Q: Is UXD important for users? – Short Answer: No

Last Modified: Apr 8th, 2024 - Category: Essays, UX, UX Rants and Stuff

Welcome to my rant/essay/discussion about the state of the art in the UX world.

First, you’ve likely noticed the title of this article. It reads “UXD” (short for User Experience Design), not just UX. This is where my rant begins: the inaccuracy of terms, a prevailing sense of laziness, and a pervasive “whatever” attitude in everything related to the UX field.

Let’s start with term accuracy. I understand that using ‘UX’ isn’t incorrect per se; I’m not inflexible. And it’s certainly not as misused as the cringe-worthy ‘UI/UX’ term. However, for the sake of clarity in this article, precise term usage is essential.

Why do I prefer ‘UXD’ over ‘UX’?

Remember: We cannot create a user experience. Different users will have different experiences, and while we can measure those experiences, we cannot generate them—unless, perhaps, we possess divine superpowers.

What we can do is design with the intent of guiding users to experience something the way we intend. This is why we talk about UXD or User Experience Design. We can craft experiences that encompass various elements, be they analog, digital, virtual, or physical.

And here, I’ll add some salt to the wound: the current state of UXD seems to be, at best, narrowly confined to Human-Computer Interaction (HCI). More often than not, it’s reduced to just app or web design. Even worse, many designers truly believe they’re doing UI design (or UID, as we’re discussing it) and can’t grasp why they aren’t designing a user interface when they are, in fact, crafting a web application (news flash: they are not the same!)

I see many newcomers to the field who don’t even understand what a User Interface really is, who are unfamiliar with HCI, or who misuse the dreadful ‘UI/UX’ term. But here is the thing: it’s not their fault. Most “UX courses” skim over these details or worse, they perpetuate these misunderstandings, with many even including the ‘UI/UX’ misnomer in their titles. This sets a shaky foundation for what comes next. I mean… if you don’t even know the basic terminology…

But let’s leave it at that, as this portion of my rant about UX terminology concludes here. What’s important is that we understand why I use ‘UXD’ rather than ‘UX’.

So… why UXD isn’t important?

As the article title says, I think nowadays UXD isn’t important. But let me be clear: “do I think UXD is important?” is not the same than “do I think UXD SHOULD BE IMPORTANT?”. The answer to the first question is NO. The answer to the second question is “YES PLEASE!!!”.

And why do I say this?

Well, let’s make a brief recap. UX (this time as a whole discipline) went through a series of transformations through the years. From its humble beginnings almost a century ago, to a more standardized corpus of disciplines, to a UX boom that started around 2010, got really strong right before the COVID-19 pandemic, and then started declining at a slow but constant rate.

When I say declining, I mean a twofold scenario: on the one hand, there’s an obvious decline in quality, which can be explained by the reasons I mentioned in the previous section. On the other hand, big companies with huge UX departments are clearly ignoring UX principles. And I doubt they don´t know what they´re doing. They lead (and always led) the state-of-the-art when it comes to the UX field.

And I’m not talking about “arguable” things. I’m talking about basic principles. Almost as if they never existed. Mega companies using tables for content display? Basic accessibility issues almost everywhere? Complex (almost impossible) user flows there’s no way they have been ever tested and passed such tests? Dark patterns becoming the norm and “deal with it”?

Possible reasons are many. I really don’t know them. Furthermore, I assume each case is different, so a generalization is moot. And like I said, these companies have some of the brightest UX minds in the world, so I highly doubt they don’t know what’s happening. I had the honor to work with several of the companies that “forgot” UX principles and I can tell they really know their business.

And maybe the word “business” is key. I have observed that in many cases, UX is subordinated to branding, therefore there’s a chance marketing teams are overtaking UXD roles, or at least ignoring UXD advice. I’m not saying this will always be the case, but it clearly explains some instances.

Another scenario is similar to the above, although this time the ones bending UX designers’ arms are development teams. This is probably the case in as many instances as the paragraph before. If you want an example of development teams overtaking UXD roles, then Google is the clearest example. Anyone who uses Google Cloud APIs knows it’s complete madness and probably the least intuitive tool ever made. However, we can attribute this to its inherent complexity and perhaps there was no better way to do it. But now that Google has launched Google Analytics 4 (GA4 for short), it’s more than evident they didn’t test it with users at all. There’s no possible way GA4 passed any test when compared to Universal Analytics (UA), the previous version of Google Analytics. GA4 has far fewer features than UA, yet it is incredibly complicated for experienced users, let alone novices.

And there’s an objective way to prove it: in order to use either Google Cloud or GA4, you need to search how to do it… on Google! The documentation for these platforms is either complicated, incomplete, or outright non-existent.

