A Brief Conversation About Design in Technology
If you have spoken to almost anyone in the tech space in the last decade, you have probably come across a variety of acronyms. If you have spoken to a human in Seattle in the past five years, you have probably heard the terms UI, UX, HX, CX, XD, UCD, ICX, and so many more peppered into conversations more frequently than salt is sprinkled on food. Although not in their infancies, these terminologies and concepts have grown in popularity in our digital age. Companies around the globe are craving these coveted two letter acronym experts to maintain their edge and continue on their path of digital transformation (oh yes, that other buzzword) while industrial design students joke about selling their ‘design souls’ for the comfortable lifestyles these jobs pay. So, what do they mean? Are they worth the price of an industrial designer’s soul? How do we differentiate between the concepts behind these acronyms, other buzzwords, and how are they directing our work processes? It can be confusing to keep track of the constantly fluctuating collection of abbreviations; especially when most of them overlap in meaning and role while more two-letter acronyms are simultaneously being cooked up. Let’s dip into our collective knowledge and bake a shared understand of these prolific terms.
One of the most frequently used short hands is UI/UX and many times the UI and UX are separated only by a slash while their meanings are far more complex than the slash implies. UX is the abbreviation for user experience, and UI stands for user interface. The origin of the term user experience has been credited to Don Norman, the man behind, The Design of Everyday things.
"I invented the term because I thought human interface and usability were too narrow. I wanted to cover all aspects of the person’s experience with the system including industrial design, graphics, the interface, the physical interaction, and the manual.”
However, this practice started long before this term was coined. More recently, the expansive umbrella of the concept has been scoped down and chiseled into different roles (hence the acronyms). Although many design academics and programs still operate with this definition in mind, the tech world has swallowed it and spit it back out for digitally focused products stereotyping the practice to apply centrally to websites and applications. This idea of user experience relies on thinking about the digital experience and the user interface is the functionality behind these experiences. While the definitions seem straightforward, in execution they frequently overlap which is why they are grouped together using the slash.
Take a restaurant for example; the user experience may include: how someone enters, is there a front door or a side door, do you enter the same way if you are picking up take out than if you are dining in? Is it self-serve or is there a host to seat you? What’s the quality of the food, how was the conversation with the wait staff, how long did it take to be seated, receive food, or what was getting the check like and so forth (remember when the Cold Stone kids would sing after they got a tip?) Each of these aspects is not a singular entity and are made of up of many interdependent motivations but they all make up the experience, even when sliding in scale. The interface here can also be an experience, whether it is the graphic design of the branding, the menus, to the logistics of the restaurant, from the type of tables, height of the chairs, to layout of the space. Overlap in interface and experience here shows how that slash exits in the physical world too.
In the digital experience, these questions are still explored. Take that same restaurant’s website. Is the site easy to view on your device as much as it is on your computer, does it have a way to make a reservation, or even put in an order for take out or delivery? How are you walked through the payment cycle? Is there information on the hours the business is open, details in relation to dietary restrictions, even reviews from other customers? The interface here is about how all of this content is organized, laid out, and presented by the systems behind the scenes of what the user sees and interacts with.
The slash links these concepts, but it can also designate the tools and the roles of the people involved in the making of products. There are the people who figure out what the users want and there are those who deliver that based on their expertise of using tools and techniques to create digital outputs (and they can be the same person too sometimes).
This realm thinking is a shared concept with the other acronyms. HX (human experience design), CX (customer experience design), and XD (experience design) all revolve around the same ideas just focusing in from a particular perspective or outcome. In reality they are all just design, they all follow the same basic steps of a design process – research, ideate, prototype, test, propose a solution (with repetitive loops at certain steps); the same process that is implemented by UCD (user centered design), ID (industrial design), and product design. The differentiator relies on the medium of the outcome.
Another one of these old school design classifications that has recently reemerged is Service Design. Service Design has a long tradition and its resurgence in the digital age is reminding us all the importance of how to design in an interconnected way.
