How UX is more like a religion than you’d like to admit.
[User Experience Design] may be defined as a cultural system of behaviors and practices, worldviews and books, places, prophecies, and personalities, ethics and organizations, that relates individual adherents to transcendental elements that make meaning of their place in a larger system.
But, that wikipedia definition of religion describes the UX industry in surprisingly accurate terms.
Before I was a UX designer, I studied religion. In fact, some time before embracing the good news of user experience, I was on a path to do a PhD in religion, and dreamed of being an academic.
Leather arm chair, a distinguished beard, elbow patches on a tweed jacket, a pipe clutched between my molars.
Fortunately for me, that look works for designers. But instead of old books, I stare at screens and whiteboards and little boxes with big Xs and doodles scribbled on paper.
In all honesty, there aren’t many benefits of a religious studies background for a career in design, but it allows me to observe our industry through a unique lens.
I like observing the way groups conform to, and break away from, established conventions. How individuals drink kool-aid and preach an industry culture very few really understand, respect, or have the patience for. How a system of belief can benefit and enhance a sense of meaning, yet also limit and discourage unbound thought.
In this piece I write about 4 aspects of UX as religion; Rituals, prophets, ethics, and sects.
Why does it matter?
Firstly, it’s a fun exercise. Entertaining and expansive.
More importantly though, I’m interested how looking at UX as a religion can change the way we see its growth and change over time.
I’m not the same UX designer I was a year ago. Are you? Me 5 years ago wouldn’t recognize me today. As I learn, and do, I change. As environments and times change, we change more.
And sometimes, for some of us, we don’t change.
We refuse change.
We stick to our guns and double down on ideas that were revolutionary in the past, but have become so commonplace that they’re no longer special. Or, they’ve fallen out of fashion—maybe for good reason.
Our industry is always changing. Our world is always changing. Ideas that refuse to grow with the world lose out to newer, fresher, more interesting ideas. True now more than ever.
If there’s a tl;dr behind all this, it’s that we all need to be more open to change. Be a bit more irreverent to the noise and dogma, and more focused on impact and value. Think and talk as if nothing is sacred in UX. We’ll be better served building a profession that is consistently growing to always be relevant and impactful in our products and projects, and for the fellow human beings we serve through design.
Now for the (sacrificial) meat.
Rituals, Practices, & Symbols
The things UX designers do, or are supposed to do, make up the rituals and practices of our global congregation. Things that aspiring designers learn about in their parochial schools (ie bootcamps) when preparing to join the UX clergy. Occasionally, those rituals play out in real life.
Often, they don’t.
Reality for a UX clergy member is unfortunately never quite as it seemed in those early days of zeal. The realities of business constraints, internal politics, and a lack of organizational UX maturity get in the way of the UX designer gaining converts among managers, developers, and others.
Though true conversions may be rare, it’s common for the unwashed masses to join in UX rituals, (a workshop or, in some dialects, a sesh). They’re fun, inclusive, and a good excuse to procrastinate other responsibilities. Like holidays that have lost any religious meaning, people will always participate because of how the rituals and behaviours make them feel.
Those workshop vibes.
Rituals involve a critical symbol — the Post-it. The Post-it, or the sticky note for some denominations, is the most tangible symbol within the industry. They’re stacked on designers’ desks, in drawers, and laid throughout holy spaces to proselytize (ie advocate for) a design mindset.
Whiteboards serve as makeshift alters. Some progressive UX congregations use walls, windows, and even tables to display their public devotional post-its. That way even people at street level can look up, and see innovation in progress. And maybe, just maybe, will come inside to learn more.
Rituals are central, and we elevate them through discussion on a designer’s process. Every designer is told to have a process, and talk about that process in interviews. Mostly it’s just a regurgitation of what they read on a Medium post. Maybe they’re based on Design Thinking, or—better yet—Design Sprints.
Here’s a great video that shows these rituals in practice:
The Mysterious Life Of UX Designers
Rituals and defined practices are important for many reasons. Though some will always push against their very existence, most designers find great value in following established methods. Much like the faithful value daily, weekly, or yearly rituals, they give rhythm to work/life. And, most important, they aim to produce a consistent output (whether internal or external).
Prophets, Saints, & Preachers
Religion is usually a people thing. Sure, it’s about something bigger than people, but without people there can really be no religion.
