UX Theatre: No Experience Necessary

The world and its services are in the palm of our hands. We can communicate people when it is needed most in an instant, have a quick video chat, share our favorite restaurant through photographs, turn on and off home infrastructure from far away, and store and retrieve our content on demand. We are experiencing an unprecedented level of convenience and instant gratification, supported by a continual flow of information unfettered by traditional controlling parties. The popular perception is that digital technology is making our lives easier on one hand, and swamping through atomized volume, variety, velocity, and veracity of data with little privacy or security on the other.

From the number of digital platforms and continual technological innovations that are being created due to mobile, APIs, IoT, and virtualized infrastructure supported by open source and low-code to no-code development, we seem to be living in a continual golden age of human achievement. While the digital divide will be continual problem, mobile adoption across the globe and in developing countries are skyrocketing to about 3.2 billion people (1) are reaping the benefits of digital technologies.

Go on the app store and look at any category. There are dozens or hundreds of variations for the same service. Over 1000 apps are launched every day on Apple Store or Google Play (2), with most being free low-level knockoffs of market leaders. From the expansion of collaborative technologies during the pandemic to the rise of Fintech that is providing economic opportunities to the underbanked, an explosion of services allow each of us to carry the world in our pocket and to be able to do just about anything we want to do. With the expansion of 5G networks, another tidal wave of new services will be created making our current digital apps feel quaint and even antiquated.

What separates one app from another? It is not necessarily the technologies that power them as they have been commoditized into code libraries that anyone can find and deploy. It is the way the app delivers value to users and for the most part it is the user experience that keeps people from deleting an app. About 28% of all apps are deleted 30-day after they are downloaded (3). The question is why do people delete – or keep certain apps?

Design in general and user-experience (UX) in particular has played a pivotal role in creating services that are for the most part easy to use, and hiding manual processes augmented by automation through better and better engineering. It seems as if everyone is a user-experience designer that works with product managers and engineering to create mobile applications that do ingenious things for people. We have come a long way from WIMP (windows, icon, mouse, pointer) structure and metaphors and have expanded the way we interact with technology through voice, gesture and even biometrics.

What is experience in general, and UX in particular?

In the 1980s and accelerating in the 1990s, early designers involved with digital technologies experimented to create non-specialized technologies that were for generalists. Companies like Xerox, Microsoft and Apple were creating new types of software that were visual, with buttons and hyperlinks that could do daily useful things for people. The information age and the knowledge economy were merging into a new type of industry powered by technological innovation.

When B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore wrote the Experience Economy in 1999, it clearly articulated what this new merger meant: ” . . . businesses must deliberately design engaging experiences that command a fee” through ” . . . a distinct economic offering . . .  in a personal, memorable way (4).” Their model was simple: connection + participation + immersion = experience. The more differentiated an organization could create an experience, the more of a price premium it could command.

For over a decade in the 2000’s through trial-and-error, user-experience formed as a loose confederation of human-centered design specializations such as information architecture, experience design, interaction design, content design, and visual design who provided specific skills to create a unified experience for digital services and platforms. Jesse James Garrett of Adaptive Path coined the terms user-experience and its purpose to persuade, stimulate, inform, envision, entertain, and forecast events, influence meaning, and modify human behavior through interactions with digital systems. It was driven by a ” . . . philosophy of management by inquiry and insight, in which new creative explorations would lead to new questions about human behavior, which in turn would drive the definition of new product and value opportunities.” (5) These opportunities were informed by user expectations and unarticulated needs which were mapped to support integrated content, features, and functions which resulted in positive emotional affinities that B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore were hoping for.

Due to the popularity of user-experience, formal educational programs cannot keep up. Certification programs and “boot camps” are now the main way people learn about the topic and are snapped up by hungry corporations and start-ups that have too many engineers who can quickly build prototypes and launch services, but do not know what problem they are trying to really solve. This has caused a commodification of UX knowledge and skills being reduced to the lowest common denominator, which in turn is degrading the original value that Jesse James Garrett had hoped for. UX is now a limited set of activities that focus on speed and production with little original curiosity and insight to define the right work to do, which is supported by Agile’s focus on doing the work right.

