Why the UX design world doesn’t need experts

Most people would feel flattered to hear others refer to them as an ‘expert’ or a ‘genius’ in their field of work: it’s typically something we all strive for. A genius is someone who is exceptionally intelligent or someone with exceptional skill in a particular area of activity. An expert is also someone who is very knowledgeable about or skilful in a particular area. On the face of it, they sound like someone who you would want on your team. Right?

But when you look at what experts and geniuses do and what the words really mean, they just don’t feel right when it comes to our particular sphere of operation – creating great user experiences. In fact, it could be argued that they actually go against the whole ethos of what UX design seeks to achieve.

We’re detail-oriented at Heroic, especially when it comes to UX philosophies and thinking, and as much as we are able, we want to do everything the right way. We constantly try to mix together the perfect blend of science, art and cognitive thinking. We stand for creative, collaborative thinking and design that is based on user insight and validation, not designs that are created in isolation.

As you can probably tell, we’re pretty passionate about this topic. That’s why we’re urging businesses to stop and consider things deeply before using so-called experts to create their designs, and instead go back to their users again and again to find out what they truly want. It makes sense in so many ways, especially at a commercial level. And all too often we have seen (and been called upon to resolve) the results of designing in isolation. Not pretty.

UX Expert

Why we dislike experts and geniuses

Here are just eight reasons for how we feel about experts:

1. Experts go against what UX design is all about

When you bestow the title of ‘expert’ or ‘genius’ on a user experience designer, in many ways it essentially goes against the grain of exactly what UX seeks to offer. UX done right is very similar to the scientific method, in that it revolves around formulating a hypothesis and then testing it on your users to validate (or invalidate) that hypothesis.

On the other hand, experts or geniuses are typically called upon to use their academic experience to create something, drawing on their skills and knowledge in a field that they know a lot about. This way of working works just fine for digital developers, who typically create products out of complex collections of code, but it’s not the same in the field of UX, as we gain our knowledge from the users, drawing on various insights to find out how they interact and feel about the product or service they’re using. The customer is king. For example, what would happen if a scientist said that their hypothesis was correct simply because they had deep experience in the field? I don’t think that would fly for a minute. And that’s the case for UX design. We need to make sure that what we do is validated by the user, not by our own expert knowledge or experience.

2. UX experts think they know more than your users

There’s a term we often use at Heroic, called ‘genius design’ or ‘expert design’. We use it to refer to designing a system or website or app in isolation, where a designer bases their decisions on best practice, intuition, experience and expertise without significant external input. Although this might work for certain circumstances, where the problem is a simple one with limited options for solutions, this is definitely not our preferred methodology.

This way of working implies that creative geniuses can design a digital product for your users without involving your users, and as you can imagine this way of working is almost always subjective. At Heroic we make every attempt to avoid this, instead favouring designs that are led by deep user research and understanding. Our belief is that no one knows what your users want more than your users, even if they are an expert. And time after time, in almost every interaction and interview we have when researching, we are surprised by the many insights users uncover for us: insights we would invariably have missed if we had relied on pure expertise.

If you don’t talk to your customers, how will you know how to talk to your customers? ~Will Evans, Chief Design Officer at Jonah

3. People don’t trust experts

Experts have been getting a bad rap for quite a while now: they’re often seen as stuffy, self-centred, narcissistic eccentrics, whose predictions seem to miss the mark more often than not.

Experts got hit hard during the EU referendum (Brexit), when various politicians simply said people had had enough of experts. A YouGov poll on the Brexit decision, showed two-thirds of Leave supporters thought “it’s wrong to rely too much on so-called experts”. Trust and information overload seemed to be the biggest issues here. And let’s not get started on the ‘expert’ opinion we’ve all heard over the years when it comes to predicting financial recessions…

4. The way experts speak can put people off

It can be quite confronting and confusing when someone uses jargon, acronyms and words that you don’t hear everyday, especially when they’re trying to explain something to you. (Read more about our view on acronyms and jargon in UX.) Lots of experts and geniuses use language and words that people find hard to understand, and many say this puts people’s noses out of joint. It’s unnecessarily convoluted and undermines concise, accessible communication.

Decades ago Dean Simonton, a psychologist at the University of California said he thought brilliant leaders’ words may simply go over people’s heads, their solutions could be more complicated to implement and followers might find it harder to relate to them. Now new research from Simonton on leadership shows that leaders with an IQ above 120 are perceived as less effective, regardless of actual performance and to change this they need to speak more charismatically.

Dr Julia Shaw, a psychological scientist (UCL), says the reason people see experts as untrustworthy and self-centered is because of how they speak. In an article published in the Independent she says, “Using words and phrases that most people don’t understand in everyday conversation and through the media can be seen as an elitist attempt to assert intellectual dominance. So experts: if you want to gain the public’s trust, step away from the jargon.”

5. Experts lack creativity

There’s a train of thought that when you become an expert in something, your creative juices stop flowing. And it seems to make a lot of sense; you become an expert in something when you have a lot of experience in one particular thing, meaning you spend time on one thing, not a variety of different things.

Furthermore, expertise is seen as the finishing post by many, meaning that once they have attained the status of expert, they feel they have no further need to explore or learn.

The late, famous graphic designer Tibor Kalman ‘shunned the notion of becoming an expert at anything’, saying he felt that once people become experts, they quickly lose their creative spark. This outspoken designer was also known for engaging the public rather than treating them as passive consumers. Tibor, we salute you. You were obviously ahead of your time. When designing digital products, the last thing we want is to is lose our creativity. In fact, we want to think of many different ways to service our customers.

6. Experts are not your users

UX design is all about users and how we can build great products to service their needs. To do this, we draw on deep qualitative customer insight, usability research and quantitative feedback to help us create products that users want to use and will enjoy using. User opinion over expert opinion all the way. When it comes to validation of the product, we value their opinion more than anyone else, even those of experts and geniuses. If we didn’t do this, simply put, the product would not be as commercially viable.

If you rely on expert opinion and best practice instead of real-time customer feedback and analysis, you run the risk of using out-of-date insight. Over time or sometimes even overnight, users can change the way they interact with a digital product. To make sure your product is commercially viable, you need to base your product development on the latest customer insight and feedback.

7. Experts are often stuffy and boring to listen to

No one has the time or wants to listen to a gasbag waffle on about something that they don’t understand or in some way makes them feel intellectually inferior. We want to listen to or read content that inspires us, moves us and makes us think. Unfortunately, in our experience experts often just don’t cut the mustard when it comes to a good speech or interesting read.

The team at Heroic want everyone, especially those in the digital industry, to do their bit to bring everything back to basics and make it easier to understand digital and the UX design industry. No more jargon and no more acronyms. Let’s make it easier and more enjoyable for people to understand what we do and why.

8. Experts aren’t collaborative

In my experience, experts or geniuses are very good at working cross-functionally or in teams. They’re much better at working by themselves. I’m not criticising working alone; it’s often essential. It’s just when it comes to UX design, it’s generally important that everyone on the team works together for large portions of a given project, sparking new ideas and collaboratively course-correcting as things progress. That way we bring minds and users together to create digital experiences that customers enjoy using an benefit from.

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