Reframing UX: It’s About Designing Products
I'm in awe of my Viget colleagues, as I am of extraordinarily creative people generally. But I'm especially in awe of my user experience colleagues, and it took me a while to figure out why.
I blame the user experience community for this -- I think UX sells itself short.
Before I came to Viget, user experience seemed to me to be defined by its relationship to visual design and by its deliverables (wireframes, site maps, content inventory, etc.). But user experience at its core is not about visual design, wireframes, or content strategy as ends to themselves. User experience is about defining and designing products.
An idea is not a product
The fundamental cause of poor web development is that people too often fail to realize an idea is not a product.
In the real world, we intuitively understand that an idea for a physical product is different from the product itself. Someone has to define the specific physical attributes, the features, the intended audience, the intended ways people will use the product -- all the stuff that comes before the product is manufactured.
Because web products are made of bits, and because the core tools of web design and development are available to anyone, it can be easy to think these steps aren't needed. Have an idea? Boom -- go build it.
But to be successful, a web product idea should go through all the same phases as a physical product before (and while) being built. That's what the user experience process is: all the stuff that turns an idea into a real web product.
Wireframes, content strategy, etc., are of course important parts of that process. But they're important insofar as they constitute elements of holistic product design.
For example, wireframes don't just represent where things go on a page; they're not merely precursors to the visual design. They represent -- after all the brainstorming and sketching (if you're new school) or the requirements writing (if you're old school); after the audience profiling, information architecting, market research, and logic-trail exploring, if you do those sort of things -- which features will actually be built, and what the user will actually use.
What the user will use, plus the background functionality and processes that support this use but might be communicated outside wireframes, define what the product is. So I think of wireframes less as blueprints for visual design and more as blueprints for the product design -- blueprints embedded with all the thought and process that came before the UXer opened OmniGraffle (or another preferred wireframing/prototyping tool).
Creativity and UX
What really amazes me about the best UX designers is how effortlessly they do all of the above.
It's incredible to watch Laura or KV listen to a client's ideas, to user interviews, to internal brainstorms -- and then, often in real-time, filter and mentally transmogrify all of that into coherent, awesome, well-defined features and products. (I know the rest of our UX team is just as awesome, but I've only gotten to work with Laura and KV so far.)
That mental transmogrification has the same surreal alchemical quality that I see when our designers conjure up incredible mood boards and design comps out of little more than a client's free-associative, often ill-defined, feelings. It's pure creativity in action.
That's another way that I think UX is misunderstood. Because UX deliverables are usually (and purposely) not what we think of as visual art -- indeed, they often seem to involve cold logic and information processing -- UXers aren't necessarily seen as creative in the same way a visual designer is. But there's as much creativity and inspiration in the mental product design process as in any other artistic endeavor.
Deliverables document the results of that internal creative process (and of the external product design process), but the creative process itself is the unheralded heart of web product design.
So I'd encourage my UX colleagues, and the UX community at large, to reframe what they do and why they're so important. You guys know you're the heart of web product design. I wish there were a clearer way to let everyone else know that, too.