User experience practitioners are still painfully self-conscious about the value their field of practice brings to whatever ecosystem they find themselves working in.

I'm using the term user experience as an umbrella for zones of expertise that include interaction design, information architecture and content strategy. Note that I do so largely under protest: it is not a self-evident proposition that these concepts fit neatly in the domain of user experience design, nor is it clear to me that a person's private, internal experience is something that can be manipulated anywhere near to the level of determinism needed to be confidently called design, in stark contrast to the respective concerns of its putative constituent parts. But, UX is effectively a brand name, and enough people know what I'm talking about when I say it.

Likewise is talk about the problem of UX communicating value to business beginning to sound like a broken record. This is why I was intrigued to hear a twist to the classic lament that was worth writing about, brought up in discussion during a recent presentation by Theresa Putkey. Namely:

How do I differentiate myself to prospective clients, as an { information architect, content strategist, interaction designer, etc.… }, against other UX types, when there is such massive overlap in the problems we solve and the artifacts we create?

Pardon the butchering of the paraphrase, but this is an interesting problem indeed. It likely was part of the motivation, back in 2009, for Jesse James Garrett to endeavour to rhetorically smoosh these practices all together. The parts that make up the rubric of UX demonstrably possess their own professional foci, their own literature, and their own academic heritage. That said, there is undeniably something in the product/system/whatever development process sandwiched between the oft-divergent interests of the suits and the black t-shirts, and for lack of a better term we seem to be calling that user experience design.

The Definitive, Final Word on the Value of UX

First, let me tender my bid for exactly what the user experience rubric does:

It is responsible for generating the set of adaptive decisions to a product, process or system that are neither strictly about making it work—in the technical sense—nor strictly about persuading people to buy it. That said, the outcomes generated by UX influence both of these more traditional concerns considerably.

I can also tell you exactly what kind of value the UX rubric confers:

That is to say nothing of the fact that UX is supposed to inject some objective, tangible value into the world by making the product actually perform in a way which exhibits a meaningful, positive, material consequence to the user—you know, the whole reason why they pay for it ✱, and why the market permits the business to exist. In that way, user experience professionals are, to paraphrase Frederick Brooks, the professionally informed and experienced advocates for the user.

✱ Pay here can mean dollars, euros, or seconds of attention. Blah blah the user and the customer aren't always the same person blah.

Facets of the Same Thing

All of the UX subgenres play the role of user advocate in one form or another. The question is what flavour? That, I submit, depends on the practitioner. Here is a partial example of what I mean:

The UX community would make for a terrible Richard Scarry book. Whereas one at least hopes the person with a stethoscope is a doctor, and the person with the green eyeshade is an accountant, this group is difficult to delineate by the tools it uses and the artifacts it creates. As Theresa remarked in her presentation, there are only a few techniques, tools and deliverables clearly owned by any one constituency, and none of them are created in a vacuum. And to complicate matters, the insights derived from the rest of the artifacts depend on who's creating them. But the objective is the same.

Great. Who's in Charge?

Part of the reason to hang onto these monikers is of course to determine a chain of command. So which one of these specialties is most important? I submit that question is a red herring. Here's why:

If, in your position between business and technical interests, you don't have the recognized authority to enforce the outcome of your work, then you are merely making recommendations, which can and will be ignored. The result will be a hodgepodge of marketing and engineering expedients, and the business value you so desperately wish to demonstrate will be hovering somewhere around zero.

With authority as a performance criterion, the chief export of the principal user experience professional on the scene is conceptual integrity—a term I see and hear far too scarcely in this line of work. To borrow from Brooks again, who, by the way, coined the term in the 1970s, conceptual integrity is the state when the mental model of both the user and application is unified across the whole team, lest there otherwise be a different mental model for every person on the team. According to Brooks, conceptual integrity is the single most important condition for the successful development of software, and, I add, just about any collaborative endeavour.

So I believe the correct question is not which UX satellite is more important than the other, but rather which person ought to be in charge of conceptual integrity, and my answer is—unless they don't want the job—whoever got there first.

If You Get There First:

If you find yourself in charge, recognize that your position is one of stewardship and that the set of considerations is almost certainly larger than your particular expertise can cover. You will need to delegate, and you will need to integrate the results of that delegation into a coherent whole. Most importantly, you will need to sell your mental model, so prefer to delegate to willing buyers. Conceptual integrity is voluntarily assented to, and cannot be imposed by edict.

Conceptual integrity is an early warning system for impediments to at least the developmental, if not commercial success of a project. If anybody downstream from you doesn't buy your mental model, find somebody who does. If the business interests upstream don't buy it, you have a problem.

All that said, I strongly believe that there is a distinct pattern to the aggregate flow of information between these narrower fields of expertise, which informs but again does not necessarily dictate the sequence of actions. For instance, a successful information architecture relies heavily on the existence of content. Interaction design is analogous to content, insofar as there is a distinct meaning to a particular sequence of actions, and in text-based situations the two may interact heavily. And of course, none of this business gets off the ground without talking to many different people and digesting what they say.

It's worth noting as well that conceptual integrity is achieved by gaining comprehension of the whole problem, not just some silo-specific facet of it. Being too sharply specialized may indeed turn out to be a liability to successful leadership.

It's important for the various practitioners—and this I believe is what Jesse James Garrett was driving at—to acknowledge that holders of job titles other than yours are allies, not competitors. To which I add: If you're in the driver's seat, it doesn't really matter what your business card reads, but rather that you recognize you will probably need help.

You Are Not Coca-Cola

I want to close with a thought that I keep having to remind myself. Business books and the ambient chatter they generate are almost always couched in terms of appealing to the widest market—what most people/businesses/whatever concern themselves with. That makes perfect sense when you sling a perfectly uniform, fungible and cheap product and have to oversee billions of transactions a year just to keep the lights on.

In contrast, if you are in this crazy business for yourself, you will never have to deal with most anything. You will likely not exceed a handful of clients over your entire career: an infinitesimal fraction of the total possible number of clients. If you do this kind of work as an employee, you will have even fewer business arrangements. Your title is just another handle so that these people can find you, and it will depend how they view their process if and when they give you a call.

Irrespective of what you call yourself—information architect, interaction designer, content strategist, rockstar UX ninja, whatever—you will attract clientele with whom the term resonates, and in no fewer than two distinct subtypes: one who wants you to lead the excursion, and the other who is already under way. It's up to you to decide which is more your style.


Bonus round: As for ascribing hard figures to business value, user experience has the same problem as think tanks, lobbyists, and the public policy interventions they claim to influence: The claim of efficacy can't be falsified because you'd need access to an alternate universe to produce a null hypothesis. But I bring these guys up because if they do generate a return, it is guaranteed to be wild, and likely to be enormous. The investment to employ them is also purely speculative. Nobody who solicits these services is confused about what they're paying for. Perhaps we can crib a page from this playbook.

In the interim, I'm eager to see what Lis comes up with, because she's been working on this problem for a while.