There is no “real UX”

spoon

I’m all about hypotheses these days. Here’s one: The misguided concept of “real UX” holds us back from doing actual UX.

What’s “real UX,” you ask?

“Real UX” is the golden ideal of user experience design that everyone else is doing except me. It’s personas and user research and card sorting and customer interviews and usability testing—all the techniques and tools that we hear about at conferences and in articles and blog posts and books, that we never get to do ourselves because:

  • Our companies don’t think it’s important
  • Our clients don’t want to pay for it
  • There isn’t enough time
  • We’re not allowed to talk to customers
  • [Insert other excuse here]

If I’ve learned one thing in the past several years it’s this: No one is doing “real UX.” Everyone is doing some bodged together approximation, and everyone feels like they’re not doing it properly.

Don’t believe me? Over the past year, I’ve interviewed a dozen UX candidates for jobs at my company—many of whom had more than 10 years of experience. I asked almost all of them whether they’d ever done personas, because we are struggling to do them despite having plenty of resources. To a man and woman, they either sheepishly said, “no,” or they said, “yes, but they weren’t real personas.”

What the hell are real personas? Why are we so hung up on this?

It’s as if there’s a Platonic form of UX floating just out of reach, taunting us with its purity. But instead of being a goal, it’s a symbol of our failure. Instead of motivating us to try harder, it makes us afraid to start at all.

I wish I learned this when I was doing graphic design. There’s so much envy in graphic design because it seems like everyone else is working on cooler, higher-profile projects with better photography. Instead of being clever and doing the most with the resources I had, I’d make excuses: “Oh, sure,” I would say to myself, “if I had a gorgeous photograph like that to work with, I could do great design, too.”

I never stopped to consider how the other designer got that great photograph. Maybe she snapped it herself. Maybe she begged a photographer friend to do it on the cheap. Maybe she gave away budget on other parts of the project to splurge on a superb image. Maybe she found the perfect image and paid for it herself, knowing she couldn’t bill the client.

Don’t let the myth of “real UX” stop you from doing the most within whatever constraints you face. If you can only test the prototype on your mother or your neighbor, so be it. If you have to rely on third-hand customer information from your sales staff, so be it. If you have to bribe strangers with lattes at your local Starbucks to participate in card sorting, so be it. We have all been there. No one will think less of you or disparage your efforts, as long as you’re trying.