It's been a wild road for many people in the UX industry over the past decade or so. When I first began getting into the Web, most of my peers were self-taught, tech-savvy designers who wanted to push the envelope. We learned HTML and JS. We labored over the minute details of CSS and when we couldn't get the layouts we wanted, we learned Flash. But all of that was still myopic.

Human Computer Interaction

While we labored away in Flash, pushing the amount of sprites we could display and re-creating scrollbars, we were unaware of the larger disciplines that had already been established. I, for one, did not learn until years later about human factors engineering and other cognitive sciences which had been used in the military way back in the 70s. I think this lack of knowledge did spur the early Web to be different, sometimes brilliant, but oftentimes unusable.

The issue of usability really started to raise its head when established voices in this field like Nielsen and Norman decried Flash as being 99% bad. Who were these dinosaurs telling us we were doing it wrong?! They just didn't understand this new medium, we thought. Well, it turns out they were right and while Flash has nearly been entirely wiped from the Web, their site continues to supply relevant and, although a bit pedantic, well-thought advice.

The Rise of UX

So, what's a Rock Star Flash Developer to do? Well, in my case, I realized that Flash content, while engaging and fun, wasn't really satisfying what I wanted out of the web. I believed in the semantic Web and I wanted to push for better experiences on multiple platforms. I also had an epiphany (ha!) that even though I was designing beautiful things, it didn't mean anything if no one could use them. That lead me on the road to UX.

User Experience, or UX, was an up-coming, umbrella term for design that also took into account things like information hierarchy, usability, customer research and testing. Many of us, or at least I was, still unaware that these disciplines had already been established in other industries. In my ignorance, I thought this was something new and unique to the Web. To be fair, there wasn't much information about how those disciplines related to the internet and the tone of some of the established voices was dismissive of the Web as a platform.

Still, these were the things which interested me. I love user testing, both existing products and prototypes. I learned that no matter how much thought or reasoning you put into your work, or how good you mkae it look, when you get it in front of someone unfamiliar with the product, sometimes it just doesn't work. And that knowledge is invaluable. This opened up an entire world for me. We heard about guerilla user testing which didn't need an entire eye-tracking lab. We learned how to do better testing without leading the user or pushing our biases into their responses.

Here again. we were not disciplined in our approaches. We weren't trained ethnographic researchers or human factors engineers. But, we were learning and using those insights gained to help inform our design choices and really improve things for the user.

The Backlash

This worked great for a while. The term UX took off and businesses started to sit up and take notice. Everyone wanted to have some of that UX sauce because Business Week or Forbes said it was important. Companies hired UX professionals and set up internal teams to test their products.

But, many businesses didn't understand the benefit that UX could bring. They thought of UX as simply another label for UI design or marketing. There was a backlash to the amount of time the UX team would require for research, testing and iteration. "Why can't they just make it look good and ship it?" Oftentimes the UX team was seen as the bottleneck to the software development process.

Because many UX practictioners were not educated in the disciplines they were using, they did not have the background to explain the value to the business. Without much perceived value, the role of UX can erode until the role consists of simple order-taking. The UX team is not only told what to create, but even where to place it in the software.

The Future

So, if this is where you find yourself in 2019 know that you're not alone. There are ways to communicate the value that UX design and research bring to the business. Maybe we take the advice of some and stop calling ourselves User Experience. Maybe Service Design or Product Design fits better. But, don't give up the fight. There are even bigger battles on the horizon including: ethically using big data, securely handling user data, accessibility and fixing the repeal of Net Neutrality.

It's still a strange profession, but I think there's plenty of opportunity as it matures.