Originally Published in ACM Interactions Magazine: http://interactions.acm.org/archive/view/may-june-2019/itsnotaboutyou

Download PDF: Greg Nudelman. 2019. #ItsNotAboutYou. Interactions 26, 3 (April 2019), 24-26. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1145/3320493

The Abracadabra series invites us to share a heartfelt wish for the future of our discipline. My big wish for HCI/UX/UI is to tell my people something that took me my entire career to figure out: It‘s not about you. As Marvel fans may remember, these are the words of advice given to Dr. Strange by the film’s ageless sorceress, the Ancient One: "Arrogance and fear still keep you from learning the simplest and most significant lesson of all," she tells Strange. "It's not about you." Let me break this down into four key lessons that this particular arrogant and fearful fool had to learn the hard way.

UX is not about your deliverables. 

One of the first lessons I had to learn as a designer is that, unless I got complete buy-in from the rest of the team and properly communicated the concepts and interaction, my specs meant less than the paper they were printed on.

I once wrote a 47-page spec for a functionality, proving that I can be the most overachieving of the bunch. Needless to say, no one, not even the very people who insisted on the spec, actually read the document completely. Was it a waste of time? Not completely, for I had learned an important lesson: overdocumentation without communication.

My other lesson came from the opposite extreme: my overly minimalistic lean UX shorthand notes that I would attach to my wireframes as annotations describing the desired functional behavior. In one instance, the critical function of form errors was implemented in the worst possible way (through one-at-a-time JavaScript validation on individual fields) because a remote development team misinterpreted my overly lean writeup. Yet again, I created what I saw as the perfect spec, yet spectacularly failed to communicate it, and the product paid the price.

Today I have updated my best practices to include a robust design system documented in Zeplin plus a carefully selected list of sample pages, which include a detailed description of the form behavior. But nothing, and I do mean NOTHING, no amount of documentation is a fair substitute for directly communicating with your partners on the development and product teams and for asking questions and addressing their concerns.

In the immortal words of Alfred Korzybski, "The map is not the territory." This has never been more true than today, in this age of distributed teams, cloud computing, widely available pay-per-use restful API services, and near-instant worldwide distribution. No matter how polished and pretty your deliverables, at the end of the day they are naught but paper: pictures, ideas, concepts. Your deliverables are not the product, no more than the map is the territory: You can’t swim in those blue triangles on the map that represent bodies of water, nor can your customers use your prototypes to send emails or buy socks. To create real value, all those ideas need to be expressed as running code, database records, and system integrations, as well as behind-the-scenes services such as fulfillment, all the things that make up the digital goods and services we create today. And the only way that you as a designer can make this happen is by working with your partners across the enterprise. Focus on helping your team to deliver the complete product or service, not on creating your own pretty deliverables.

Your deliverables are not the product, no more than the map is the territory.

UX is not about creating a lasting design solution. 

Great art is nearly immortal, at least insofar as the human lifespan is concerned. Witness the revival and popular acclaim of retelling the stories of Gilgamesh and Beowulf (today's story of Beowulf is better known to many as How the Grinch Stole Christmas [1]) or the enduring popularity of classical music (like the 10th century Benedictine chant [2]). And who can deny the power of the Lascaux cave paintings, the so-called prehistoric Sistine Chapel, which, even after 17,000 years, still pulse with vibrant life, drawing more than 1,200 visitors daily?

In contrast, design is quite different from art. Tom Chi said this best: "Art is about freedom; design is about constraints" (http://okcancel.com/archives/article/2009/03/bowman-vs-google-why-data-and-design-need-each-other.html). Technology, fashion, and customer expectations all play a huge part in the designs we create. Today, few can wax poetic about the beauty of Windows 3.1, and even the most zealous Mac fanatic would be hard-pressed to enjoy using Macintosh 128K for their daily tasks. The same can be said for visual design standards: From the early skeuomorphic designs to flat interfaces to today's ever-so-fashionable Material Design, aesthetics are always changing, morphing, and evolving. Even relatively entrenched interaction design patterns like mouse, window, and power button are coming under persistent pressure from the new technologies and interaction requirements of touchscreens and voice-controlled, always-on digital assistants (https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2018/09/smashing-book-6-release/).

Technology is always advancing, and the pace of change is only accelerating. In other words, the product or service you design is not going to be around very long. Everything you work on is constantly evolving due to market pressures, new technologies, customer expectations, and design standards. This means that overly worrying about design particulars needs to be weighed against releasing the product sooner. Don’t like something? Just wait a month or two, and it will likely change. Again.

The best design addresses the specific needs of a particular audience at a certain moment in time. Your job as a UXer is to understand the audience, the technology, and the business and tell a better story of how these three would come together to produce a more complete and delightful experience, not to insist on some higher truth or meaning behind your designs, as this will continue to change rapidly.

UX is not about being the Holy Oracle of User Needs. 

As a UXer, you are not some Holy Priest of Customer Needs. Product managers often know more than you do, especially if they also happen to be subject-matter experts (SMEs). As Robert Skrobe so eloquently says in his article "Sorry UX, the Party’s Over," [Sales and] Customer Service will talk to your customers every single day, and will know the company’s product failings better than anyone" (https://medium.com/@rskrobe/sorry-ux-the-partys-over-ccff2e0b4d0).

Of course, that does not mean the problem is solved: You can find some cool insights (and put them together into compelling, delightful solutions) by staying humble and remaining observant and working closely with your partners across the enterprise. In contrast, when you defend your turf by insisting that customer research is the sole domain of UX, you are actively harming the overall organization.

