The Place of UX – Signal v. Noise

Debates continue to rage about the role of UX designers, user research, and how far knowledge about the user should permeate the organization. On one extreme, UX is seen as a specialized pocket of knowledge that informs the definition of projects and sets requirements. On the other, UX is something for which the entire organization should somehow feel responsible.

A few concepts can facilitate a deeper discussion by drawing meaningful distinctions.

  1. UX at the boundary between supply and demand

UX happens at the boundary between what is technically possible and what is fitting for the problem at hand. The canonical picture for this boundary is the client/firm relationship. The firm knows how to do a lot of things. The client wants something in particular. The firm tries to understand the client as well as possible to do what they want (create “value” in business jargon.)

This boundary happens at different points within a company too. Each boundary can be viewed from the supply side or the demand side.. Somebody knows how to make something (supply) and somebody needs something (demand). These two perspectives meet at each link in the value chain.

 

For example, programmers program something according to some kind of requirement. The requirement is set according to some understanding of the problem. The person who’s responsible for understanding the problem is looking at it from the demand side, while the person who’s responsible for finding a solution to that problem is looking at it from the supply side. Or the same person may be doing both by alternating their perspective from demand side to supply side.

Often when we’re talking about UX we assume a view from the last link in the chain: the end user. Knowing explicitly which link we’re talking about can inform the discussion. For example, the user and the buyer might not be the same person. They both need “UX.” To clarify what that means and who’s involved we can make the boundary explicit. The parts of the supply side at the buyer boundary (marketing, sales, product features in macro) will be different from the parts at the user boundary (onboarding, interaction flows, back-end performance).

The concept of supply/demand boundary lets us think about how far down to go too. Consider a freelancer who builds on WordPress. The design of WordPress is affecting the UX from the most macro perspective. But from the perspective of the freelancer, WordPress is a constraint on their supply side capability and it’s her job to adapt its potential to the demand of the client.

2. Modular vs integrated boundaries and UX

The boundary between two links in the chain can be of different types: either a distant third-party style relationship or a more intimate “let’s solve it together” relationship. The freelancer using WordPress is an example of the former. A designer and programmer teaming up on an interface concept is an example of the latter. Following Clay Christensen’s lead, we can call the former ‘modular’ because there’s a standardized interface and the latter ‘integrated’ (he calls it ‘interdependent’).

This distinction describes the organization of the people who provide the supply to fit the demand. Some teams are small and intensely collaborative. They talk directly to the customer and then sit around the table together to architect the solution. In that case the boundary between requirement setting and programming is integrated.

Often when a company grows beyond a certain point the boundary modularizes. This means there’s a formal interface (aka handoff) at the boundary with some procedure for how information from the demand side is communicated to the supply side. An extreme example of this would be the relationship when one team creates specs for the project and another team fulfills those specs. Each has a different boundary. From the spec creator’s perspective, the demand side would be the use case they are looking at to design the spec, while the capabilities of their technical team are the supply side. From the spec fulfiller’s perspective, the demand side is the spec itself and the supply side is their knowledge, toolset, and stack. Both do “UX” in the sense that they want to provide the best experience to the demand side of their boundary. But they don’t all sit at that last boundary with the end user.

This doesn’t make a good/bad judgment about how to organize. Different organizations suite different constraints. Generally speaking, if the problem has been solved a hundred times already, the organization can modularize. On the other hand if the solution has never been done before, more integration is required between links in the chain. That’s why at Basecamp our designers and programmers work tightly together to design a brand new feature. Or Apple had to create it’s own Pencil that integrates with the glass under the iPad to outperform capacitive styluses.

3. Domain specific vs. domain independent UX

A third distinction we can make is between the knowledge and skills that improve UX in general versus for a specific domain.

Domain specific UX means understanding how the supply should fit the demand considering a specific situation and use case. For example, imagine a user of a task management tool is walking from their office to the parking lot and they suddenly think of a task for their team. They try to add the task on their phone before the forget it, but it takes so many steps to file correctly that they struggle to remember the task in the middle of the process. This is specific knowledge about a specific problem that would inform the UX of the mobile product design.

On the other hand, many aspects of UX don’t require knowledge about a particular situation. They‘re based on the common constraints of human sense faculties, memory and cognition or the net of ergonomic factors around the device and the setting where it’s used. These domain independent elements of the UX are important too. They make up much of what the early usability movement wrote about. A specific example would be using labels on icons instead of icons alone so users understand their meaning.

These types of UX problems are the subject of books like Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things or Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Those examples are at the interface design boundary. For the back-end, Evan’s Domain Driven Design or Fowlers’ Refactoring show how to provide better UX to consumers and editors of the API.

Domain independent UX should absolutely pervade the organization. It belongs to the general skill and knowledge of each supplier at their link in the chain. It’s part of learning to be a good designer, programmer, marketer, salesperson etc. Looking at the firm as a whole, domain independent UX belongs to the supply side.

Domain specific UX is different because there’s a new cost to acquire it for each customer, product, or use case. If an interaction designer wants to increase their domain specific knowledge, they have to stop designing interfaces and go research for a while. Then they have to analyze what they learned and synthesize it into conclusions that are general enough to create requirements and design against. Looking at the firm as a whole, domain specific UX belongs to the demand side. It’s about understanding what to produce and sell.

Whether or not everyone in the firm needs domain specific knowledge depends on your architecture. A company with modular boundaries between teams will need to modularize the acquisition of that knowledge. In other words, specific people in the organization take the time to do research. Their requirements constitute the domain specific UX.

On the other hand a company with integrated boundaries could alternate how they spend time. Sometimes researching the customer’s situation, other times designing a fitting solution.

Which approach is appropriate will depend on the size of the company, the complexity of the use case, the complexity of the technology, and other factors.

Hopefully these concepts can help move discussion about UX to a deeper level, enable designers and researchers to think more rigorously about their place in the organization, and give companies tools to better apportion responsibility for different types of knowledge and decision making.

Update: See the discussion in the comments below for a more concrete example of how these concepts apply in practice.

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