Disciplines and Professionals

Jared Spool

September 7th, 2006

Lately, my inbox has had a whole lot of discussion about “who does what?”, when it comes to creating user experiences. Should information architects also be doing the usability work? Should usability professionals need to know how to code? Is anybody but an interaction designer really qualified to do design interactive interfaces?

I think some of this comes from a lack of understanding as to how we fit in and what is reasonable to expect from us. After all, these professions are new (compared to doctors and farmers, for example). We don’t have established ways to work yet.

I also think some of it comes from a sense that if we don’t carefully denote our territory, someone else is going to get it in some sort of intellectual land-grab. There’s a floating lack of insecurity about whether we’re appreciated and people understand what we can (and do) contribute. Many of us remember that, when things got tough a few years back, it was these positions that were the first to go. Are we doing what we need to protect ourselves from that in the future?

However, our recent research has lead me to believe that all this professional angst is actually a red herring. We’re focusing on the wrong question. The important question turns out not to be “Who does what?” Instead it needs to be “How are we going to get this done?” (‘This’ being ‘creating the user experience’.)

As part of this research, we’ve been talking to dozens of organizations. Some of these are really excellent at producing high-quality user/customer experiences. Some really struggle to get, what everyone agrees, are mediocre-at-best experiences. A major outcome of our discussion is this realization: you have to separate the notion of discipline from the notion of a professional.

Here’s how we’ve come to think of this:

  • Information Architecture is a discipline looking at how information should be organized.
  • Usability Practice is a discipline looking at how design effects behavior, which designs produce desired behaviors, and how to measure both the design and the behaviors.
  • Interaction Design is a discipline looking at the alternatives to design and how to apply them to different problems.

[You can have your own definitions for the above if you want, but that’s not my point, so let’s just go with mine, ok?]

In contrast:

  • Information Architects are people who practice and study information architecture.
  • Usability Professionals are people who practice and study usability practice.
  • Interaction Designers are people who practice and study interaction design.

What our research shows is creating a product or service does not require information architects, usability professionals, or interaction designers. There’s plenty of examples of excellent products and services that never had the attention of any of these professionals.

However, our research also shows that successfully creating a product or service does seem to require people who understand something about information architecture, usability practice, and interaction design. We have yet to find a single example of a team who has created a great user experience who lacked a fundamental understanding of these areas.

You can create a great user experience without having the professionals on the team, but not without having the understanding of the disciplines on the team. Employing a professional is one way to bring an understanding of the discipline, but, what we’re learning is, it’s not the only way.

When I think about it, this makes sense. Most of us learned how to do this work on our own. We read books, we talked to others who came before us, we studied the work that had been done. Our passion, our drive, and the opportunity to explore and experiment made us into the professionals we are today.

The teams that aren’t employing the professionals have team members doing the same thing. Not full time and not as a main part of their job. But they are still doing it. While it’s often haphazard and they make lots of mistakes a professional would have the experience to avoid, they still manage to succeed.

What we’re learning from all this is there is not just one way to compose a team destined to produce a successful result. Like most endeavors in life, there’s more than one way to accomplish it. Some will find the employment of professionals the best way to approach the problem. Others won’t.

The implications of all this are actually quite huge and mostly undiscussed anywhere:

  • When forming a team, how do you know if your team will require one or more professionals? Under what conditions can you go without? When would going without be a critical mistake? Understanding when we require on-staff professionals and when we don’t is really important.
  • If we have lots of “non-professionals” (for lack of a better moniker) practicing these disciplines, how do we transfer the basic knowledge to them? If our goal is really to make the world better, even if we’re not personally involved, how do we put our knowledge and experience out there for others?
  • How do we build better ways of measuring results? How does someone know when they’ve done a good job?

Personally, I think the responsibility of answering these questions really falls onto the professional support groups: the Information Architecture Institute, Usability Professionals Association, and Interaction Design Association. To do this, I feel they have to move past the if-you-don’t-hire-us-you’re-an-idiot attitude they tend to project and really start talking about the really hard questions we have before us.

In the meantime, these research findings, if they turn out to be accurate, tell us we have more flexibility to creating high-quality experiences than we first thought.
This is excellent news and I think points to the general trend that experiences are improving overall.

7 Responses to “Disciplines and Professionals”

  1. rhjr.net » Spreading the design virus Says:

    […] Jared Spool’s latest article “Disciplines and Professionals” posits that it doesn’t matter so much whether your team includes professional interaction designers, usability specialists, or information architects. What does matter is that the team members have some understanding of the core principles that make up each of these professions. […]

  2. UIE Brain Sparks » Blog Archive » Specialists vs. Generalists Says:

    […] As I mentioned yesterday, only some organizations will have the demand and resources to employ a staff of user experience professionals, such as information architects, usability professionals, and interaction designers. If your team is going to employ these folks, are you better off with specialists or generalists? […]

  3. Daniel Szuc Says:

    “What our research shows is creating a product or service does not require information architects, usability professionals, or interaction designers. There’s plenty of examples of excellent products and services that never had the attention of any of these professionals.”


    What are the qualities we see in both people and organisations who have embedded this thinking & culture to help launch successful products. Its not just usability, IA and IxD … what else is it? What are some examples of products that have been complete successes because of way the team operated?

  4. Gordon Montgomery Says:

    I think the “missing x factor” is being truly able to see the world as somebody else not sympathetically but empathetically and then acting consistently to please that person and their goals. In fact that guiding principle extends way beyond “good design” as far as a plan for “world peace”….maybe….

  5. Zephyr Says:

    It also depends on how wide you cast the UX net.

    In your definition, you have three disciplines closely centered around usable design (interaction design, information architecture, usability).

    I ususally include visual design (aesthetics) and tech or copy writing as well.

    One step further are things like customer support.

    I think the challenges to get these to align are bigger than within the IxD/IA/UE group.

  6. Charlie Nichols Says:

    Good post.
    Lots of defensiveness and elitism in this area, which I think is odd as we tend to all have very different backgrounds. Some of us have formal education, advanced degrees in variety of fields, some self-taught with practice/on-the-job and reading/reasearch… Some focus on user testing/observation, some visual design, some copy/content, some interaction and motion, some environment.

    Even if all of us aren’t specialists, (I’m more of a UX generalist/marketer) we are all after the same thing, and want to make software/hardware/experiences better…

    Can’t we just all get along? 😎

    We all really need to be evangelists to those “great unwashed masses”!

    Have a great day!

  7. Jared Spool Says:


    I only picked those three as examples. You’re right. There are a ton more.

    I’ll add it to my list of blog topics to talk about what falls under the UX tent.

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