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UX Commoditization? REALLY?!

I saw a tweet the other day that really bothered me. OK, I see lots of tweets every day that bother me, but this one is actually suited for a reasonable debate as opposed to the usual, you know.

The author, @Cennydd, said the following:

I have not read Mr. @Cennydd’s work before and so I may miss nuances of his point, but, fundamentally, the statement shows a misunderstanding of user experience (UX) design and the role of its partnership with “style,” which I take to mean creative design. 

Let’s first think about the notion of UX being commoditized in the first place. It is true that, with the discipline now fairly robust and, in Internet years, long-lived, we have established a number of generally-accepted practices that have led to common patterns. We know what a common search page looks like, for example, and a number of aspects of form design and shopping experiences are well-patterned. We can approach many problems more quickly than in the past and don’t need to start fresh each time. In a sense, this suggests the ability to “stamp out solutions,” which would suggest they are commodities. 

There are two flaws with this point, though. First, even if it is true that there are some number of clear, established UX solutions, it may well be that, in a given case, most cover parts of a product that are of secondary importance. Their existence means that there is then room to focus on truly excellent solutions for the small number of aspects of a product where it can really stand apart. Established solutions free the designer to devote energy to priorities and high-value areas of an overall solution. That is undeniably a good thing. Is it possible that a UX designer can just “stamp out” the entire product? Sure, but then they are just being a bad UX designer.

The second issue is that, even if we have established some clear, successful patterns in many cases, that does not mean we are done with those solutions. If a designer says a set of established patterns is perfect, s/he has not been really digging into analytics or doing good testing. There is always room for improvement, and the fact that some established patterns will turn out to be “mission critical” for certain organizations means that successful UXers will be placing priority on them and continuing to seek ever better options.

The second part of the tweet to consider is that the “primacy of user task” drives us to commoditization. If there were a small number of static audiences out there with a modest number of key tasks each, this might be the case, but none of these “ifs” reflects the real world. There are myriad needs and wants in the world, and each will be associated with different audience groups having different tasks depending on the context. The same individuals will fall into different groups as they go through their days. I am an UX designer in a professional context and interact with tools and industry news and events in that guise. I also am a parent, so that puts me in a different set of audience groups in which I do a number of different things. In some ways I behave the same across products, but in other ways I act differently. I may know a fair amount about UX design, but I know little about parenting a middle schooler – and am confident I know less with each passing day! 

That last self-deprecating crack is actually an important segue: people change over time. Audience definitions are not static and their wants and needs (their tasks) are not static. What they want and expect as user experiences will grow as they gain experience, take on new roles, explore new technologies, and so on. Content – which also must be heavily tailored and which also will evolve – will also change the needed experiences. In short, the “primacy of user task” presents no inherent drive for commoditization as the designer needs to keep finding ways to understand a dynamic world and build experiences around new content that delight.

The final issue with the tweet is the assumed disjoint between “style” and “user task.” My colleagues and I talked about this earlier in the year as part of our Creative+ series. Doing good UX work does indeed mean focusing on audiences and their tasks; however, this has to be done in partnership with creative designers, or those providing “style.” Any disjoint there is a flaw in the process! User experience designs not only must honor and mesh with the overall brand, and its attendant messages, styles, and emotional connections, but they should USE them. Labels that are clear and align to messaging will also create a better experience that enables task success. Interface elements that pull brand styles will flow together better and can be used to emphasize action steps and key decision points. There is no either/or here in the first place. Good UX embraces “style” while placing a “primacy on user task” and the two are better together. 

We have in no way fully solved all UX problems, nor will we as humans grow and change around us. We can use clear shortcuts for lower-value aspects of a design, but where there needs to be focus and priority, we need to use all our UX skillsets, in partnership with our creative colleagues, to relentlessly push for new and better solutions. There will be no shortage of work here.

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