What the bleep *is* UX Design, really?

In the (more than a) decade that I’ve been at this, I’ve watched the discipline come into existence as a “real professional area,” grow, and branch off into areas of specialization. It got confusing – even to (and sometimes especially for) designers. We were figuring out what our job was and how we fit into the larger organizations we worked in. And today, at a point at which we feel that we can clearly define what we do and what value it adds, the reality is that many still don’t know how to define and categorize design and its subareas.

I can really only articulate how I see design as it exists with the modern world of the tech industry; but I can tell you that it’s based on lots of experience, tons of painful trial and error, and the validation of many professionals I deeply respect. So, what does the term “UX Design” really mean? I’ll start by saying that it is in – in general – not what recruiters in general think it means. I say this because many, many people out there are looking for the Unicorn. They’re seeking that mythical being who is equally expert at Information Architecture, Interaction Design, Information Design, and Visual Design. And sometimes even UI Development. The thing is: most folks don’t realize that this list exists, or that they’re asking for something that’s dang near impossible.

Let’s begin our list of definitions with Information Architecture. To me, one of the most interesting things about this area is the discipline that first charted this territory: Librarians. IA really is akin to architecture in the physical world. Yes, I know architects who find this very insulting, but I’ve found no better/more accurate analogy. It’s accurate because, when starting an IA project, a designer asks herself similar questions an architect ask: What am designing? Why am I designing this structure? Who am I building it for? Who will be using it? What are my hard requirements and nice-to-haves? What are my building materials? What’s the (potential) construction site(s)? What’s our timeline? What are the constraints with regard to everything on this list? OK, so no one’s going to be in grave danger if your Website IA is done poorly, but you get the idea.

Information Architecture is about first understanding your content, how much of it there is, and what categories it falls into. The point is to a) organize things neatly and b) ensure that the organize things in a way that people will intuit where to look for them. The key is to obey the Golden Rule of Design: Don’t make me think. It’s especially important at the IA level, since this is the very top level of your design. If users get frustrated just trying to find out where the prices for your products are listed, or don’t know where to look for a description of what you do, chances are they’re going to exit your site or app before they get any deeper. This is even more prevalent today given that users are becoming more savvy about technology and its interfaces – and therefore more demanding about the experiences an app or site offers.

To provide you with more detail on what IA really is and why it’s important, I can describe one way I approach organizing a product. The first thing I do is learn everything I can about what it it is that I’m working on. If it’s an existing product, I’m going to read every piece of documentation you have, look at all the user research data and analytics available, and use the spit out of it. I’ll learn the ins and outs and catalog every single thing it does and every feature in it. I’m going to write all those features, areas & capabilities each on a Post-It Note. Then, I’m going to find a wall big enough to hold those Post-Its and I’m going to stick them all up there. Then stare at them for a while.

Eventually a clear picture starts to emerge from the choas. This goes with this, and that belongs with that, and this thing is really the same thing as that other thing, and just a different facet of it. In some ways, it’s not unlike what your mom would do with all the stuff in your room if you had a lot of belongings as a kind – and if she was really, really good at organizing everything. That organization of Post-Its documented, iterated upon, and eventually becomes your SItemap or Navigation Model.

Since we’re only at the first phase of Design and this post is already pretty lengthy, I’ll stop here for now. Tune back in for the continuation, where I pick up with Interaction Design. TTFN!