User Experience over time has shifted to an emphasis on Customer Experience (CX) which is ” . . . how a business engages with its customers at every point of their buying journey—from marketing to sales to customer service and everywhere in between. In large part, it’s the sum-total of all interactions a customer has with your brand.” (6) This is becoming increasingly possible through the integration of a diverse set of service experiences using analytics, machine learning and computational design. Together Customer Experience drives person to person, person to machine and machine-to-machine relationships which continually deliver relevant experiences.

UX as a status quo checklist, rather than a way of knowing

In a recent post by Charlie Hill, VP Strategic Design & IBM Fellow at IBM on LinkedIn linked to a Wired article from Jesse James Garrett, formerly of Adaptive Path called “I helped pioneer UX design. What I see today disturbs me Where did we go wrong?” Charlie rightly highlighted the degradation of much of user experience to what has become “UX Theatre.”

If you ask most UX practitioners what UX is, most will highlight the use of personas, journey maps, wireframes and visual design to make digital services more usable. While these methods are helpful, without a clear value chain of purpose and desired outcomes, these same methods become degraded commodity check lists. Expedited activities become streamlined protocols to support engineering teams that are locked in two-week sprints who eagerly await UX deliverables so they can quickly build, test, and deploy apps.

In Garrett’s article, he laments the current practice of user-experience. When he coined this term, it was to name a new emerging discipline that would use a curiosity driven approach to explore specific situational human beliefs and behaviors, Insights would drive new products and services which fulfilled unarticulated needs using human-centered frameworks and methods. The goal of user-experience and larger experience design efforts are to directly engage with stakeholders, stress-test assumptions, explore as is states and generate collective insights that lead to authentic and real value through to be products and services from “human-centered enterprises.”

In twenty years, UX has become the opposite. With the rise of Agile and DevOps and the pressure to produce more and more products to “fit a development process that demands clear accountability for every activity and has no space for foundational work that can’t be predictably packaged up into two-week units.” User-experience has now become an expedited way to ” . . . creat[e] the appearance of due diligence and a patina of legitimacy that’s just enough to look like a robust design process to uninformed business leaders and hopeful UX recruits alike.” Most organizations that have a single UX resource in a sea of engineers, which use ” . . . production-level UX allows organizations to check the “UX” box without having to deal with the messiness.”

UX now means everything and nothing, and the result are very predictable responses to very predictable outcomes, with no real innovation needed. We are drowning in apps, micro-sites, websites and XaaS platforms centered on the needs of business with customer aquisition and retention the only important metric to generate predictable revenue over time. Design patterns and open-source code such as Google’s Material Design, Microsoft’s Fluent Design, IBM’s Design Language, and Salesforce Lightening System has mainstreamed many atomized user-experience features and functions and made learnability and familiarity possible through consistency. While there were good intentions to these systems based on user-experience efforts, there are many more companies that do not have a system that was built on Garrett’s “philosophy of management by inquiry and insight” but rather a fractured and derivative bricolage of features and functions.

Customer Experience (CX) supported by informed and authentic user-experience principles and practices could innovate and unlock new types of value for products and services. The current obsession over how to get people to use their digital devices like mobile phones, tablets, and laptops more is driving the obsession to move humanity to consume faster and faster. Garrett rightly states the the larger problem is the emphasis on expediency, standardization, and atomization of digital technologies without being able to define a higher core purpose for digital tools. 

UX that answers ” . . . the messy complexity of humanity continues to challenge us around the edges” is becoming almost impossible to do. Real insight and outcome have become an externality and a victim of marketing and production cycles to meet quarterly goals. The dysfunctional UX genie is growing ever larger and is part of an immovable status quo to copy, titillate and get to market first. The UX gold-rush has turned everyone into a prospector, with little prospect.



(1) Buildfire

(2) AskWonder.com

(3) Busienssofapps.com

(4) Harvard Business Review, Welcome to the Experience Economy, July–August 1998

(5) Wired Magazine 

(6) Oracle 

View Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *