Should UX Practitioners Be Licensed?

Posted By Debbie on February 28, 2018

This article is going around. “This Design Generation Has Failed” suggested that bad UX is hurting people… so maybe UX practitioners should be licensed.

I completely agree that bad UX sucks, hurts people, and can even kill people. I take his examples seriously.

Would licensing work? We license medical professionals.

I have met people who went through UX courses, graduated, and weren’t good UX designers (in my opinion). So if they can graduate and get certificates and diplomas, is licensing the problem?

And how about that dentist? When a dentist wants to make a decision about what to do with your rotting teeth, the manicurist next door doesn’t come in and overrule him. The UPS Store next to the dental office doesn’t come in and say no, if you gave him a crown instead of implants, we don’t meet our quarterly revenue goal… make him get implants.

Medical licensing isn’t a good analogue for the UX industry.

There are people with advanced degrees in UX who are being overruled, ignored, circumvented, and pushed aside at companies who favor business goals over user needs.

The problem lies in other areas:

  • Valuing the business over the user.
  • How much your org respects UX.
  • Who you hire to do UX work.

I’m working on a presentation now, so I think I’ll turn it into a slide…

You must value the user first for good UX.

Whenever people start talking about UX, Facebook is typically offered as an example of good and bad UX. Even the article to which I’m responding mentions Facebook and Twitter. One of his examples is how can these companies allow Russian bots, fake accounts, and all the advertising? It’s bad UX and it hurts people.

Yes it does. I know people personally hurt by these things so I agree. But does Facebook keep fake news flowing and keep Russian bots unchecked because they have a UX team that is FOR these things? It makes no sense to imagine that the bad user experience we are all living is because of UX designers who are so bad we need to see if they should be licensed.

Facebook’s bread is buttered by fake news and bots. This is why they keep pretending they’re working on it but really aren’t. They stand to lose an incredible amount of money in advertising. And if they cracked down on fake news, there are probably 30%+ of the USA that would be outraged that their “news sources” and article links aren’t allowed on Facebook. Facebook needs to show that there are people who will see your ads so it doesn’t want to alienate people.

We can’t blame UX designers for this since it’s unlikely that a UX team wanted this. This is the business valuing themselves and their ad dollars over the user experience. Or user safety in some of these cases. We should not blame UX designers for this. They are probably struggling enough being ignored at Facebook and other big companies.

Companies must put the user first, period. Yes, you want to meet revenue goals. But first do no harm. Don’t be evil. We must get back to putting user needs, habits, motivations, preferences, etc… FIRST. It’s barely UX without that. And trust that when you build a great product and solution for the right target audience, the revenue will come.

Does your company respect UX?

When companies have good UX designers but they are ignored, circumvented, overruled, etc… then who is the problem? Who needs the license? The UX designers might be doing a great job but their work may never see the light of day if the manager or someone from product, engineering, business analysis, etc… forces things to go in another direction.

I once spent two weeks fighting someone at a company who was insisting that when we show shoe sizes, we order them by how many products we have for that size. If we have more products for size 10, then size 10 comes before size 6. This also means that every product would have shoe sizes in a different order. You’d always be hunting for your size in a jumbled list of sizes.

This isn’t super evil. But it took me TWO WEEKS of fighting to get her to give up and allow shoe sizes to go in size order. I had to be tenacious. She probably thinks I’m a bitch. If I had to go through that to get shoe sizes in size order, it’s the tip of the iceberg at companies around the world. Imagine the person trying to design an interface where someone doesn’t see fake news.

I’ve worked at places where engineering has told me that UX is a black box. We go away for weeks or longer. We come back with something they should design. We obviously want to derail the project! We take all this time and to do what? Draw boxes on a screen? They can do that without us.

I’ve been invited to project kick off meetings on a Tuesday that asked for final wireframes for Thursday. These people clearly have no idea what UX is or what we do in our process. And now what? I have two days because that’s what they planned in their timeline. If I want to take longer, I must be some black box that wants to hold up or derail the project.

UX is still heavily misunderstood and disrespected. Companies must value UX and must make sure workers at all levels know to value UX and the practitioners. Some of us suck, sure, but some of us are experienced, educated experts who can really solve problems and delight people while meeting appropriate biz goals.

Who are companies hiring?

I once had the CEO of a small ad agency where I was working yell at me that he had NO idea why he hired me when he can get wireframes from his junior graphic designers.

Maybe that’s who is designing things. Maybe that’s where a lot of bad UX is coming from… people who are not educated in UX, not experienced, and most importantly, not naturally talented at UX.

Or maybe it’s people without empathy, people who aren’t able to put themselves into the shoes, mind, eyes, hands, etc… of the user and use the product from their perspective.

And when your UX job description requires expert visual design, typography, etc… you are eliminating anybody who is a UX specialist and not an amazing artist.

If most graphic designer jobs required you to show an extensive UX design portfolio with wireframes, prototypes, customer journey maps, IA diagrams, and process flows, we’d miss out on a lot of talented artists. Why do this to UX jobs?

The hybrid that is truly, deeply talented in UX and in visual design is rare. They are widely called purple unicorns. Very often when I meet UX hybrids, they are artists who are sure that because they work on screens, they are UX designers. They can be defensive and they are sure they do what I do. When I ask them their process they tell me they make wireframes. That’s like asking a chef his process and he says, “I put salt on things.” Yes, some great artists are great UX designers, but that’s nearly as rare as the purple unicorn.

Additionally, if you are hiring mostly juniors (to save money) then people who are hopefully talented but low on experience are designing your product. I find that many juniors, even talented ones, haven’t yet developed the soft skills to be comfy standing up to other people. Good UX practitioners need to go to bat for the customer. This often means standing up, on your own, to colleagues, other teams, and sometimes leadership. It’s like being a mini lawyer fighting for your client. Not everybody is comfy with that.

Juniors need mentoring and support. I see so many companies hiring juniors and throwing them in the deep end. They get no mentoring. Sometimes there isn’t another UX senior or specialist to help them or review their work. We have to do better by these people.

The author is lacking empathy for the real situation.

By blaming UX practitioners and UX teams for the bad UX out there, the author of the original article is lacking empathy for the reality of many UX jobs.

When companies don’t respect UX, everything suffers and that’s not the UX practitioner’s fault. When other teams and departments don’t respect what UX does, then decisions are made to exclude, circumvent, or ignore what UX designers create.

When companies hire people who are not deeply talented, that cuts away more at respect. If I worked somewhere where there were junior UX designers or other roles trying to do UX tasks, I too would probably lose respect for UX and UX workers. It also teaches people HEY we can throw these tasks at anybody! OK but would you have anybody at your company do the graphic design?

When companies squash good UX, who should be licensed? Hey, I did my best but I was circumvented and overruled.

There are serious problems in the UX industry and they haven’t improved yet. While this article seems to shine a light in a bit of the wrong area, perhaps it will open important conversations about how companies view UX and how they hire.

User experience must be user-centered. It sounds ridiculous but we must get back to that. Licensing doesn’t make you good at something. People with driving licenses crash every day. Physicians with medical licenses do bad things here and there. We must take UX practices more seriously.

I believe when the author talks about licensing, he really means accountability. There should be more accountability for bad UX, especially UX that hurts or kills people. But I wouldn’t point the finger at the individual UX practitioner. There is so much process, so many layers at even small companies, before something ends up in a product.