Industry vocabulary, or how to get wound up over nothing

"We steal all our vocabulary because our industry is new" - Marco Arment, Webstock, about 31:40 into the video.

A friend found this in the BBC Tech section yesterday, and one paragraph stuck out like a red rag to a bull:

"User experience designers are the digital equivalent of architects," says Andy Budd, the managing director of web agency Clearleft, based in Brighton, England.

"Just as architects are crafting the physical world around you, user experience designers are doing the same with the digital landscape you use every single day."

My first reaction, and a number of other people's, to this was almost out of a pantomime:

ooooooooh no they are not!

Really, that was a two fold reaction. First was a reaction to someone outside of software development "taking" the title, and the other was possibly a reaction to various bad experiences with people who called themselves "UX whatevers" (practitioners, designers, architects etc).

I'm going to avoid going into why I don't think that UX people are "digital architects", being that most I've come across are closer to digital interior designers at worst, and useful and valuable team members at best (not unlike developers or software architects who can be useless or useful depending on who it is).

Plus it would get very, very rant-y, and there isn't much point, because like any pissing match or religious argument, no one is about to change their mind and concede.

I think, however, the core problem is two-fold.

First, even if Andy doesn't think he is a "digital architect",** I'm not sure how else he would have described what he does to a journalist**. Actually, I'm not sure how he'd describe what he does in terms I'd fully understand, and I work in almost the same space as he does!

I tried explaining it to a journalist once, and with the exception of the likes of Juha, it's hard slog. Try explaining the intricacies of genetics, aeronautics or another deep profession to a lay person. Not going to happen. Analogies and linguistic short cuts have to be made, and those fall down very quickly under any sort of scrutiny, especially if the terms are borrowed.

To be honest, I'm glad I don't know any actual architects, because I'd hate to think of what their opinion of us is: we (UX or dev) don't go thru the training they do - 7-12 years before they actually get to do something on their own! Most people I know in dev or UX haven't been in the industry that long. In a lot of senses, our entire industry hasn't been around that long.

The second appears to be that we have stolen the "architect" title from building design, and stuck it at the top of the pile. It's become the top "goal" that everyone strives to (well, a lot of people). The software development crowd - of which I am one - has taken it, and used it as the top tier, after "senior developer"*. The data people have taken it and we end up with "information architect", and it looks like the UX crowd have it now, and so we get "UX Architect" or "Digital Architect".

"Prior to modern times, there was no distinction between architects, engineers and often artists, and the title used varied depending on geographical location." - wikipedia

I think this quote really takes it. Software - design, development or any other part - is very much "before modern times". This industry is, at most, 40 years old, and really, only 10-15 years old (ie the internet era). We are still at the point where anyone can claim to be anything, and only has to prove it by doing it (which is a good thing).

That is compounded by not being able to explain any of it to the people with the money - and there is always someone else who is willing to do it for less, so "why should I hire you with your expensive architect, when these guys will do the same thing for 75% of the cost?". I can't see that happening in building: "nah, just put the house up, we don't need it designed first, it'll hold up I'm sure.... besides, I only have 25k for this project, I can't afford to pay someone to design it properly".

Software - any type or aspect of it - has a very long way to go. We definitely need to come up with our own terms soon, which have less leaky analogies, or we'll end up in a mess. Actually, in a lot of ways, we are already in that mess, but at least a lot of people are talking and thinking about it, rather than ignoring it.

  • I have some specific, if slightly out-of-date, thoughts on that here and here. Read with some salt, and remember it was written nearly 2 years ago.
Nic Wise

Nic Wise

Auckland, NZ