User experience architecture

July 31, 2009

Practitioner or consultant?

There’s a lively existential debate around job titles in our industry. The UPA (Usability Professionals Association) distinguishes practitioners, designers, architects and managers:

  • User Experience Practitioner
  • Interface Designer
  • Usability Practitioner
  • User-Centered Design Practitioner
  • Information Architect
  • Usability Manager

Slingshot has an elegant mindmap around these disciplinary and philosophical perspectives:

  • Human factors engineering
  • User interface design
  • Interaction design
  • Experience design
  • Human computer interaction
  • Information architecture
  • User-Centred design
  • Usability

Russ Wilson, reported in Usability news explores permutations of prefixes and suffixes.

Prefix Rank (Most preferred to least):

1. User Experience
2. Interaction
3. User Interface
4. Usability
5. Web
6. Other

Suffix Rank (most preferred to least)

1. Designer
2. Architect
3. Engineer
4. Developer
5. Other

While I recognize these distinctions as a helpful focus for reflection, my clients and IT collaborators are generally confused by this nuanced differentiation of role. In practice, I expect any competent practitioner in our field to have a “T-shaped” skill set. That means a good coverage¬† of interaction design and information architecture grounded in HCI theory and UCD methodology – complemented with some in-depth expertise on a more specialised area. For example, they might be highly skilled in design for mobile, evaluation methods, user-interface standards or ethnography.

A curious omission from these lists is the suffix “consultant”. However, a quick survey of the jobs pages shows many opportunities for “user experience consultants”, “usability consultants” and “human factors consultants.” Is this term just a casual honorific, an attempt to win some respect for a discipline sometimes perceived as a risk or an overhead?¬† Perhaps not; in my experience of delivering user experience both as a practitioner and in a consulting environment, I see some real differences in scope, focus and style.

Management consultancy at its best enables clients to excel at whatever it is they do – whether that business is customer-friendly retail banking, the safe operation of a process industry or the accessible delivery of local government services. At their best, consultants empathize with this journey, seeing the design not as an end in itself but as a tool crafted to a transformational purpose.

So, rigorously distilled from a dozen lively conversations in conference breakouts, lunch queues and hotel bars, here are some shameless generalisations and tentative distinctions.

Consultants and practitioners

Consultants and practitioners

Classically, practitioners tend to focus on the end user, acting as advocates for their interests and designing as a conscious response to their characteristics, tasks and environment. Consultants often take a broader inspiration, seeing direct users as one group within an extended ecology of stakeholders with interlinked goals and interests within a proposed business or social change.

Practitioners are typically invited to develop a specific set of work products such as user requirements, wireframes, interface specifications and test reports. Consultants frequently have a deeper (and longer) involvement, engaging with thought leaders, contributing to strategy, and collaborating with architects and developers to convoy the design through the hazards of the project.

As the chart suggests, there is plenty of overlap in this model. In practice, many of us do vary our style to meet the demands of our clients and projects.

What’s your view? Are the terms consultant and practitioner simple synonyms? Do you see a distinction in terms of motivation, responsibilities and methodology?

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