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UX Design is a science, not an art

In a now-deleted article, UX Launchpad said this:

The design community is full of great people who care deeply. But too often, that passion for design makes designers look self-important, arrogant, and aloof.

The Hipper Element tells us that user experience design is a science, not an art.

Most UX professionals would agree, but as I write this, I'm a junior designer frantically learning everything he can about UX. I've noticed that people more experienced than me like to write things that feel good, but don't help me to do good. The sort of writing I'm talking about treats UX design as more art than science.

I've been designing for months, not years, and I've got a lot to learn. My old boss, a copywriter, said that the main reason he got ahead was this:

Hardly anybody studies. I started studying what works and what doesn't even before I got my first advertising job. I have never stopped. Eventually I was able to sell my own agency for millions.

When I was given a chance to try my hand at UX design, I remembered this advice. I started studying, and I haven't stopped.

My absolute favourite design writing is the stuff that's very direct, like this paragraph from Universal Principles of Design:

The waist-to-hip ratio has design implications for the depiction of the human form. When the presentation of attractive women is a key element of a design, use renderings or images of women with waist-to-hip ratios of approximately 0.70. When the presentation of attractive men is a key element of a design, use renderings or images of men with waist-to-hip ratios of approximately 0.90, strong male features, and visible indicators of wealth or status (e.g., expensive clothing).

This knowledge is so useful because you can put it to use immediately, and it gets results.

Some of what I read, though, is less direct, and less useful to a beginner like me. Take this excerpt from the fantastic 52 Weeks of UX:

In places both private and public, social and separate, consumers are navigating frameworks that we put forth. We're no longer telling the whole story, creating the whole experience for our users, we're suggesting it. We're not rulemakers, we're makers of frames, wherever those frames happen. Stalwart as ever in vision, we set loose boundaries, and give over part of the product to our audience, giving way to new stories and behaviors.

The person who wrote this has probably forgotten more about design than I currently know, and what they're saying is probably true. But this way of writing about design doesn't really help someone who is trying to learn. It's not easily accessible.

It doesn't give advice that I can put into practice right now. It doesn't provide examples to drag the theory back to Earth and ground it in reality.

Instead, it feels like it's written for people who have already learned most of what they need to know to be a good designer. It feels like an attempt to take a science and make it into an art. Writing like this feels good to read, and it probably felt very good to write. Partly this is because it makes design feel more mysterious, and who doesn't like mystery?

The problem is that I can't use it to do good. I can't tell my manager that we changed all of the button labels on our dialogue boxes because "consumers are navigating frameworks that we put forth".

Mainly because I'm not sure I know what it means, so I can guarantee my manager won't either.

It might sound like I'm saying that there's no place for this sort of writing, especially for junior designers. That's not what I mean. I'm not saying there's no place for theory, or art, or beautiful writing in UX design. Frank Chimero's The Shape of Design is a shameless look at the philosophy of design. It's a wonderful book, and I read it very soon after I became a designer.

What I am saying is that as a learner, as someone who's passionate about design and wants to become the best I can, this kind of inaccessible writing makes design feel like an exclusive club. Like something I can't be a part of, because it's hard to understand.

One of the great things about science is that if someone takes the time, they can repeat the steps that were taken before and get the same result. That's why I think UX design is a science, and not an art: Because we should be sharing our knowledge in a way that lets anyone understand it quickly. That way, more people can discover the beauty of design.

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