have a discussion. I understand the somewhat panic response of some of my peers.No one likes to look commonplace. We need to evolve. Nice and refreshing read

  7. Anna, I agree that “usability” is a commodity of this decade like quality was in the 90′s. In my talk during From Business to Buttons reviewed somewhere on this crazy site, or just visible from http://businesstobuttons.com/

    it is exactly that point that I make. And further, design (forget user experience; does this term mean anything any more?) has elements that are definitely commodities. Walk into a IDSA event and you will hear a lot of worries about China & Korea & low salaries. But holistic design innovation that traditional UX supports ain’t close to being a commodity. Looking at Asia, this type of thinking is very difficult cultural to pass on, due to the overwhelming manufacturing mindset. Even in Japan, “experience” is not really an understood design element like it is in Europe and the US. So the critical mass required to make this really a commodity hasn’t happened yet. It will. ;-) , just not yet.

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  10. Anna Maria D on

    Dave I was confused by your second post after reading your first, so are you saying it is becoming a commodity or not? I feel like the writer that it is. I don’t know how and where you work but in many companies there is the perception when the development team has neglected to to do due diligence and get the product tested they think of usability as a ribbon on top that says ‘ship”. That’s the only way I have seen it work although we try to fight this approach. It is unfortunate.

    As an Ixd person I remember the times when I had time to think of a solution and come up with multiple concepts that gave me time to think about what I was doing. The whole thinking process as I design is almost gone and it is so mechanical. now all production. Yes I am sometimes getting ‘melancholic’ because I see my work on a production line. Again commodity. Other Ixd people I know work in stencils reproducing the visual brand of the same thing over and over again. It is repetitive and mechanical and they do not feel like creators of anything but instead producers of designs.

    Two of the elements of Ux, ‘Usability’ and ‘Design’ are being reduced to production. how do we stop this mechanical pace of production of visual designs to supply high demand? The writer hits it on the head!

    I don’t think you can ever ship the design part of what we do but I take your point that the ‘overwhelming manufacturing mindset’ is hard to overcome. It is a place where intellectual design property is violated with no recourse. Knock-off come near to the real thing. Design is copied and reproduced.

    Yes it is hard to reproduce the feeling experience that someone may have with a real Prada bag or iPHONE or whatever else but the production side of Design as a commodity is evident.

  11. Maddy S on

    I agree with the author’s assertion. It’s a bold claim but she made her arguments support her hypothesis. I can see why traditional practitioners might be put off and defensive but it’s a point that needed to be brought up and discussed.

    I’m eager to read the author’s thoughts re the “next traveler in design evolution” especially if it works to make UX a differentiated value-added service instead of a commodity.

  12. I challenge everyone to read what was actually written and the posts to this point. Especially since a few of you represent the community.

    My take is: I am glad that “the industry” has decided to point out the obvious. That the term User Experience was the flavor of the month, following the history and evolution of design that butts up against consumerism.

    I have no idea who John Holland is, I have a coworker that is young and without kids that feeds me all the stuff I am supposed to be looking at.

    John, your “article”/post sucks. Why? How about some historical precedent? I challenge you to pick up any of Henry
    Petroski’s books. I really wish you would revisit what you have written here, with the insight of what is in a book like “The Evolution of Useful Things”. Let;s start a dialog from a perspective that is longer than a couple years.

    I do like that you mentioned the term Human Factors but I competley disagree with immediately associating it with pop culture design phenomena called “UX”.

    I recently saw brilliant presentations by Human Factors educators at NC State who had the balls, yes HUGE balls, to come before an audience and talk about how the utterly failed after a year of hard, 80 hour a week work, to revolutionize and improve the drudgery of performing Mammograms in the Duke Health System down here in Raleigh. Sometimes, it seems, humans actually like things to be broken, just like oursleves.

    I saw another HF presentation on an attempt to reduce injuries in the worst industry in the world, that is, maid service at hotels. Through studying their work, conducting exhaustive biomechanical research and testing, they cam up with multiple solutions that were brilliant. Everything from cleaning tubs, to putting pillows into slipcovers. Then they had insight, this doesnt look like something I would want to buy. They immediately turned to the Design department at NC State, a first, to get the solutions and form factors to work within a presentation that would be appealing.

    As a designer/artist, I would never pretend to assume that because I work with a team wrapped in the term “UX”, that I would have even a small understanding of the neuromuscular framework of the human body that my PHD Human Factors coworker does. But, I do have a real talent for communicating what she knows into a product that has a business model that is less than humanistic behind it.

    User Experience is simply a “semantic meme” for the business and trade of what we call “design” in today’s global infrastructure.

