UX psychology and other skeumorphic job titles

Thinking designer

Over on LinkedIn, user researcher and “UX psychologist” Nick Fine says:

UX Psychology has been created to support psychologists working in UX, to help improve research methods and to bring more science to UX in general. You are welcome to call yourself a UX Psychologist if you have an appropriate qualification, an undergrad or postgrad psychology degree. You can’t call yourself a UX Psychologist if you do not have any qualification or experience!

I am not sure that focusing on job titles is generally helpful (although I do favour the bid to involve psychologists in UX).

But this instantly brought to mind the plethora of job titles and even entire disciplines containing the word architect.

My partner Alex is an architect. Before anyone is entitled to call themselves an architect, they must undergo at least seven years of education and work experience.

In Alex’s case, this included a three year undergraduate degree, followed by a year of work experience, then the honours part of the undergraduate degree, then a year-long postgraduate course. Even after completing the Masters course, you are only a Part II Architectural Assistant. After another year working, you are entitled to sit your Part III exam. Only once you pass that can call yourself an architect.

And yet, if I move a webpage from one part of a website to another, I am calling myself an information architect. Any old bro can call themselves a technical architect, or a software architect, or a UX architect (whatever that is).

I know for a fact that this proliferation of job titles spuriously containing the word architect makes it harder for actual architects to find jobs that are about designing buildings.

But use of the word architect in these more digital-related jobs is so established that it has taken on its own meaning. Before we started talking about information architecture, it was “the pain with no name”. There was no other way to describe it.

Engineer is another case in point. Most “software engineers” would run a mile if they were ever asked to do any actual engineering.

Part of this is the growing pains of the fast-moving digital era. Inevitably, we have had to use metaphors from the physical world that help explain what’s going on. We cut without using scissors. We paste without using glue. And we do it on a page that isn’t made out of paper. But how else could we have described these functions?

Taken to its extreme, this is skeumorphic design. This is where user interfaces mimic their physical counterparts closely, even when that is wildly inappropriate for the digital medium. The nadir of skeumorphic design was probably reached when Apple decided its podcast app needed to look like a reel-to-reel tape machine. That probably alienated anyone below the age of 40.

Skeumorphic design is deeply unfashionable at the moment. For me, it’s a matter of striking the right balance. Sometimes a metaphor hits the spot. Cut and paste just makes sense. Take things too far, though, and you end up replicating physical products just for the sake of it, as with Apple’s awful reel-to-reel interface.

There is probably something similar going on with job titles. To me, information architecture just works. People broadly understand what it is, and it causes little confusion. Alex is now resigned to me talking about my information architecture work at the end of a day, and she doesn’t bat an eyelid any more.

I’m not sure if UX psychologist really fits the bill. That might be because I have never come across one. But I’m not sure what it is supposed to convey. That is probably its main problem.

There is a related trend of just sticking UX in front of another word to invent a new job title. UX architect (what?) is one. UX writer is another (isn’t it just content design?).

I find it unhelpful to think of UX as a distinct job or role. If you make someone the UXer, isn’t that just creating another silo?

Anyone fulfilling any type of role can choose to take a user-centred approach to their work. A project manager can value UX methods and ensure their project takes user-centred approach. That doesn’t make them a UX project manager. It makes them a good project manager who does UX.

UX is a mindset more than a distinct role. So it’s probably best not to get too precious about job titles.

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