Experience is the material of our craft

by boon

This post started out as a reflection of an article I wrote for Johnny Holland titled, “What I bring to UX from Computer Science“. Instead, it ended up being a reflection of my career now as a user experience designer.

When I started out in UX, I used to feel giddy thinking about all the cool methodologies, processes, patterns, practices and tools I could employ. But none of those guarantee any success, so I thought instead about the material of my craft – the craft of experience design. When I was a software engineer, it was obvious the material I needed to master was technology. But I wasn’t so sure about UX, so I started comparing.

You don’t need to be an engineer

Whenever I tell people I worked as a software engineer in the past, I get opposing comments about how that has affected my job as a UX designer. Most designers assume the invaluable insights I must’ve gained from my deep understanding of technology. Developers, on the other hand, always ask if I find my experience a hindrance rather than an aid.

Up till now, I haven’t been able to give anyone a straight answer. The fact is – I don’t think it matters all that much one way or the other. Many UX design problems are varied and complex, such that I’m forced to think on my feet a lot. It’s hard to say how often I consciously draw from my background as an engineer. I’m sure there are lots of benefits from other backgrounds that are applicable to UX work too.

Experience is complex

Another contrast is the fact that I find myself thinking about problems in many different ways than I did before. I spend a lot of time trying to understand the problem in order to design appropriately. When I was an engineer, I was bound to a specific domain. Now, it’s my job to consider the effects of many different things, all at the same time.

I also have an ever-growing list of books to read on a variety of subjects, and many of them I consider crucial to my work. Never in my professional life have I read so intensely and prolifically. I can count with my fingers the number of books I considered important while I was an engineer. It is the opposite with UX.

Hard to define, hard to solve

I’ve observed that despite all the hype about UX on the Internet, only a handful people in the world aspire to be UX designers. What *exactly* do we do? How do we measure the value of our work?

It’s not a surprise that people don’t “get” UX – even us as practitioners spend a long time trying to define it. Engineers never have to worry about that. As an engineer, I was paid to make things work. Now, I get paid to solve all manner of problems involving experience. And what doesn’t involve experience?!

That brings me to my next point.

Alas, experience is what we have to work with

All craftspeople need to understand the material of their craft. Some say the material of our craft as UX designers is the underlying technology, but I disagree – we are not software engineers. Instead, I think the material of our craft in designing for experiences is experience itself.

Just like an engineer using code to give life to software, we use our understanding of experience as material to solve design problems. We observe experiences (research, testing), deconstruct experiences to understand it better (flows, mapping), re-imagine what experiences could be like (brainstorming, prototyping), and communicate it back to ourselves and others.

We are all storytellers

It also seems that the only way to communicate experiences is to tell stories. If that’s true, then the purest form of our craft is storytelling; Professionally though, we’re problem-solvers. So, in many ways, our work involves solving problems by telling stories.

So here’s what I think… the plethora of UX methodologies, processes, patterns, practices and tools we have are useless if we don’t have a good understanding of experiences and how to communicate those experiences effectively in our design solutions.

And maybe that’s why it’s hard sometimes: we take experiences for granted all too easily – our own as well as others’. Rather, we should consider it with greater intent, for it is the material we have to work with most as UX designers.

Update: It’s worth reading Oliver Reichenstein’s excellent take on whether experience can be designed.