I'm concerned with how I witness the work of user experience practitioners getting treated: like it's just a set of motions toward a product's all-important implementation, and one that we try to compress, due to its ostensible superfluity. Once the implementation is finished, the UX work appears to usually get discarded, possibly only to be rescued by, and only of interest to, other UX practitioners. This behaviour is reflected in the way user experience practitioners behave themselves: like they're embarrassed that their work takes considerable time, attention, and expertise.

I believe that this transience in UX artifacts is at least partially responsible for the attitude that UX is extra work. We know how essential UX is, we know how it lowers overall costs, we know how it boosts the potential for revenue by an order of magnitude, but the requisite evidence for others to know these things—deeply and viscerally—is thrown in the garbage once the code is written. There's bafflingly scarce interest in creating a narrative that these artifacts have considerable value in their own right.

The Value of Durable UX

I humbly submit that UX deliverables, if crafted with such an intent in mind, have applicability far beyond informing one single implementation of one single product, and even beyond product development itself. This became evident to a client of mine when they realized that they couldn't so much as tell if licensing one product-as-a-service or other would be a wise move, without doing a decent chunk of the work one would need to do the job from scratch. It occurred to me, and my client, that the materials that form the precursors to a product's implementation have considerable value on their own. I give you, then, the extended usefulness of durable user experience artifacts:

Once you have an implementation of a product, subsequent implementations of the same thing get cheaper and cheaper to produce. So cheap, in fact, that implementations of certain products could conceivably become almost disposable. What's actually important and valuable is the stock of myriad decisions that make a thing what it is.

This application is related to memory; it pertains to a generalization of Erin McKean's Ham Butt Problem: a parable about a woman's pork product habits. Every time she roasts a ham, she first cuts the end off. Why waste such a delicious piece of meat? Because her mother does it. She asks her mother why, and the answer is because her mother does it. So they call up Grandma, and her answer is my pan was too small!

Decisions get made that create lasting effects, but what doesn't often get saved is why a decision was made, the way it was made, at the time it was made. If you have that information, those previous decisions become a heck of a lot easier to overturn.

Litmus test

Suppose a product does come down the pike at some point in the future, that does what your thing does, but putatively better. How can you tell if the vendor's claim is true?

Now, I'm in the infrastructure business, so this situation is interesting to my clients to replace what I make for them, which would be thrilling, because it would mean I wouldn't have to maintain it anymore and neither would they. I could also see this applied to product design against competitors' offerings, to see how they measure up to yours.

If you can draw a boundary around a system, and identify key parts of its anatomy and the way they interact, you can control it. If you can trace an unbroken path from this synoptic view to a piece of something in the real world, you can create it. This, I believe, is the key opportunity for the UX disciplines to get out of the geek ghetto and into the realm of bona fide business strategy.

What I'm Doing About This

I have set out to create a framework for storing and connecting together the information gathered and decisions reached during the user experience design process, so that my clients can use that information to enrich their business on an ongoing basis and in perpetuity, and that they can augment and expand at their leisure. Unsurprisingly, this framework manifests as a hypertext artifact on top of an open-source engine, that can either be hosted or installed on-site. My vision—that is, how I'll know I've succeeded—is that I will be able to ask a question as mundane as one about the wording of a single button, and trace the answer all the way back to the overarching business strategy to see that it makes sense.

Note that I'm not trying to reinvent any particular UX tool. It isn't a site, or a service, or even an identifiable product at all, but rather a system for creating a skin around and connective tissue between things like:

…which currently exist largely as Word documents, Excel spreadsheets and Powerpoint decks, in email attachments and forgotten file folders, either on paper or on some shared hard drive, on neglected internal wikis, stuffed into bug reports, on single-purpose social networks, or worst, on a USB stick wedged inside a sofa somewhere.

The individual elements of such a corpus represent the work of half a dozen specialist sub-disciplines, and are useful for realizing a product's implementation. But if you hook them all up together, they merge to become a strategic artifact that transcends products and operates as a critical control surface for the business. This is because what such an artifact represents is a coral reef of deeply-considered and hard-fought decisions, and a story of the process that yielded them.

Why is this valuable?

I'm tempted to say that if you can't grasp how enormously powerful such a thing might be, then be prepared to be steamrolled by those that do. But naked threats aren't really my style. Let's say, though, that you had to explain this idea to somebody, which we almost always do.

A decision in the can is money. If you can simply refer to a decision that's already been decided, then you don't have to work it out the hard way. If there's a decision you don't like and you know why it was decided, it's a candidate for reversal. If there's a decision that you want to make and you have evidence backing it up, you'll have a hell of a lot easier time pushing it through. We know this innately: the arbitrary decision is the nemesis of the designer and the true test of good design, because arbitrary decisions can't be defended, and defensible decisions aren't arbitrary.

Where I'm at

This document is my first successful attempt at synthesizing what I've been working on for the past six years. It has taken a long time, because so far I have had to figure out how to:

This is something I have largely done at my own expense. I have a client who's interested in gaining this capability, though more as a side effect of the actual UX work that is going to inhabit this thing. I'm going to be done with them soon: one of the criteria for success with this endeavour is that it doesn't depend on me forever to operate it. When I'm finished, I'll be looking to step up production. That's where I need your help.

See, this thing, save for a few parts I legitimately invented, is mostly just a collection of off-the-shelf ideas and pieces I've cribbed from all over the place. It's like an empty container or a bag of bolts: there's really nothing to it without any content, and the content it uses as raw material is that which is generated through the various facets of user experience design. When I'm finished with this client, I'm going to have an artifact that is:

So the job, when it's time, is to generalize, and eventually package this thing. I want to find people who have the authority to make a deal to help me do that. I'm aiming to achieve a new dimension of sophistication in design and design services, and you'd be part of that. Then we can hopefully never need to have another business value of UX conversation again.

Anybody interested?