I’m My Own Worst Enemy

I Can Code

I’m something of a freak, though certainly not unique, in that I started my career in software as a developer and am now far more on the Design/UX side of things. Not only that, but I was one of those untrained/uneducated ones with no CS degree that jumped on the dot-com-bubble wagon to break into the industry. For years, I worked my way up through the ranks, learning on the job mostly with the smattering of self study here, conference/training there.

So it was only natural to me, when given the opportunity, to jump on the UX bandwagon several years ago. Again, I find myself a foreigner with no formal Design or HCI or library science or psychology education (but hey, I did take Psych 101 in college!). But I’ve done a good bit of self study, here and there under the mentorship of “real” UX pros (ya know, the ones with the PhDs and MAs and such). I now have several years of experience under my belt, and I had something of a unique opportunity working on Indigo Studio, an interaction design and prototyping tool, to really research and study the discipline/practice/field of UX and Design. That opportunity has given me a lot of exposure and insights into UX/Design that I know I wouldn’t  otherwise have.

UX for Devs ManifestoAlong the way, I’ve been (and still am) an advocate for developers spending time and effort learning about and practicing, when necessary, UX principles, techniques, and processes. This is because today, still, the vast majority of software being built does not involve UX professionals, or if it does, their role is often minimized and marginalized (they have to fight for their lives, or at least for good UX). In the end, devs, being the ones who build the stuff, have dramatically more influence in most cases over the actual UX of software. This is not going to change anytime soon. Maybe not ever. It’s reality. Deal with it.

And yet! And yet, despite my position advocating for devs “doing UX” and despite my bad example as a dev turned UX guy, I have learned enough in these many years to know that designers are indeed a different sort of animal. They think differently about problems than devs–significantly so. They employ different approaches when tackling issues. Heck, there’s a whole thing called “design thinking” that has sprung up around this notion. And not only that, just like every other professional, professional designers learn and hone their expertise over years as they practice. It really is a profession, a discipline, a field of expertise.

And that brings me to the image at the top of this post. (This is an actual shirt I made at one of the T-shirt sites.) It’s funny on a superficial level, and on the level that people can remember actually writing BASIC programs like that. But the underlying thing is–does being able to write lines of code really mean “I can code!”? Does that put me on the same level as an experienced and (possibly) formally educated developer?

That’s patently and obviously absurd–being able to perform one (or even some) of the basic functional activities involved in a profession does not make one a professional in that discipline. Do people who can give themselves shots claim to be doctors? Do people who represent themselves in court for a traffic citation claim to be lawyers? Does being able to shoot a firearm make me a policeman? Obviously not! I can install GFCI outlets like nobody’s business, but I hardly consider myself an electrician.

And yet this is precisely the attitude taken by those who dabble in Design. Being able to sketch UI ideas on a whiteboard doesn’t make someone a UX professional, but you’d never know that by the way people are eager to second guess and criticize professionally designed UIs or by the way they clearly think that their opinion on a UX design is as weighty as a seasoned UX design veteran.

This is particularly troublesome when dealing with what I’ll call “design smell” (lifting the concept of “code smell” from the dev world). Sometimes–often–an experienced designer can consider a design and immediately tell there is something off about it. Sure, there are heuristics, and principles, and testing, and metrics, and so on that can give definition and language to talk about the bad smell, but not always, certainly not always to everybody’s satisfaction.

Maybe they subconsciously recognize things about it that are just asking to go wrong, based on their distilled knowledge, skills, and experience. Or maybe they had more exposure to what went into a particular design–so what is being considered is something they already explored or something conflicting with their sense of propriety for the problem at hand in the context it is in. The bottom line is, maybe the designer can explain it in a way that resonates convincingly with others and maybe not. But sometimes you just gotta defer to their judgment and rely on their expertise. 

My Ivory TowerNow don’t mistake me. I’m not suggesting the all powerful designer dictating from on high, but judging from a very common theme amongst designers–complaining how everybody thinks they’re designers–I think it is safe to say we are squarely on the other end of that particular spectrum, especially in software. People–particularly those who consider themselves smart and talented (and maybe are)–naturally assume that if something doesn’t make sense/resonate with them, then it must be wrong.

And yet, when those same people think about it in terms of their own expertise (or maybe other expertises they have less of a clue about), they obviously can see that people should respect their expertise and defer to them. Something is broken here. What I’m suggesting is that those who work with designers need to keep this in mind and move the needle further to the respecting designer expertise side of the spectrum.

The fact that I have made this transition from dev to UX pro makes me my own worst enemy in this argument, though. What folks may not think about is that this multiyear, full-time professional journey has really warped my thinking. I may not yet (or ever) be in the same mindset as a formally educated, “untainted” designer, but I have had a lot of time and opportunities that have changed my thinking and given me a lot more Design knowledge and experience to draw on than I had before I started this journey.

And despite that, I maintain what I consider to be a healthy seed of doubt as to my own tendencies when it comes to tackling problems and designing solutions using, shall we say, a pure/disciplined Design approach. And if I still do that after years of practice, self-study, and mentoring, maybe folks who lack pretty much any background in UX should doubt their own design skills and defer to experienced designers?

LOL. Who am I kidding?!? Everyone’s a designer, right?

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