A Thoroughly Impolite Dustup

July 10, 2014 No comments Tags:

Updated: Robert removed the post that catalyzed this post, along with others to retune his blog to one that doesn’t talk UX design industry. I can respect that, but decided to leave my own response in place because the issue of professionalism continues to haunt our industry, and it’s one I feel strongly about.

I really wasn’t ready for what followed when I noticed #uxbrawl on Twitter yesterday and followed the thread to Robert Hoekman Jr’s painful screed about Whitney Hess. The post is incredibly hard to read, but when I wasn’t overwhelmed by the anger I could understand his complaint, especially about Whitney’s post where she drew a stark line around what UX is and is not with an absolutist bent.

Whitney’s post was easy to shake off as something where I found some good points but disagreed with the posturing. Robert’s post is impossible to shake off, but contains valid points amid the vitriol. But neither post did a lick of good for our profession or the higher cause that many of us take to heart, to make technology better for people. So why am I writing about this at all? To me, the whole thing is about professionalism.

Our profession is one that’s grown organically, wildly even, in the churn of electric heat, money, passion and possibility that is interactive technology. Our profession is young, barely adolescent, and it shows. We erect and tear down idols of terminology and methods with alarming speed and ferocity. What’s in, what’s out? One week you’re told you should be doing wireframes for everything, the next you’re told wireframes are dead, and are made to feel your career is, too, unless you’re doing the next hot thing. How do we make it out of professional puberty in one piece?

The Part Where I Sound Like an Old Crank

There is no formal certification for UX professional. There is no standards body. And there’s often no professionalism. There’s nothing objective that separates good from bad. There’s nothing objective that even tries. That lack of boundary is unusual for a profession that wields so much power. Not political power, but the kind that shapes the tools that the rest of society uses. Architects, electricians, engineers, lawyers, and many other professions police themselves with some formality to protect their customers as well as themselves.

We as UX professionals don’t do this, and as such we have power that is largely unchecked and poorly understood even by those who hire us. We are the curators of countless future moments for people we’ll never meet, and our decisions add up by the second to hours and days of productivity gained or lost, and relationships nurtured or marred. That lack of formal checks lets us be agile, but what’s good for speed and adaptation in terra incognito also makes it hard to grow up and give up certain freedoms.

Both Whitney’s and Robert’s posts, I think, are reactions to the lack of standards and a sense of professionalism in an industry with considerable if underestimated influence. Whitney knows how she likes to work, but overstepped dramatically by asserting her preferences as canonical practice for UX. She figuratively offered The One True Way, and those who followed it would be “True UX.” I suspect Robert started from a legitimate gripe about that assertion, but it festered and erupted in a shocking and intensely personal attack. Without the boundaries and buffers of standards and certification, these are some of the extremes that the mind and heart can go to.

Buried in Robert’s complaint is a despair of the hero worship that online tools make easy to build and amplify. I totally get that, but we have to implicate any audience that takes the latest hot thing and parrots and deploys without critical examination or reflection. Like many I’m also fatigued by the web-celeb hero worship, but it’s indefensible to suggest that Jeffrey Zeldman and other champions of good practice have pulled a Hypno Toad on the masses, making them love Whitney’s or other people’s posts. Some people like her bravado; I don’t, but so what. Those preferences shouldn’t motivate us to instantly separate into camps of Team Robert and Team Whitney, because doing so is getting us nowhere.

A friend mentioned on Twitter that what went down felt like growing pains, and I think that’s right. Somewhere between it all is an emerging realization that we have to settle on some things for a while rather than trying to reinvent and redefine as if tomorrow is the day the last work on UX will be written. I mentioned standards and certification, and I’m pretty serious in thinking that those things are needed. How would they happen? Who decides? I have no clue how to start such things, but I don’t want to leave it just to people who make a living of lecturing others that whatever they’re doing, they’re probably doing it wrong.

We know how to provoke each other. We know how to knock each other down. What we need to learn is how to have more mature discussions about good practices, and in the meantime stop trying to divide and conquer ourselves so messily. It’s just not professional.

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