I’ll provide you with a simple example that you can test yourself. Go to Google Cloud, sign up if you don’t have an account, and get an SMTP to send emails. Be warned: this is probably the most menial task on the Google APIs platform. I didn’t choose it because it’s difficult; I chose it because it should be extremely easy! If you have any doubts about how it should work, here is the user journey to follow: (learn how to get to this in the article Intentionality and User Intent in User Experience):

UXD for SMTP user journey
User Experience Design for a simple SMTP API process

Simple, isn’t it?

Now, try to get an SMTP API on Google Cloud. There’s a catch: you can’t get help on Google Search. You can use Google’s own documentation if you want, just no tutorials from third parties. Then let me know how it went 😉

User Experience Design going bananas

If you followed my instructions and tried to get a simple API info from Google, you already know what kind of things are we dealing with. We can give them a pass because all other APIs are more complex and sophisticated, so maybe they went with a “let’s make everything equal”. But… what about accessibility? Did everybody forget about basic accessibility principles? They’re not related to complex user behaviors or anything like that. Yet accessibility (while mandatory by law in most countries) is blatantly overlooked.

Let’s see an example that borderlines the dark pattern side:

User experience design: example of WeTransfer accessibility issues
Is WeTransfer breaking accessibility rules? You tell me.

Here WeTransfer has a barely legible text over some kind of “veil” or scrim that allows users to see the form they always used, just not before users accept cookies. The CTA is aptly placed next to the semi-visible button, which is a very good idea and a proper visual design principle and UI pattern. Then a “ghost button” with low visibility to Manage Preferences and then a “No, thanks” link with similar visibility than the “ghost button”.

Now, on top of the poor accessibility, there’s something akin to a dark pattern: if you click the “No thanks” link, you would expect that you simply don’t accept cookies. However, that’s not the case. You’re taken to a webpage where you’ll see a button to accept Terms and Conditions in order to use the service. There’s nothing wrong with this; it’s a common practice, and I’d do the same.

But the copy that directed us to this page wasn’t about accepting Terms and Conditions, but to reject cookies. So I took a look… and voilà, cookies were “accepted” by magic.

While I personally don’t think this is a big deal, is there a need to fool users in this way? Why not simply have the “I accept” CTA button and the “Manage Cookies” button like most websites or apps do?

Yes I know about accessibility. But I don’t care.

Another example of “I don’t give a pickle about UX principles” comes from Apple. If you go to Apple’s homepage, you’ll find a nicely designed web page with no errors and fully accessible. Congrats Apple, you did it great, A+++!

Q: Is UXD important for users? - Short Answer: No 1

Then we visit the MacBook Pro page and it seems teh UX designers for that page “thinks different” (pun absolutely intended!). It has more errors than content!

Q: Is UXD important for users? - Short Answer: No 2

And not only we have 43 accessibility errors and 202 alerts, of which around 50 are errors as well on close inspection (really, Apple?). Take a look at those 195 structural elements.

Q: Is UXD important for users? - Short Answer: No 3
is there a User Experience Designer around? We sure need one! 🙁

Just in case you don’t understand what this means: it’s not incorrect. However, it is extremely annoying, as almost everything is either a title or a list. Try accessing the page with a screen reader, and you’ll see what I mean.

Now, the question is: how did we go from zero errors and excellent content organization to what seems like an accessibility nightmare? This leads to another question: do you really think a UX designer created this page? It was clearly designed by UI designers, but in itself, it is a classic example of a page built by developers with no knowledge of basic UX principles (namely accessibility).

So, is User Experience dead?

Well, no. But only because I posed a tricky question! User Experience cannot die. User Experience design… well, that’s another story.

If you paid attention to the examples I provided (I could give you hundreds just from the top Fortune 100 companies), or even better, if you check them yourself, you will notice that UXD as a specialty might not be dead, but it may be struggling. This is very clear when you read UX forums or LinkedIn: what used to be “the next big thing” around 2005 now is filled with people laid off from their companies and desperately looking for work.

And quite frankly, it’s very disappointing.

Granted, we as UX designers have a role in the state of things. We hyped UXD as a magic solution that would solve any company’s needs through data-driven design. The problem is that user experience as a discipline takes time and constant testing, which is the basis of data-driven design. Then, UX specialists will need to compete with marketing people, who basically have a simple operation: this number is bigger (or smaller) than the other, thank you, goodbye.

And now you might say, “well, but marketing will never solve the underlying problems.” And the problem is that… well, that’s the whole idea of marketing: to convince users that there are no problems (or as the joke goes: “it’s not a bug, it’s a feature”).

And let’s make no mistake, a good UX firm can actually solve those problems. As a matter of fact, we offer a “work guarantee” that so far has never failed (or maybe clients were too shy to ask for their money back, who knows?)

The bottom line is: do users care about UXD? Let’s be honest and admit it: no, they don’t care. And neither do most companies.

Sorry to my colleagues, but the sooner we admit it, the sooner we can do something about it.

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