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Is UX fragile?
The challenges that threaten us, and the opportunities therein
Is the field of user experience struggling, or is it thriving?
With heated debates about the direction of our discipline and a flood of newcomers entering the profession, it's easy to feel uncertain about UX's future. However, by taking a closer look at the history, current state, and potential of the field, we can gain a more nuanced and optimistic perspective.
It’s worth taking a step back to get some perspective on how far our field has come, its challenges and successes, and how we’re continuing to develop.
Real challenges facing us
People who argue that our field is under attack — perhaps even on the verge of extinction — aren’t being dishonest; they’re hypothesizing from the data before them.
It is true that we have, in some sense, been the victims of our own success. Over the years, as UX has proven valuable to various industries, demand for our work has ebbed and flowed, sometimes soaring far beyond what we can adequately provide. This can lead to a glut of open positions, with no one but underqualified juniors to fill them.
A career in UX can be life-changing for many, offering a lucrative salary and work-life balance that’s hard to find in other fields with similar qualifications. Even when demand is low, there’s almost always a steady stream of people eager to transition in. When the economy inevitably dips, or our industry seems disproportionately affected by layoffs, some worry if they’ve changed their career trajectory for a passing trend.
The fast-paced growth of the field can also be overwhelming for new professionals, who may feel discouraged by the messy reality of how UX is practiced in the business world. The truth is many organizations are still low on the UX maturity scale, so our processes aren’t fully integrated into their way of doing business. This can lead to an “us versus them” mindset, where UX’s successes are seen as zero-sum against haters who want us out of the picture.
Some may view UX as a relatively new field without established methodologies or principles. Added to the confusion are frequent debates on social media over terminology, methods, key phrases, and the very name of our field. Hardline, unnuanced stances on the validity of various approaches — such as quantitative versus qualitative research, the use of specific scales, or approaches to deliverables — take center stage.
While these challenges are real, we can look at them from another perspective.
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Tracing our roots to today
The field of UX has a rich history, dating back to the design of cockpits for military airplanes during World War II.
The term "user experience" was first coined by Don Norman in 1993, but it has also been referred to as user-centered design, experience design, user research, and usability engineering, among others. The discipline is rooted in academic fields like human factors, engineering psychology, and human-computer interaction.
Today, UX professionals are represented in many industries and countries globally. With the accelerated transition to digital caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, almost any company can now benefit from user experience practices. The ways that user experience fits into and contributes to an organization can look very different, but the underlying philosophy and approach are the same.
Despite controversial viewpoints that might dominate social media, there are many reputable sources that defend the value of UX. Professional organizations such as local meetups, UXPA chapters, and UX Research & Strategy offer mentorship, conferences, networking, job opportunities, education, and training. Publications like the Journal of User Experience, Smashing Magazine, UX Magazine, UX Booth, User Weekly, and UX Collective are edited by seasoned professionals and regularly promote valuable content.
UX is anything but a small, young field. Rather, it’s a mature one with a rich history and a wealth of resources. Social media might give a distorted perspective, but by returning to our roots and sources, we can continue to develop and grow our profession.
The field continues to evolve
Even among the challenges our field faces, unique opportunities lie ahead.
By definition, half of everything is below average — including UX professionals and the companies we work for.
Many of us in the bottom half of the bell curve won’t remain there forever. Hopefully, our personal lowest point was on our first days in UX roles. As we continue to mature in our craft, we move towards the other end of the spectrum. Some of those in the below-average cohort may be bad actors. But with proper leadership and accountability, they’ll be removed from the pool of UX professionals as if by natural selection.
Organizations will also vary in their UX maturity. Some may be unaware or barely aware of our profession, while others have a deeper integration with our work. Indeed, research by NNgroup suggests that the average organization is quite low on the absolute scale of maturity. This need not discourage us as practitioners: it’s an opportunity in disguise. As these companies become more mature, we’ll see even more demand for our work.
And even though some cynical seniors bemoan a flood of “unqualified juniors” entering our ranks, rarely does a hiring manager give an offer to an applicant with zero relevant experiences or promising qualities. When demand is so great that we seek candidates from tangential disciplines, we benefit from a diversity of perspectives that further enriches the discipline.
In the same way that sand inside an oyster becomes a pearl, these challenges may prove to be our strength.
Zoom out, then zoom in
Is UX a young, beleaguered field on the verge of extinction — or a strong, mature field with a pathway for development and future opportunities? Without downplaying the challenges we face, it can be helpful to take a broader perspective:
UX isn’t a buzzword. Folks have worked in this specific space for over forty years, with academic underpinnings stretching farther back.
Reputable voices aren’t that hard to find. Scratch the surface, and you’ll see industry veterans who compile, publish, or write from a perspective rooted in this history and their experiences.
There’s opportunity even in hardships. Individual contributors grow and mature over the years — as do the organizations we serve. That means more senior professionals and more demand in years to come.
Obsessing over the thoughts, opinions, and actions of others can be counterproductive and unhealthy. Above all, we owe it to ourselves and our own mental health to focus on what’s in our control.
This means continuing to learn, develop professionally, and provide even greater value to the organizations we serve. We can also contribute to the positive development of our field by mentoring and educating others.
Far from being a fragile discipline, UX practitioners should take pride in the robustness of their profession and look forward to even better years ahead.
Further reading on the history of UX
A Great Leap Forward: The Birth of the Usability Profession (1988-1993) by Joe Dumas (Journal of User Experience)
40 Years in UX by Jakob Nielsen (YouTube)
A Brief History of Usability by Jeff Sauro (MeasuringU)
The Waves of Research Practice by Dave Hora (Dave’s Research)
False dichotomies and bimodal distributions
Back to those infamous social media debates…
Are surveys dangerous?
Is there such a thing as too many scale points?
Is the Net Promoter Score harmful?
Is democratization cheapening our discipline?
Do AI tools have a place in our process?
For the moment, let's set aside our own opinions on these topics. Instead, let's consider the discussions themselves: have they been nuanced or one-sided?
In my experience, people tend to feel strongly one way or the other. This pattern is known in statistics as a bimodal distribution, where two distinct groups are represented in the data by two peaks.
Social media platforms are designed to amplify this pattern. People are more motivated to write when they feel strongly, and extreme opinions are easier to express than subtle ones, especially in a short form factor. Plus, social algorithms deliver content that users are more likely to engage with, like attention-grabbing hot takes.
Unfortunately, this can create a skewed perception of reality. The true distribution of public opinion might actually be multimodal — having a third, larger peak in the murky middle. People who see arguments on both sides and prefer a compromise or a third way often get edged out of the conversation.
So don't fall into the bimodal trap or rush to select an opinion from the limited menu presented to you. Instead, talk with colleagues and mentors outside of social media. Exercise critical thinking and creativity. Look for more context and alternative points of view.
Our field is complex and constantly evolving. We need to keep an open mind and engage in constructive dialogue to move forward.
Two quick things
1. Volunteer for a 10-minute survey on UXR job interviews
Have you (1) recently interviewed for UX research roles, or (2) hired UX researchers?and I are trying to understand the current state of interviewing for UX research roles. Full results to come.
Unconventional presentation advice for April Fools’ Day. I appreciated Dr. Nick Fine’s comment: “The inverse is actually worth a fortune, I hope people take the good stuff away as well as having a good giggle.”
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Until next time,