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What's (not) in a Name

I solve design problems. Sometimes I use hi-res mockups, sometimes I use wireframes. I always use empathy. I always strive to understand the user and design against their needs.

What am I? What should I call myself?

A User Interface Designer? Maybe a User Experience Designer? No, an Information Architect! A Human Factors Engineer? Is there a meaningful difference between these titles? What should we call themselves? Nanas and Bubbes kvell over doctors and lawyers; why don’t our parents and grandparents know what we do for a living? Why don’t we know what our name is?

A few years ago at the Idea Conference, I heard an answer that was so good I’ve been quoting it ever since (and it’s come up even more now that the words “agile” and “lean” appear so frequently). It was a two-day conference, and the keynote speaker got sick and was unable to close the conference on the final day. Instead, the organizers asked all the speakers to come up and do a roundtable Q&A with the audience. Attendees lined up at the microphone, and the first question rang out:

What should we call ourselves? User Interface Designers? User Experience? Information Architects? Who are we?!

This was a plea to our elders and wisers to shed some light on our very identity as a community. Each and every one of them—designers, speakers, luminaries—froze in panic. All but one.

The outsider stood up. Michael Wesch (of “The Machines are Us/ing Us” fame) grabbed the mic: “Let me take this one.” He went on to say:

I’m not a designer, but as an anthropologist, I can give you perspective on your community. I don’t know whether ‘UXer’ or ‘UI Designer’ is a better designation, but I can tell you this: as long as there’s debate over what to call yourselves, your very identity, your community is vibrant. The moment you agree on your name, your frozen and a known quantity—and ready to be commodified.

Every time someone asks me “what should we call ourselves?” I tell that story. I love being part of a community that is vibrant. I embrace the questions and challenges and learnings that keep us, for now, impervious to commodification. And I still hope I’ll figure out a way to explain to my grandmother what exactly it is that I do all day.

  1. […] Check it out, and let me know what you think in the comments! […]

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