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UX Speakeasy - In Defense of UX Designers

Greg Zapar
By Greg Zapar , VP, Experience Design & Mobile
Apr 3, 2012

For those who missed it, the UX Speakeasy Conference wrapped this past Saturday at the San Diego Zoo.  Sessions and workshops, built upon the premise of an open and sharing UX community, brought together UXers from a wide continuum to share, learn and convey the message that everyone benefits from a strong UX community.  

We were treated to a bevy of speakers and insight from the likes of Aaron Irizzary, Andrew Mayfield, Dennis Wixon and Eric Reiss, who covered everything from Optimal Information Architecture to Creating Emotionally Compelling Products.  Many facets of UX were represented...from tools to technology to firsthand experiences.  It was a well-rounded event and a hooch break helped the conversation flow. 

What I found most interesting was the keynote from Russ Unger, writer of "The Project Guide to UX Design."  The keynote, titled “It's a Good Time To Be You," focused on one of the biggest challenges the UX community contends with professionally and at family reunions:  “What exactly do you actually do?  Do you really just have a bull@#$% job?”

I've faced this question many times but never have felt quite comfortable in summarily delivering an answer. Our profession does not always "package well" into an elevator pitch, cocktail party conversation or even a posted job description.  After hearing Russ speak, there was a collective sigh in the room, one that resonated with audience that our individual challenges to "explain UX" are neither individual nor unique.  His answers were simple, yet at the same time, dare I say, complete?  At the end of the day, regardless of our job description we are problem solvers at heart, and believe me, many and varied are the problems that we solve.  

UX designers are on the front lines, risking complete exposure to customers, clients, users, product managers, marketers, and brand managers, to come up with solutions to business and user problems.  We walk the line between savior and fraud—at times solving business problems or creating a product customers didn't yet know they needed.  We concept, ideate, design and develop, but our goal is ultimately quite clear.  We want to create better products and services that people desire.  As Russ phrased it, "UX is the key differentiator of companies...an expectation of quality.” We both help build brands and product through our unique problem-solving lens.  We absorb and embrace risk. Our closest parallels may not be researchers or designers, but rather hackers.  Our problems don't always have easy solutions...we "make it up as we go along" and that is simply the paradigm we embrace; a comfort zone that the risk-averse avoid.  

Being uncomfortable and exposed is what sets a UX designer apart in the crowd.  Coincidentally, it's effectively the price of admission for innovation and invention. Never "define yourself" or narrow your field of vision, but rather embrace change and be completely comfortable being completely uncomfortable.  I'll add that Bruce Lee's famous quote came to mind when Russ spoke:  "Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water my friend."

And that's why companies clamor for "good UX:" they want to challenge their own preconceived notions of possibility.  I often ask clients, "So if there are roughly 5,000 publicly-traded companies....how many 'do things right' or 'have great products'?"  We usually run out of names before we run out of fingers to count.  That's where UX comes in: We want to solve problems by making things people want, desire and value.  We are comfortable working in the unknown at times as analysts, designers, creative technologists, wireframe makers and planners.  Fair or not, we absorb the labels we inherit, but we are highly valued for one thing: solving problems and creating great experiences. That to me seems the most natural place for UX to reside in our collective minds.

So, I agree with the premise. It is a good time to be in UX...however you might define it.