    So while people will anxiously await the new term they are supposed to use to ensure 100k+ salaries at the multi-nationals, I will be down here in the trenches ignoring all monikers and doing the hard work around what all of this really is. And that is…

  13. Adnendum:
    We use literary devices postulated through digital mantras that are sometimes contradictory and perceived as reverse theroetical constructs in order to confuse you #werkplace

  14. Kem, I was going to post this [article] as a response to your article here, but Jeroen told me you were working on a second piece, so I’ll post it here to give you some additional thoughts:

    —————-

    First, I see many comments dispute the definition of “commodity” used in Kem’s article. I don’t care about the word use, but more about the points, which I find interesting. To start, this is a great talk on design thinking and thinking big from TED that relates to Kem’s hypothesis: Tim Brown, Think Big. I’d suggest watching that first.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UAinLaT42xY

    To paraphrase a great point from the talk, the fact that design has become about consumer products and a tool for consumerism, has made us think small. To a degree, we are at a point of aesthetics. As Nurit mentions in his/her comment in the above article, it’s easier for people to understand what we do from that angle. The problem is when we fall back and explain ourselves with something of such face value, we deteriorate the value we actually add. We explain it to people as aesthetics, and then become a product of our own explanation.

    The fact that we’ve been reduced as a field to consumerism and aesthetics makes us think small and become commoditized. In addition to that, when design started becoming a standard company title, we were introduced to organization with a role that is seemingly subjective. This has caused us to start at the bottom since “everyone” can do what we do. With this role, we’ve been reduced to using design thinking to ask “should the icon be left or right aligned”. We should be careful our position doesn’t become our prophecy.

    -Usability as Commodity-
    Usability as used by many companies is broken regardless of whether we say it’s a “commodity”. Like Design, it has to overcome the stigma of what is does, why it matters, and how it’s properly used. People often use it to tell them what users want, but users [say they] want the familiar and safe. Users will also want everything AND the kitchen sink until it’s given to them. They will express the ability to have control over everything, but it’s not how they act. Telling the difference is key… and one of the most important things. Poor usability and reach is a commodity. Good ones are hard to come by. This is why you hire great designers to compliment research, to help extrapolate what people need, want, and desire. Both working in tandem is what can produce great products. The field isn’t a commodity as much as it’s misunderstood and misused.

    -We are *very rare-
    We are rare… at least good designers and researchers are rare. Poor practitioners are common. Just think of any “crowdsourcing” site like http://99designs.com/. Anyone *can do usability. Anyone *can do design. They simply may suck at it. Same way anyone can make clothes… even me, but you wouldn’t want to wear them. The challenge is to show why one approach is better. This ties back to the point above. If we continually refer and explain ourselves as proprietors of aesthetics, I worry we will continue this trend of “anyone can cook”. We need to do what any good design does, differentiate.

    Dave Malouf in comments mentioned the concerns of Asia coming into the design market [as they are in tech] with lower salaries, and the potential to hurt or saturate our field. However their education system isn’t bred to produce creative designers as a whole. It still sticks to a very regimented system of learning that doesn’t embrace creativity. Someone can correct me on this, but it’s what I’ve seen with schools in Korea, China, and Japan. I’m not concerned about that from a great design perspective, but from a cheap commodity that people who don’t understand the differences, it is somewhat concerning. It continues to perpetuate the incorrect information about our field.
    …but I don’t deal with those people anyway 

    I do have to justify my presence and job to many people, but we’re in a fairly new field. A field that isn’t taught in many schools, and a field that relies on a side of the brain that is pushed out of most modern education systems. We are very fast to say no one understands us, but it’s not like our discipline has been around for long in the public eye. In the 1960’s I’m sure being a computer programmer was just as odd and confusing.

    -From Commodity to Leaders-
    The problem isn’t that we’ve become a commodity, although it will be if we accept the hand we’ve been dealt. That will keep us thinking small. This is just the beginning. We’re the people who are slowly crafting our jobs, our roles, our titles. My only ask is we think bigger and broader. Let’s change things, let’s create what’s not there and give a voice to the invisible commodities services that are our skills. Let’s change school systems and how people think. Let’s give a voice to the good and bad. It will become clearer, but it will take time, and it will take us explaining what we do, even if people don’t get it at first. For each great designer there are a 100 people making terrible logos calling it branding for fifty dollars. Put in the extra hours to make your point. Put in the weekend time to figure what you can do to help people change.

    It’s just us, I don’t see anyone running to our rescue.

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  16. Can we say, without hesitation, that aesthetic appeal (translated into a visually alluring product) is a commodity?

    The iPhone frequently breaks several UI guidelines (although the field is still nascent, I acknowledge the guidelines themselves are up for debate, but that’s for another forum) such as consistency, lack of affordances, etc. and is really no more usable than many smartphones on the market (cited in Fred Beecher’s article, “The iPhone is not easy to use. . . “). However, when speaking with UX practitioners or anyone who owns an iPhone, they will say that it is “user friendly”. What do they mean by this?

    In our age, where fMRI scans are not yet a feasible means of discovering what is really going on in the brains of individuals when interacting with a product, we instead have to listen to what people say, watch what they do and acknowledge that neither are sufficient to predicting which products will be successful and which will not (although, at times very helpful). This is where I believe triangulation comes in.

    Usability, in itself, does not seem like a commodity. However, I would say that an exceptional user experience, is, of which usability is an integral part of. It is user experience that combines usable functionality with interaction design and aesthetic appeal. All three combined are what creates a product that anyone on the street will call, “user-friendly”.

    Many designers and developers are looking to create the “next iPhone”. This striving for exceptional design is a commodity which includes usability. In my opinion, it is UX, IxD combined that makes all that happen.