Instead of defending your oracular status, your job as a UXer is to gently introduce the culture of user focus to the organization. Ideally, in such a way as to completely integrate customer focus into a central pillar around which all of your organization’s activities revolve. The practice of user research, prototyping, testing, and continuous feedback should be deeply integrated into each and every activity, from parking in the morning to janitorial service at night and everything in between. Only by creating a culture of obsession with radical customer focus in everyone can your organization even have a chance to succeed today and thrive in the future. That means it’s everyone’s job to talk to users, brainstorm ideas, and test solutions. Your job is to ask a lot of gentle questions and provide the framework, training, and motivation for engagement, keeping the pipeline of users coming in for testing and facilitating interdepartmental collaboration. This practice of leadership was captured by Lao Tzu: "A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: We did it ourselves" [3].

The UX department is a luxury. 

Which brings us to the last revelation, one of the hardest to absorb: The UX department, like a cat, is a luxury. You need development to write the code, compile, and deploy. You need business (product, sales, and/or marketing) to figure out what to build and sell it. UX is just not the essential part of the equation.

Today"s development frameworks (Bootstrap, WordPress, Elastic, Kibana, D3.js, etc.) provide the basic support for the mature design patterns that can be reused in many applications, making it possible to get the design of the most responsive Web application elements 80 percent right most of the time out of the gate, even without doing any of the traditional UX activities. And 80 percent is enough to provide a "good enough" experience for most applications. Today’s public cloud providers like AWS, Azure, and Google Cloud bundle additional services that would have taken months or years to build just a few years ago: login/user management, faceted search, shopping cart, file management, database administration, and many more. The situation is even more acute in the arena of mobile apps, where tight platform standards and well-written, time-tested, and community-supported design guidelines and readymade interface components make it possible for relative newbies to put together decent mobile apps without "doing UX."

Still not convinced? Just remember that the breakthrough simple UX for one of the most significant and successful digital products of our time, “Google Search," actually came about from key developer Sergey Brin‘s reluctance to muck around with HTML [4].

To paraphrase UX expert Abby Covert: Information architecture (design, UX, etc.) “is not something you add… You always have it, whether it’s intentional or not.” Does that mean the UX department is now useless? Not at all! Where the UX team can add value (often a great deal of value) is by making this structure (IA/Design/UX) intentional, saving unnecessary work, sharpening focus, and helping the parts align to form a cohesive, delightful, and beautiful whole. However, the product will have a design with or without the UX department. Like the cat in a famous Kipling story [5], UX is not strictly necessary to a functioning household, but we do occasionally prove to be of tremendous value in catching mice. The key to UX bringing that value to the enterprise is partnerships, both with users and across the organization.

Conclusion: Today’s UX is about partnerships. 

So, UX is not about wireframes, lasting products, or being the Oracle of Human Needs. Then what is the UX practice about? In simplest terms, UXers are custodians, curators, and ombudsmen of innovation. UXers tell the stories of how customers would interact with a new technology. They lower the barriers to adoption, bridging the divide between the user and a digital product and making interactions with technology more acceptable, delightful, and occasionally even elegant and beautiful. But most of all, today’s UXers are the glue that binds together customer, business, and development in a holistic, human-centered story.

Mobile, voice, AI, AR/VR, and wearables all demand a creative, human-centric problem-solving approach to help make sense of these new technologies and how they manifest in intuitive, elegant digital products and services. UXers can help tell the story of how these new experiences unfold, conceive the interactions, and prototype, validate, and document the product experience.

Increasingly, customers are becoming more sophisticated, seeking out and recognizing solutions that work for them. Instead of being mindless consumers who are force-fed information and services, your users are ever more able to give cogent and constructive feedback to your team. And that goes double for the new digital generation: My young kids astonish me daily with their insights about what makes a design good or bad. This shift brings to mind one of my first articles (written back in 2008), where I suggested that instead of calling our customers users, we should adopt the term experience partners [6]. Our job as UXers is to empower our experience partners by helping them make smarter choices about their health, the planet, democracy, and their participation in the global community and make clear the true cost of their decisions.

Thus, in the simplest of terms, UX is always about partnerships with people: customers, clearly, but also coworkers and teammates: developers, business partners, product managers, marketers, data scientists, salespeople, and customer-support specialists the people you design for and the people you work with every day. In fact, the easiest way to approach your UX practice is to shift your thinking to treating everyone you interact with on the project as your experience partner. This small but profound shift allows you to unleash your trademark listening prowess, empathy, and formidable problem-solving skills, on behalf of both your customers and your teammates. As I look back at my own career, it’s these partnerships with key people (both customers and coworkers) that led to my peak experiences and my deepest insights and that truly stood the test of time much longer than any specific product-design approach or technological innovation. So, my parting words to anyone struggling to become their own UX hero: Just remember, it’s not about you.


1. Alexander, W. Grendel and the Grinch. June 11, 2012; http://www.willalex.net/2012/06/grendel-and-the-grinch/

2. Lister, D. Plainsong soars up the charts. The Independent. Mar. 29, 1994; https://www.independent.co.uk/news/plainsong-soars-up-the-charts-1432273.html

3. Shinagel, M. The paradox of leadership. Harvard Extension School Blog; https://www.extension.harvard.edu/professional-development/blog/paradox-leadership

4. Tischler, L. The beauty of simplicity. Fast Company. Nov. 1, 2005; https://www.fastcompany.com/56804/beauty-simplicity

5. Kipling, R. The cat that walked by himself. In Just So Stories, 1902; http://boop.org/jan/justso/cat.htm

6. Nudelman, G. Experience partners: Giving center stage to customer delight. UXmatters. April 12, 2008; https://www.uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2008/04/experience-partners-giving-center-stage-to-customer-delight.php

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