One of the most common misunderstandings that Tobias Komischke has to clear up is also the most fundamental. UX design, he often finds himself explaining, is not just about cosmetics.
It happened — again — just days before we spoke. Komischke, a UX fellow at Infragistics, had struck up a conversation with a budding entrepreneur at the gym. After learning Komischke’s profession, the entrepreneur went on at length about needing to spiffy up his own mockup, to impress any potential investors he may happen upon.
“The longer he spoke, the more I realized he was just focused on making it pretty ... but not much about showing the right things to the right audience in the right way,” Komischke said.
It mirrored simplifications that Komischke has had to address in the workplace, too. Stakeholders may desire a bit of contemporary aesthetic seasoning from the design department, but sometimes bristle at questions about the underlying architecture. “And exactly that questioning is the UX part,” he said.
9 Commonly Misused UX Design Terms
- User experience
- User testing
- Customer experience
- Frictionless and seamless
- Inclusive design
- Participatory design
Maybe it’s inevitable that, if user experience itself should be misunderstood, some of its related terminology would suffer the same fate.
With that in mind, we asked a few experts to cite other frequently misused design terms that might be worth clarifying. Rather than nitpicking, we tried to focus on terms and phrases whose misuse can — and sometimes does — lead to costly crossed wires. Some are technical, others are more general or conceptual. Some are terms that people might understand literally, but tend to misapply in practice. But all of them are worth thinking about more precisely.
This term creates confusion, Komischke said, because it implies that people are somehow being tested, rather than products. That may sound like a fussy distinction, but it could actually be consequential since putting users at ease is crucial during testing. So anything that might even imply that users’ abilities or intelligence is under the microscope is counterproductive at best and harmful at worst.
“Calling it user testing really defeats the whole purpose,” he said.
Komischke much prefers usability testing, for the process of testing the actual application, or user research, when referring to the process of learning about users, building personas and defining problems. Sometimes those processes blur into one another, especially in organizations without dedicated usability testers and user researchers, which might increase the risk of the two collapsing into “user testing.”
“But I would still maintain, at the time of usability testing, it’s not the user you are so much interested in, it’s actually the product,” he said. So try to differentiate research and usability testing as much as possible — in practice and in reference.
Customer experience and user experience are often used interchangeably. But that can lead to real confusion, especially in B2B contexts, where an application user isn’t necessarily the one who bought the product.
Caleen Alexanderson is a senior UX researcher at Boston-based insurtech company Duck Creek Technologies. The company has three layers of people using their product: the purchasing customer, which is usually an insurance company; the configuration users, who install and customize the product suite; and the end users, or the people working in those insurance companies, who use the software to process claims and billing.
Each experience is unique, with its own library of personas, but none exist in a vacuum. “So when I hear, ‘We have to improve the customer experience,’ well, there are all these little user experiences that make up customer experience,” Alexanderson said.
Alexanderson recommends organizations be precise about this point to ensure that signals aren’t crossed between the UX department and the sides of the house that trade most in high-level customer personas, like marketing and sales. She put together a short slide-deck presentation to help clarify the meaning throughout the company — something that others in similar situations may find useful.
Terms and phrases that are more conceptual tend to invite room for misinterpretation, according to Maya Stern, a former designer and product developer who is now head of marketing and PR at London-based UX firm Creative Navy.
Stern pointed to the fact that consistency is often oversimplified to just mean visual consistency — the same color palette throughout a website, or using the same amount of padding or micro-copy across an application. “But it can also refer to the fact that identical elements should work in the same way across the design, so that the user doesn’t have to wonder what would happen if they press a certain button,” she said.
Alexanderson said that flattening interpretations of consistency are common and should be guarded against. But the concept also shouldn’t be misunderstood in a way that hinders useful variation, she added. Most of the different applications in Duck Creek’s product suite, for example, include tables, since all of the end users rely heavily on scheduling. But depending on whether those end users are working on policies, claims or billing, some feature specs for those tables — filtering options, for instance — are subtly different.
“We want to have a consistent interaction with those tables to a degree, but the variation in that consistency is due to the specific personas of need,” she said.
Frictionless and Seamless
Frictionless and seamless are also sometimes considered beyond criticism.
No one is arguing that we deprioritize usability, of course. Rather, the mistake that seamlessness should always be a blanket goal risks creating a disconnect between the user and the purpose of the application.
“Sometimes it’s very important for the community of use to understand the intent or what’s behind the curtain of the technology,” said Matthew Jordan, executive creative director at Artefact.
