4 April 2022
Design Practice

The Slow But Inevitable Demise of UX Design

When I started Clearleft in 2005, we were arguably the first UX agency in the UK. Sure there were folks practicing various elements of User Centered Design; there were dedicated research agencies, dedicated IA agencies, tons of visual design agencies and even folks partnering on CX. However few if any had bought these threads together under the guise of “User Experience Design” as our friends at Adaptive Path in the US had done a few years earlier.

The Golden Age of UX

Clearleft spent the next 5 years plugging away at term UX—writing articles, speaking at conferences and starting our own UX London event—before the practice eventually took off. However, for the next 10 years, UX was big. I mean proper big. UX Designer became one of the hottest job titles in the industry, and you could add $$ to your salary simply by repositioning yourself as a UX Designer.

This was a time our industry saw much invention and re-invention. There were still plenty of traditional “bricks and mortar” businesses (as we called them back then) that had yet to take advantage of the digital revolution. They may have had a rudimentary website, but it was almost certainly clunky and difficult to use. As such, UX designers would set about rebuilding these sites from scratch. 

The Practice of UX

UX Designers of the time would primarily concern themselves with the following activities…

  • Talking to users (something businesses had surprisingly not done before in the context of their site) to understand what they wanted and needed, rather than what the company wanted to give.

  • Running IA projects to catalog existing information (of which there was often a lot, much of which was poorly written) and then restructuring it based on the user's understanding of the domain, rather than the company's own internal structure.

  • Running workshops to understand “the problem” (UX designers love a good workshop), and then creating concept models and diagrams to conceptually map out how the new digital experience would work.

  • And most importantly, creating wireframes, paper prototypes or interactive prototypes which you could test with prospective users to see if they understood how the site worked, and then roll the feedback into improving the site usability. 

I use the term “site” a lot in the above examples because in their early days it was mostly sites. Often informational sites from large institutions like broadcasters, universities and government departments, where the goal was largely helping people find the information they wanted.

You’ll notice that anything relating to visual design was largely missing from the above list of activities as visual designers tended to be a separate breed at the time. This of course would soon change. 

The Move from Sites to Products

Thanks in part to the emergence of social media and Web 2.0, digital properties started to become more and more transactional. Rather than going online to gather information you’d go there to shop, socialise, and work. As such, over time the IA component in most UX designers tool kits started to fade a little, as the focus switched more and more to interaction design. 

For many years UX designers had been championing the importance of research. In fact in many organisations it was the UX designers doing the research. However over the past 10 years we’ve seen a massive rise in dedicated research teams. As such, research also started becoming less and less a priority for UX designers, cementing the focus on interaction design even further. 

We were now arguably in the second dotcom boom. As product companies scaled they needed to hire more and more people with interaction skills. As such a lot of graphic designers, visual designers or UI Designers (as they were sometimes called) started bolstering their interaction design skills. 

This was especially true when it came to mobile design as mobile experiences were generally simpler (or at least more constrained) than their desktop cousins. As such, skills like motion design became more useful for communicating behaviour on small screens than IA (where the complexity was hidden away). Similarly a lot of mobile providers started creating their own standardised design libraries, which meant that the designers were no longer building everything from scratch. Instead it became much easier to chain a set of interaction patterns together using a visual design tool, rather than a more traditional mapping tool like Axure. 

The Move to Agile and Lean

Another thing that happened around this time was the move from the “waterfall” approach of “big design up front”, to Agile. So rather than spending months designing the system, large products were broken down into smaller product teams and asked to bite off chunks of work in shorter sprints. This made design work a little more tactical. As a result product teams really didn’t need separate UX and UI designers on the same team (as was common in the agency space), so we started to see the rise of the lone Product Designer, UX/UI Designer, or my personal bête noire, The Full Stack UX Designer. 

As the cost and complexity of development came down, it also became much less risky to launch products early to see what worked. At the same time the Lean Start-up movement heavily promoted getting an early MVP out the door as quickly as possible to test on real users, rather than throwing a prototype together and testing in a slightly more artificial environment. This was largely because Lean teams were much more interested in testing the business viability of an idea than the usability of a product, knowing full well that the product would morph over time.  

The other thing that happened is the nature of the work changed. While a lot of the early projects, especially amongst agencies were zero-to-one projects where you were building something new for the first time, the majority of designers found themselves improving existing products. As such the focus for many designers switching from conceiving whole systems to rolling out new features or improving existing user flows (or parts of a user flow if they crossed several different product teams).

Everybody has an Opinion on Design

It’s also safe to say that designers, developers, product managers and even execs just became more accustomed to what a good user experience felt like. When poor experiences were the norm, it needed specialised expertise to buck the trend. However in a world where everybody from the Finance Director to the office intern (who would soon be promoted to Product Manager) had an iPhone, teams very quickly started to internalise what good looked like. 

In fact there’s a common model for expertise that says our abilities move from unconscious incompetence (we don’t know what we don’t know) through conscious incompetence (we start to be aware of our own limitations), to conscious competence (where we start actively working on our domain knowledge). However the final state in this flow is unconscious competence, and it’s the point where we’ve internalised our skills so much that we actually struggle to explain it to others. 

Now while I think there’s still a surprising amount of unconscious incompetence out there, there’s also a lot more conscious competence around than we may realise. In fact I think this is the root of the much debated (and personally irritating) refrain that “everybody is a designer”.  While I still maintain there are specific approaches, tools, skills, and mindsets that experienced designers bring to the table, we’ve all lived in a digital world for the past 20 years and are getting much better at knowing what good looks like.

From a design perspective we’re also surrounded by enough scaffolding—in the form of design systems, user research and competitor products—to mean that most teams don’t need the rigor that came with the historic practice of UX design. In fact some people on Twitter even debate the very existence of UX design, much to the annoyance of people who still identify as UX Designers.

UX Design is Still With Us, Albeit in a Much Diminished Role

There are still a fair few UX designers out there, often working at consultancies or embedded in more traditional sectors like universities, banks, or government institutions. As such I think the title for this article is slightly misleading as I don't believe that UX as a practice is going to disappear anytime soon. However I do believe the practice has been eclipsed by Product Design to the point that many people think UX is the same as Product Design or that UX is inseparable or indistinguishable from UI (because for many it is).

At the same time I’m seeing a lot of traditional UX Designers move into the field of Service Design (which generally doesn’t require UI skills), into Design Management roles (where they can be more conceptual) or into senior Product Leadership (where they can have more impact on the strategic direction of the product). 

As such, the spirit of UX is still around. It’s just not evenly distributed.