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UX Design is a science, not an art

I read this today in a short article written by a member of the UX Launchpad team:

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.

I believe, as this article over at The Hipper Element shouts, that user experience design is a science, not an art.

Most UX professionals would agree, but as someone who's frantically learning everything he can about UX to get better, I've noticed that people like to write things that feel good, but don't easily translate to doing good. It's the sort of writing that is more art than science.

I'm not a good designer. I've been doing this for months, not years, and I've got a lot to learn. My old boss, who's 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.

I remembered this when I was given a chance to design software, so I started studying and haven't stopped.

I read a lot of what other designers have written about how to design. Some of it is blissfully 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).

Some of it is less so, like this excerpt from the mostly-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.

What they're saying is probably true. The person who wrote this has probably forgotten more about design than I currently know. But this philosophical way of writing about design doesn't really help someone who is trying to learn.

It doesn't give advice that I can put into practice right now. Nor does it 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 elevate a science to an art. As I said before, this feels good to read, and it probably felt very good to write. 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 boss that we changed all of the button labels on our dialogue boxes because "consumers are navigating frameworks that we put forth".

Mainly because I don't know what that means.

I want to be clear: 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, and it's a wonderful book.

Instead, I'm saying that as a learner, as someone who's passionate about design and wants to become the best I can, this kind of aloof writing makes design feel exclusive, like something I can't achieve.

The beauty of science is that if someone takes the time, they can repeat the steps and get the same result. When someone can't understand the steps because they're written in a way that makes them hard to put into practice, it's bad science, surely?

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