Artefact specializes in healthcare technology and has worked on applications that help patients manage chronic conditions, like migraines and diabetes. Getting the correct information in the correct order and fashion from users is paramount not only to help the patient manage their health, but also in establishing and maintaining trust. Expectations and levels of transparency differ across industries and contexts. It’s important to recognize that, in certain circumstances, a bit of thoughtful friction becomes beneficial.
But even in instances where reducing friction makes sense, don’t fall into the old three-click myth when trying to achieve it. Komischke said that his years of experience in usability testing underscore that users don’t mind having to click more than three times as long as the movement logic coheres to their expectations. So don’t try to cram your complex information architecture into an arbitrarily short flow in the name of seamlessness.
When design laypeople use the term navigation, oftentimes they’re actually referring to just a header menu or title bar. Or they might mean the underlying information architecture of the application. Either way, it fails to capture the full scope of the navigational UI elements at play, which in turn means details might get lost in translation.
“Sometimes it’s a struggle to make stakeholders understand the different levels of navigation and how to make it intuitive for the end user,” said Alexanderson. That’s especially true when trying to explain movement from global navigation (a site- or app-wide navigation bar) to local navigation (a page or category navigation breakdown) to tertiary navigation (a list of sub-categorical options), she added.
Because Duck Creek’s insurance clientele traffics in a complex, information-dense industry, the UX team often uses mega menus to make options clearer. But regardless of the solution, it’s important to define each layer precisely.
The tech industry’s penchant for disruption is hardly isolated within UX, but it can have particularly dire consequences here. That’s not because the term is necessarily misused literally — although defining what exactly constitutes disruption can be tricky business. But it can needlessly foster a fixation on destruction, according to Jordan.
He recalled a “disruption”-bent agriculture client from years ago. The company wanted to overhaul the interface on one of its mobile farming vehicles and was infatuated with the idea of making it “the iPhone of” farming equipment interiors. But Artefact realized the client’s vision would introduce a host of issues around safety, driver attention and crop health. They were able to convince the client to avoid novelty for its own sake and instead think more critically about what the farmers needed from the interface, and how to support those needs.
In addition to potentially shortchanging users, disruption also implies a need for shortcuts over organic product evolution, Jordan added. That’s why Artefact prefers “preferable future” — a phrase borrowed from futures studies, which considers three alternatives for how things could unfold: possible, probable and preferable.
“[I]t acknowledges the longer timeline in which real change happens and it’s inclusive of more stakeholder groups,” said Jordan.
The design community remains in the midst of an overdue reckoning to make the practice more inclusive, from the movement to decolonize design to establishing communities for equitable human-centered design. Still, inclusivity is often defined as a box to check, according to Jordan. “Inclusion isn’t just, ‘Oh, we talked to one extra person who has a slightly different background than everybody else, and now we can say it’s inclusive,’” he said.
Jordan, of Artefact, and Alexanderson, of Duck Creek Technologies, both said UX inclusivity pushes at their firms remain works in progress. But Jordan pointed to the U.S. Digital Response’s inclusion guidelines and Microsoft’s accessibility work as notable examples that companies can use to help signpost their efforts. And Alexanderson recommends taking the time and effort to ensure persona libraries include historically marginalized groups.
“We must collectively, as designers, use the word [inclusive] with true intention and an understanding of the investment that action entails,” said Jordan.
A similar complication plays out in the framework known as participatory design, or as its also known, co-design. The approach emphasizes welcoming affected communities into the design process, to democratically participate.
“It’s really [about] working with communities in a way that you’re designing with them instead of designing for them,” said Jordan.
But it’s not uncommon for firms to misinterpret that in practice. Participatory design means retooling the design process and accounting for power dynamics, so that communities can have meaningful participation in each design phase, rather than, for example, merely requesting lightweight feedback only at periodic intervals, Jordan said. Watered-down versions risk “participation-washing” — or worse.
As Sasha Costanza-Chock wrote in Design Justice, participatory design “has sometimes (at worst) been reduced to an extractive process to gather new product ideas.”
The design community is still working out how to best formalize a truly participatory design process. But one tool that might be useful, Costanza-Chock writes, is a design-adapted version of Sherry Arnstein’s ladder of citizen participation, to map the degree of participation, from weak to strong, across each phase.
While some reductive interpretations of participatory design may sadly be intentional, people more often mishandle design terms because of innocent inexperience, according to Stern, of Creative Navy. So it’s important to be patient and maintain a helpful, gentle tone if something needs to be corrected. Misuse tends to be “a sign of their genuine interest and lack of experience,” Stern said. “It takes time to work out the terminology and apply it successfully in practice.”