User experience is very trendy at the moment, but is the expense of yet another specialist resource really worth it, or is it simply the ‘Emperor’s New Experience’?

I’ve recently noticed two troubling developments in the world of user experience: First, as a user experience practitioner, I’m increasingly contracted out by agencies, with no brief and little or no access to the end client.

Second, there are mutterings in the digital industry about the ‘vacuous’ nature of user experience and the expensive claims of those who peddle its ‘spurious’ benefits. In articles like ‘UX Professional’ isn’t a Real Job’.

I suspect they’re not entirely unconnected. A good user experience designer (UXD) needs to be more than a glorified wireframer and a good UXD adds real value to a project. According to Be Kaler Blake, BIMA Director and recruiter:

"Unsuccessful projects are not unusual when there isn’t a UX person on a project. Pockets of the industry think UX is about people who can work with Visio and Axure. A UXD should be able to flush out the initial requirements, visualise them, test them and make sure they work." 

When the evolution of generalist web designers branched into developers and designers, the form vs. function battle was punctured by the emergence of usability. Everyone understands usability – it doesn’t matter how beautiful or robust a design, if people can’t use a website it’s red faces all round. 

The trouble with usability is that everyone’s an expert. For years clients (internal or external) would excitedly throw “Ah! But where’s the fold?” into meetings and send the design team into a telepathic huddle in attempts to answer the question on the fly.

When the idea of iterative design emerged, design it, tweak it, design it, tweak it etc, and personas, scenarios, wireframes and all that jazz came along, noble protectors of business objectives and users’ needs stepped into the limelight. They invented the name User Experience Designer and this all seemed to make sense: Balance the business objectives against the way the intended audience would use the final product.

Now, in the same way anyone can draw a house, but be a million miles away from being an architect, the market seems to be being infiltrated by wireframers sold as UXDs. Similarly I’ve had my day rate doubled and charged to clients by agencies for producing wireframes with little or no background to what the end client is trying to achieve.

I’ve seen Project and Account Managers producing nicely laid out wireframes that, to the client at least, look no different from the ones produced by that pesky extra UXD resource they don’t want to pay for any more. In the short term this is great for saving or making the agency money, but in the long term this ain’t gonna work. The dot com bubble that burst at the turn of the century shows us that clients can’t pay for non-value added designs forever.

To prevent UXDs becoming known as purveyors of digital snake oil and maximise the real benefit of a UXD’s skills here are my suggestions from behind enemy lines:

  • Check your UXD’s skills. Anyone can draw wireframes. They must be able to research, facilitate discussions and workshops, present and debate with clients, be excellent verbal and visual communicators and be focussed on getting the job done well.
  • Involve the UXD early on. It costs more to rectify dodgy designs and change cemented thinking than it does to get it ‘right first time’. Get a proper brief from the client, or get the UXD in on the briefing.
  • Allow a UXD access to the client. If they aren’t good face-to-face, they’re not a good UXD. Working on a consultative basis will get you (and your client’s) money’s worth and again ... gets it ‘right first time’.
  • Ensure a common understanding of the UX deliverables and what the final outcome of the project will be. Templates may mean a single standardised wireframe to one person and a working prototype of the complete site to someone else.
  • Let your UXD present their work. They did the thinking, wireframes aren’t good at describing design strategies – and clients often wonder where the colours and spinning globes have gone.

Using a UXD to run off a few wireframes is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Get UX involved at the right times and you’ll see value added. To be a busy UXD you need a good reputation, and honesty and accuracy get us a lot further than a blagged project ultimately doomed to failure or further expense.

If it’s not certain where or why you’ll need expertise, a lot of UXDs freelance and it might be worth a couple of days of their time to get their input on a project. 

Lastly, don’t sell magic potions: People may believe they work, but sooner or later they realise the problem hasn’t really gone away.

Jason Buck

Published 30 September, 2010 by Jason Buck

Jason Buck is a consultant at The Long Dog Digital and a contributor to Econsultancy. 

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Comments (10)

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Jean-François Petit, Information Architect at Ideactif Conseil

Your last point, "Let the UXD present their work" is incredibly important. On a recent project, I had the opportunity to present my work (an Axure prototype) to an audience that had been briefed with my work the day before by my client (I was not invited). I presented the same prototype, but with a UX perspective, while my client was more interested "in how fast can we put this online". I treated the prototype as a work in progress while he treated it as a final design. My presentation generated a lot of questions (and worries) that were absent the day before, but the audience was relieved to learn that there was still space for debate.

