Monitoring the online customer experience, by Mark Hurst.
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Usability Professionals Must Disappear

Friday, August 8, 2003
by Mark Hurst

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Some professions are easier to label than others. Lawyers, doctors, accountants, firemen, plumbers - these people can name their job easily at a cocktail party.

Somehow "user experience practitioner" doesn't roll off the tongue so easily. Hence the inevitable effort for UX-types to name what it is they do: at conferences and in newsletters, for years, I've seen the endless discussions. Should it be "usability professional"? "Information designer"? "Interaction architect"? Some other permutation?

Here's my proposal - easy to pronounce, easy to understand, just two easy words: "Who cares?"

The fact is, every company is bound to call this group something different. "User experience team," "customer experience task force," "user-centered design group." There's no use in trying to standardize something that each company names on its own. You might as well ask every company in the world to standardize the name of their technology department. Is it "MIS"? Or maybe "IT"? Perhaps it's just "Development," or maybe "Programming," or "the techies"? Once again, the answer is "Who cares?" Each company chooses for itself.

It's true that user experience practitioners love to talk about labelling. So why not talk endlessly about how to label user experience itself?

Well, two reasons. At best, these endless discussions are self-indulgent and distract practitioners from doing work with actual value: instead of being user-centered, they're being UX-centered. (To quote Miss Piggy, "Me me meeeeeee...") Big difference.

At worst, all the worry about naming the profession can harm how the larger organization relates to the practitioner. The more highfalutin your job title, the less the marketers, techies, and managers will listen to what you say. ("Ahh, you're the user-centered interaction usability architect? Right, very smart. Well, just drop your report on my desk and go right on back to your cube in the corner... user boy.")

Now, there's no doubt that some organizations are better at valuing UX than others. A few smart companies have appointed a VP of Customer Experience and built a team around him or her (usually a "her," in my experience) to monitor and improve the customer experience of the site or product. These companies tend to perform much better than companies without a customer experience team.

Still, I don't think that the name itself is the magic ingredient... or at least, standardizing a name across the industry isn't going to suddenly make practitioners more valued.

Here's the thing about user experience work: its success depends primarily on the buy-in from everybody else in the larger organization. The primary issue isn't what you're named, but what results you're generating, and what buy-in you're getting from the company.

This brings me to my own highfalutin solution to the real issue usability professionals are trying to address - namely, that they're not taken seriously enough in the organization:

   Usability professionals must disappear.

Instead of singing "me me meeee" about their job title (and, for that matter, their peculiar UX-centered research methods), usability professionals should disappear - like any good interface - and just serve the company and the various groups inside it.

In short, a good user experience practitioner is a facilitator - someone who quietly (having disappeared) guides the process, allowing knowledge to emerge, from users and the company alike. Instead of coming in with the answers, or the framework, or (my personal favorite) "the 200 rules of user experience design," they should come in with their auditory organs turned up to eleven. Listening.

As facilitators, truly caring about the organization and how it can best serve its customers, practitioners will then be more valued.

After all, who do you take more seriously: the person with the impressive job title who frets endlessly about their own issues and loves telling you the answers, or the person who quietly listens to you before saying anything?

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