The Golden Age of UX may be over, but not for the reasons stated
A few weeks ago an article entitled The Golden Age of UX is Over popped onto my RADAR, after causing a bit of a stir amongst the design community. If I was being generous I’d say it was a genius title, designed to spark debate amongst UX designers. If I was being slightly less generous, I’d say it was a devilishly brilliant piece of click-bait, designed to drive traffic to an agency site. Either way I had a feeling the article would annoy me, so spent the next couple of days actively ignoring it. However temptation finally got the better of me and I ended up taking the bait.
On the whole I agree with the sentiment of the title that the “Golden Age of UX” probably is over. I say that as somebody who has been working in the space since the early naughties, set up one of the first UX practices in the UK, and curates the longest running UX conference in Europe.
The field of UX started life as a small but emergent community of practice, on the fringes of conferences like SXSW and the IA Summit. It grew through the blogs of early pioneers, and through the work of consultancies like Adaptive Path and Clearleft. The community accreted around new conferences like UX Week and UX London, which, in their early years, attracted almost the entirety of the UX communities in their respective locations.
I would argue that the quality of innovation, the quality of discourse and the quality of change in the UX space peaked somewhere between 2008 and 2012. This for me could arguably be described as the golden age of UX.
As with any gold rush, news of the find spreads quickly, and as more people rush in to make their fortunes, resources get depleted. By the middle of teens, UX hyperinflation started to occur. Every freelancer and every agency added UX to their titles, without really understanding what the term meant. “UX Designer” featured in lists of the most in-demand new professions and recruiters rushed to fill the gap, with often disastrous effects. While the number of people who self identified as UX designers carried on climbing, a deep and detailed understanding of what UX actually was started to ebb away.
The meaning of UX got muddied. Was it the same as UI? Was it another name for interaction design? Where did strategy, research and IA fit in? UX vs UI memes started to form on Twitter, arguments erupted about the existence of unicorns, and seemingly nobody could agree on anything anymore.
For years I fought to maintain a clear definition of UX, one that linked back to the community of practice from which it sprang. However the tidal wave of misunderstanding and misrepresentation became too big to fight, so I eventually gave up trying. UX had become so watered down and misunderstood that popular perception no-longer represented the community I knew. I became resigned to the fact that meaning changes based on usage, and if the majority of people see UX as this lightweight blending of prototyping and UI, devoid of any deep research, awareness of business needs, or commercial imperative, so be it.
It was this latter sentiment that annoyed me about the “Golden Age” article. Criticising a discipline based on cargo-cult thinking. In-truth, UX has always taken account of business needs and market forces, while Lean start-up was little more than a reformation of user centred design for a business audience. As a result, the article was less about the golden age being over, and more the dawning realisation that they may have confused a badly drawn map with the territory.
It’s also worth noting that most people tend to associate a “golden age” with their formative years, whether it’s movies, musics, or the discovery of a new career. So it’s possible that the golden age may be over for some, but for others it’s just beginning.