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A Fool and a Liar

There's no such thing as an interaction designer either. Not as a profession. Anyone who claims to specialize in [interaction design or information architecture] is a fool or a liar. The fools are fooling themselves into thinking that one aspect of their work is somehow paramount. And the liars seek to align themselves with a tribe that will convey upon them status and power.

Jesse James Garrett, The Memphis Plenary given at the 2009 IA Summit

Let me preface this response by saying that Jesse is a friend and colleague of mine, and I hope he wasn't trying to personally insult anyone, even though it's hard not to take the words above personally. Since I call myself an interaction designer and have sat on the Board of the Interaction Design Association, I suppose this makes me both a fool and a liar.

The design work I do is predominantly interaction design. I have a master's degree in it. I've written books about it. I practice it. Thus, this aspect of my work is clearly paramount to other practices that intersect with mine (e.g. visual and industrial design, information architecture) and that make up the umbrella of user experience. Prominent not to the overarching experience design itself (which everyone is working towards with the same goal of creating good user experiences), but to the other disciplines I work alongside.

To call everyone who practices in the field "user experience designers" is not only a web-centric attitude (where information architecture and interaction design are more closely aligned than elsewhere), but it will have the effect of making us all seem like generalists. "User experience designer" implies that you can design all aspects of user experience to at least some level of competence. It would be as if everyone who practices medicine was called a "general practitioner." Speaking for myself (and I suspect for many others), I'm not a generalist. I don't do everything equally well. You don't want me doing your visual design, nor your taxonomy, nor your content analysis. I understand them, and can do them if pressed, but I'm not an expert in them. To pay me to do them would probably be a waste of your money. There are people with more skill, talent, and experience in those areas and thus do those things better than me. I know, because I partner with them all the time to do those parts of experience design.

Are there going to be generalists? Sure. Many of them, working in small- or single-person teams. And perhaps since they will likely do the bulk of UX work in their organizations, "user experience designer" is a fine title and role for them. But my hunch is that, like general practitioners in the medical field, what generalists in the UX field will work on will be constrained to a set of limited problems. For anything really complex, specialists will deal with it. I'm pretty sure this is the situation we're in right now, in fact.

Specialization isn't a bad thing. In fact, for most industries, it's a sign of maturity. If we use medicine as an example again, a century or so ago, there were pretty much two kind of doctors: doctors (general practitioners) and surgeons (the people who cut your leg off when it had gangrene). As the medical field matured over the last century, specializations emerged because we learned more about the body and understood that not all medical problems are the same. Nor are all design problems the same; certain problems require certain specialized disciplines to engage with them. Complex situations often require teams of specialists to solve them.

Logically, if everyone who works in experience design should be called a "user experience designer," does this mean visual and industrial designers should take that title too? And how about architects? Sound designers? It's simply an impractical and illogical call to arms, and ultimately unlikely and undesirable.

If we all switch to the title and role of user experience designer, finding the right specialist is going to get harder. How are employers and clients going to know which user experience designer to engage or hire? There is already a wide range of skills among the practitioners of information architecture and interaction design. To toss everyone together will make it even more difficult for the organizations that hire us to evaluate individual skills and experience to make sure they have the right person for the work they have. This is not a trivial problem; we want to make it as easy as possible to be found. (Findability, anyone?)

In a broader sense, it seems to me the movement to dissolve information architecture into user experience design is simply an admission of information architecture's declining visibility and, especially, how limited information architecture actually is in practice. Outside of large online spaces, the percentage of time most people in the UX field spend doing the structure and categorization of information is probably staggeringly small, even among people whose job title is "information architect." This is even granting that on the web, the difference between information architecture and interaction design can be trivial or academic. When we move to more functionality-rich (instead of content-rich) products, there is a huge difference between the two disciplines. A person with a library science degree and card sorting skills is likely going to be the wrong fit for a ubicomp or a consumer electronics project, whatever their title. But it would be easier to know that with a label, and isn't labeling part of what information architecture is all about?

None of this, by the way, negates my stance that user experience is everyone's responsibility, in the same way the health of the patient is every doctor's responsibility. No matter what we're called, no matter what role--specialist or generalist--we play on a project. Nor do I think that interaction design and information architecture are solely practiced by or the responsibility of those who have those titles.

I do not, however, want to be called a fool or a liar because I don't want to be homogenized with other disciplines that I mostly don't practice. I think you'll find that many practitioners of the other specialized disciplines that make up the rich and varied field of user experience design wouldn't appreciate it either.

Originally posted at Sunday, March 29, 2009 | Comments (2)

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I turn 39 today, and by next year, my 40th year, likely my life will be about half over. This isn't a bad thing; I have very few regrets about how I've spent my one precious existance. But there is still a lot to do. I don't fear dying, just not having lived enough. So here's my list of things I want to accomplish in the next 365 days. ...

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