UX Design: Half-life of a Discipline

Like other internet-based disciplines, UX is undergoing rapid expansion. Soon, a single person won’t be able to master the field in its entirety. The time for specialization is upon us.

In the days of yore when the web was young, it was programmers who ruled web design. For years, the construction of websites was primarily a technical field, in which the main required skills were programming server-side scripts, administering databases, and writing HTML. It was only slowly that a new hybrid discipline, UX design, started to germinate, concerning itself with how to make websites work not only technically, but from a human and commercial standpoint, too.

This inception, however, was a long and slow process, and it took even longer for UX design to garner recognition as the crucial component of how to make good websites. Not too long ago, the most commonplace blunders web design firms were guilty of (and the ones that experts mocked the most) were insufficient project preparation, neglection of the discovery phase, and shoddy specifications. Only a couple of years ago, the epitome of a bad designer was someone who, without having bothered to research or gather sufficient information, launched themselves straight into sketching wireframes or even full-colour mock-ups of the homepage of a non-existent website.

But since then, UX design has won acceptance and matured as an important discipline in its own right. Once it started being offered on university programmes and dedicated short courses, it only took a few short years before companies registered the arrival of increasing numbers of young, professionally trained designers, for whom UX design was not equal to doodling colourful pictures, but primarily a process of converting information about the client and the future users into a product best serving to connect the needs of the two. These were designers for whom the job revolved around investigation, interviews, market research, analyses. Likewise, years of raising awareness in companies have come to a fruition, and so now there is hardly a web design agency that would not consider the discovery process – with all the invisible design work that only a few years back no-one even thought of – to be something obvious and essential.

From one extreme to the other

But all of the sudden, the pendulum swung in the other direction. Unexpectedly, out of the ranks of those young and hopeful, rose the opposite epitome of what a good UX designer should be: designers for whom research and in-depth interviews became the holy grail, the be-all and end-all of all their work. These designers will prepare amazing market research, carry out in-depth investigation, interview the client and typical representatives of the target audience, and possibly even devise personas and scenarios. But that is it – this is the be-all, end-all of their creative ‘genius’.

But much like wireframes and visuals are the main output of a designer’s work, discovery and data are nothing but the input. The essence of a designer’s profession lies directly between these two aspects. The designer’s main task, after all, is still to design, consisting of two parts: the phase of analysis and synthesis, during which inputs are processed; and the creative phase, when a product is created to suit these inputs, which the designer develops into deliverables and presents them to the world.

There are, however, design teams whose work brings to mind the legendary joke:

It is tempting to brush this off by blaming individuals – but the problem is a systemic one. What had been a brand new discipline of webmasters and web designers who could do everything has, over the last 20 years, crumbled into separate professions – front-end devs, back-end devs, database designers, and coders, who further divide amongst themselves according to various specializations and sub-domains; so much so that nowadays you cannot simply look for a front-end developer, specialized only in Javascript, but one who is an expert at a particular framework and development platform. And similarly, UX design – which originally splintered off this same block – has grown and reached its half-life, meaning it has started disintegrating into sub-disciplines. The knowledge and skills in each of its sub-sections are already so vast, and keep growing ceaselessly with such speed, that being able to encompass the whole domain is slowly getting out of reach for just one single individual. Thus, if someone wants to become expert at, say, in-depth interviews or user testing, they no longer have to also know how to construct the structure of a website, or craft its interface.

From what I have been seeing in web companies lately, the time is almost ripe to start distinguishing, at the very least, between the professions of a UX researcher, UX designer, and UI designer. Just as it is already very rare for someone to be a good full-stack developer – i.e. be able to handle both front-end, back-end and code HTML and CSS too – fewer and fewer people will be simultaneously good at everything that belongs to the ever-growing domain of UX design. There is an increasing need for a clearer definition of specific roles within a team, and a necessity to start determining which UX designer is better equipped for which part of the project and what they should specialize in.