And without prophets, saints, or preachers at the helm, it’s hard for a message to be conveyed to those people.
UX is no exception. The line between prophets and saints is blurry. Many would consider Don Norman a UX prophet. For starters, he coined the term User Experience. And his book, The Design of Everyday Things, first published in 1988, is a foundational scripture of our industry.
But so is About Face by Alan Cooper. How about Jakob Neilson, Facebook’s Julie Zhuo, or Jared M. Spool of Center Centre. Or, the Design Thinkists may look to David and Tom Kelley, and the soil they tilled to advance Design Thinking. Not to mention their founding of one of the priestly orders of UX: IDEO.
Different designers have different prophets. Some may look deeper into design’s past and consider those like Dieter Rams or Paul Rand to be original sources of truth. Or maybe leaders adjacent to the design industry, like Steve Jobs.
Or maybe they’re all branches of the same tree, leading back to Prometheus, the Greek Titan who created humankind from clay.
Many consider new age prophets and saints to be the only ones worth following. They speak the language of the day (in Twitter threads), have a relatable persona (on YouTube), and spread their wisdom across the earth (via Medium).
Like many of the world’s religions, UX prophethood is male dominated. Fortunately that’s changing, though signs of the old way still hold on. Very evident in design pilgrimages (aka conferences) where the vast majority of preachers are still men.
And some designers have no prophets. The rely on their personal design sense, and know very little about the current, popular discourse. This is the equivalent of those who refer to themselves as “spiritual, but not religious”.
I have no data to back this up, but I’d bet the majority of UX designers fall into this last camp.
Design ethics is an interesting facet of UX as religion. In some sense, UX was founded on an ethical principle, in that it was human-centered. As opposed to the builder, or the seller, it’s always revolved around the person using the tool.
In a perfect world, that would mean all things human-centered would be in people’s interests. But we all know that isn’t the case. Just as religion is twisted to serve agendas of power and dominance, so too can brazen greed and desires for profit drive unethical design practices.
There will always be an ethical tension between these, and maybe that’s healthy. UX in a world without business and technology wouldn’t really exist. Maybe as a general concept, but nothing like what we know UX to be.
Business has a natural desire to use design for fast growth, and create a loyal (ie addicted) user base. Using an understanding of human psychology to get people to spend more time using your product, watching ads, and spending money are all in the business’ interests.
More and more though, we see design having the power to use business for it’s own ends. Where products are founded on the ability to improve and augment human experience of the world. The discourse around design ethics seems to be in it’s early days, but since it’s fundamental to UX, I sure hope it becomes more central to our work.
Factions and Sects
Finally, like all religions, UX has it’s sects and factions. Splinter groups. Some that maintain an identity with UX as a practice, and some that feel they’ve outgrown it.
With the speed of change in UX, it’s hard to avoid this. Every month it seems designers reengage the existential crises of who they are, and why they exist. The simple days of being a UX generalist, or the old T-shaped designer, seem to be behind us. Things have gotten complicated.
Sects formed. Sometimes breaking from the past, other times building on that foundation. The formation of sects is positive, as it shows their is change happening, and designers are pushing boundaries. But, like in any religion, sectarian splits feed ideological conflict.
And, there will always be a strong contingent of fundamentalists who refuse to accept things that they consider are counter to what UX is all about.
Here are some of the sects, and an idea of how some of us have joined their ranks—
- Product Designers — Felt UX is a bit fluffy, didn’t want to do as much research, and heard product design will pay better cus it implies you bring tangible value to the business.
- Product Managers — Hesitantly accepted the change in identity, but saw it as an opportunity grab more authority and elevate UX more effectively. Happy to sit on the high horse, but haunted by the dread that they’ve forsaken their design career.
- UX Writers— Love words, and just want to focus there, cus why the hell not? Also, don’t really need a UX background, so easy to go from struggling freelance writer to fancy pants UXer relatively quickly.
- Research Nevers — Forget research. Let the market validate, because all research is just a simulation.
- UX Researchers — Doubling down on importance of research, and shaming other UX designers’ shoddy research practices.
- Startup Founders — Instant credibility when referred to as a design founder. Fame and riches abound.
- Content Creators — I can make more money talking about UX than doing UX, so ima do that.