Service Design considers both the client facing services and functions but also the gears on the inside. The service design process, unlike most other user experience processes, incorporates the people and equipment behind the scenes of the services being provided. If we return to our restaurant scenario, the user experience stays focused on the front of the house. It’s all about the customers but when approaching a project from a service design angle, it means also thinking about the chefs, the waitstaff, the cleaning crew, and the ingredient vendors. The specific tools used in service design examine the mechanics of all the players at once to create opportunities that mutually benefit both sides of the kitchen door. Service design does not bisect the design process but designs for the arrows that connect the user journey. It includes both the people and their skills and equipment. It takes into account the whole environment, looping all of the elements of the experience. It does not mean that customers are not central or that they are not the driving factor, rather it integrates more of the variables to create buy in and governance that lead to a better user experience.
The scope of service design can also be strengthened when approached from a systems design mindset and practice. Systems design, or systems thinking, is the next macro step out. Instead of just thinking about the restaurant environment and everything involved inside its doors, it considers the context of where the restaurant is located on the street, in what neighborhood, town, state, part of the nation, it can grow endlessly but the main goal is to approach design by thinking through contexts like Russian dolls. As Eliel Saarinen explains:
"Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context - a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan."
By using this framework, complexity does not become the enemy, it showcases how a system is interdependent and can help illuminate what unintended consequences can arise from changes. Using systems thinking allows us to avoid Peter Senge’s prophecy “today’s problems are often yesterday’s solutions.”
With this ability to approach design more holistically, service design allows us to build in attributes that many times are used as filters or afterthoughts, such as accessibility or sustainability. Instead of focusing primarily on a singular audience or outcome, service design lets us establish a way to fit all the odd angles and complex elements together into a viable solution. This is because while still being user centered it is also co-creative, based on evidence, and thinks of the implications in relation to the big picture. It moves us away from just being human centered and places us in the surroundings of this world and how our work has ripples now and in the future. Service design is not singular in it's approach and incorporates the value of context. It challenges everyone to truly ask who they are serving through a project, work, and design. In this way, approaching problems with a systems mindset and service design process, we can address large, wicked problems that continue to plague us - whether it is climate change, healthcare, hunger, etc. It gives us the framework to focus on a small part of the issue and slowly chip away at the large-scale problem at the same time. It is one of the great tools we have to help tackle current problems and avoid new catastrophes.
However, these frameworks and processes alone do not inherently guarantee a positive impact. Much like any tool, that power comes from those who use them. The reputation of these theories and practices has grown to frame them as profound, elite, and just generally "better" but their outcomes can be influenced by a variety of desires and lead to terribly dangerous products and institutions. Just look at the variety of social media platforms and their prolific hold on society and our data. Their influence was designed and their effects are beyond anything we have even started to see. Or the Juul, it was created using the human centered design process and resulted in a product that drove many teenagers to a drug dependency and irreversible health issues. This is where ethics comes in. Design without objective ethics and more importantly, the incentives to follow and mandate them, has brought us to this world with numerous wicked problems and knotty complications. We are facing a multitude of interlaced issues that will take generations to resolve. This is why the secret to great design and futureproofing is not simply about designing for the present or speculating about the unintended consequences, it is about considering the system in which it functions and defending the token idea, just because it can be made, doesn't mean it should be made (by you or anyone else).
Business does not always allow all projects to be service design projects and we all are part of this systems, people need jobs and experience, money and ways to have their needs met. So sometimes we focus on a two-letter acronym design aspect or even just a single element but what's most important is to design with those who hold the perspective. For example, if it's a user centered design, you must bring the user into each aspect, from research, ideation, testing, and prototyping, even in your proposal. Designing with them instead of for them allows makes you to be the tool, the funnel, the mechanism that is central to good design. The value of this grows exponentially when that user base incorporates all the variety of people closest to the issue you are designing for. Even when you can't approach a design from a systems approach, keeping these fundamentals of design principles at the core and remembering who you are designing with will make solutions more practical and ethically bound because they are based on insights driven by people who need the solutions. Every design always has a chef and a patron.
By now, I hope it is a little clearer what all of these terms mean and how to use them (and I hope, you’ve figured out that ICX doesn’t really mean anything. It’s just something I made up to refer to my ice cream experience, so maybe it should be a thing?) In the meantime, share the knowledge, choose to incorporate more people into your process, think about where you can stand your ground, and what the consequences of your designs might be, and lets all grow to making these terms and concepts functional, accessible, and conducted ethically rather than being just definitions or making up new terms unnecessarily.