UX is not an exact science. It is based on collaboration and conversation. It's not easy and never will be, IMHO.

almost 8 years ago


Jamie Locksmith, Webmaster at Jamie Locks

I think user interface design does have lot of effect.

almost 8 years ago


Nikki Rae

Nice work, Jason!

Nikki Rae

almost 8 years ago


Wyndham Lewis

Somehow the HCI/IA has morphed into the UX professional.  Probably because UX sounds so much more marketing rather than academic. 

The need is really defined by the type of web project.  If it is a campaign, OTC project or non-complex website then good planners, developers and/or designers are easily capable of providing the same insight skills required to make the project a success.

Where the input of a good IA/UXD are invaluable are in complex information/interactive sites.  We do a lot of government work and I would hate to make up the archietcture for sites like the Home Office, CQC and IPS without somebody who understands how to develop a user centred content model and site structure.  If you did the reality is these site just wouldn't work.

Complex web site & applications need a good IA/UXD, the challenge is good ones are really multi-disciplinary that can understand business, research, information structure & management and design as well as talk tech.  If you find those people they are worth their weight in gold.

almost 8 years ago

Lewis Milford

Lewis Milford, Global Talent Acquisition Manager at Nokia

Great article Jason - there's so much to say i think I'm going to need a bigger box ;-)

Firstly there's still so much ambiguity about what a UXD does. Are they a production focused person or are they at the other end of the scale and doing broad UX strategy? This obviously impacts the work they SHOULD be delivering. We have a global design team so ambiguity around job titles can be tenfold when considering location as a factor.

Secondly (as you rightly say) the UXD needs to bring more than just wireframes in their tool kit. Research, ideation, visual design, interaction design, product design and "sales / consultancy" skills are all pretty essential when you're championing the user.

Finally is a company using User Experience for the right reason or are they just using it to provide the evidence they need for their design concepts and disregarding it if otherwise.

Lewis @ Nokia

almost 8 years ago

Jason Ball

Jason Ball, Persuasion Architect at Twelfth Day Ltd

There is always the tension between 'doing it properly' and 'just good enough'. The problem with the 'just good enough' approach is that all too often it isn't actually good enough (however pretty the wireframes look or how well it's spun in front of clients). Of course, this all becomes clear months down the line when the site fails miserably against its objectives costing time, money and reputation to put right. Of course, UXD's need to clearly demonstrate the value they bring to projects. It can't be a black box exercise where the UXD vanishes into a dark room to emerge some time later with 'the answer'. Showing the working out and real-world insights is critical if clients are to see why they should spend the money. There can sometimes be the feeling that 'if we show how we do it, won't they just do it themselves?' Maybe. It's a confidence thing. But it's this lack of confidence that will lead to a commoditisation of the profession. And no one wins in that scenario.

almost 8 years ago


Simon Nixon - partner in crime

What a load of tosh, get back to your Visio diagrams and stop yer bleeting.

Seriously though, I'm banging the same drum (as well you know). On a recent project i got handed the wireframes that had been done by the Producer! You can imagine the quality.

We can make a heck of a difference when we get in early. If that's in an agency then it works especially well if we are lucky enough to get a good BA on the project at the same time.

In an e-commerce environment what's often missing is the evidence of how our work had a positive effect on ROI. There are a lot of UXD's talking a good game but showing how our work improved conversions in pounds/pence/euros can set a senior UXD apart from his/her peers.

Good work LongDog - keep it up ole' chap.

almost 8 years ago


Nathanael Boehm

What are your thoughts on the idea that business analysts should develop the additional skills to become user experience designers so that the UX field encompasses traditional business analysis?

almost 8 years ago


Hitesh Mehta

Great article! Thanks!

almost 8 years ago

Jason Buck

Jason Buck, Consultant at The Long Dog Digital

Thanks all for your comments.

@Nathanael: Business analysis is a very important part of many UX projects. Whether you train up BAs or make sure UXDs can perform some of a BA's function is probably a moot point. Over all, so long as the BA function is integral and the individual with that skill is a good communicator, then I think it's 'job done'.

over 7 years ago

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