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.