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Jul 19, 2005: (No) UX Gurus

In a response to my recent blog entry regarding search experts, James Robertson changed the subject a bit, wondering "who are the current 'user experience'/'usability' gurus?" I'm glad he did, because it's a great question.

James mentions Jakob Nielsen and Steve Krug. Jakob and Steve are, IMHO, experts in usability, not user experience. UX is far broader than usability, IA, interaction design, and the many other related fields. Some of the UX diagrams assembled by Luke Wroblewski provide good takes on how UX and established disciplines are related.

I'd also argue that UX is not a field or a discipline, but an emerging awareness that's perhaps on its way to becoming a movement. I doubt that such an interdisciplinary area is likely to emerge as a full-fledged discipline any time soon, if ever. And perhaps there should never be a UX discipline, if that means homogeneity in how we think about and practice design. There is strength in diversity, assuming we can get diverse perspectives to sit at the same table.

That's why the point of UX shouldn't be homogenization, but simply to serve as a rallying point for designers from different backgrounds and with different vocabularies. Mutual awareness leads to communication, which leads to respect and, the ultimate goal: successful interdisciplinary design teams and organizations.

So back to James' original question: who's a UX guru? I'd say no one. I don't think it's possible for someone to have deep knowledge in each of a broad array of disciplines. Some of us have the depth, some of us have the breadth, but both are impossible to pull off.

That said, in the spirit of my recent list-making exercises, who would you consider to be a UX guru, or at least as close as there can be? And, more importantly, why?

I think of people who've written important books, especially ones that address the concept of UX head on, like, hmmm... Well, is there anyone aside from Jesse James Garrett?

Or people that make it a point to know about methods from different disciplines, like Whitney Quesenbery and Dirk Knemeyer.

Authors, methodology geeks... Who else?

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Comment: Livia Labate (Jul 19, 2005)

Precisely because of the reasons you mentioned I think it's a silly exercise :) I think, however, that not everyone is on the same page about UX not being a discipline. So I often point them to, http://www.peterme.com/archives/000489.html

Comment: david king (Jul 19, 2005)

Not web gurus specifically... but related: "The Experience Economy" by B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore. They are the gurus of experience planning (which might translate well into user experience for the web).

Comment: Margaret L Ruwoldt (Jul 20, 2005)

Mark 'Good Experience' Hurst seems to be moving in the UE direction.

Comment: Dave (Jul 20, 2005)

The problem w/ finding a Guru for UX, is that no one agrees on what UX is. I like the idea of looking at people who have made a point of learning the X-disciplines that are required for a good user experience designer as a reference. What I don't appreciate (personally) is choosing people who are just good strategicians, but are not tactically proficient in any one craft/discipline that is required for successful execution of UX. I would also argue that user experience design and experience design are not the same animal (thus the way I started this comment).

Comment: Lou (Jul 20, 2005)

Dave, would you suggest that the person should have a combination of breadth (e.g., general knowledge of five UX-related fields) and depth (e.g., acknowledged expertise in one UX-related field)? Or some variant thereof?

Comment: James Robertson (Jul 20, 2005)

All good points Lou, but I guess I should've been more careful in my (casual) use of the phrase "user experience".

My original question was intended to be: who are the gurus who are evengelising the needs of users, the importance of doing user research, applied ethnography, user-centred design, and the like. Who is spreading the "good word" regarding the fundamental principles of what we're on about?

The sort of stuff that was orignally covered by Donald Norman and Mike Kuniavsky, both of whom have moved onto newer areas...

Cheers, James

Comment: joe Sokohl (Jul 20, 2005)

Well, I'm certainly no guru, but I am advancing the concept of UX as a discipline/area/focus thang. I find it's an easier rubric under which to package IA, ID, ID, tech writing, applied ethnography/user research, persona development, usability testing, and so on. But I think James' question is still valid.

Interesting...I've been wondering along the same lines. Who's doing what in the field of consequence these days? What's still valid, and what's so passe?

Comment: nickster (Jul 21, 2005)

The whole concept of guru as it applies to UX is wrong imho because it implies an almost infinite understanding of the subject matter. In other areas of computing, where gurus are to be found (OS, programming, hardware) there are definite and concrete understandings to be had. However, the user experience:

(a) is a broad concept without concrete boundaries, as well as highly subjective

(b) is the result of a combination of technologies to produce interaction, and these technologies are still very nascent and also evolving rapidly.

To consider anyone a guru in such terms is naive and imho dumb. I'd bet that the so-called gurus wouldn't consider themselves gurus, merely very experienced users/designers.

Seeking gurus is akin to hero worship and really what we should be seeking are current interaction paradigms that have been scientifically shown to produce positive interaction. There's already too much ego in the field...let's stop perpetuating it and get on with trying to continually understand and revise the user experience to ensure that it is consistently optimal.


Comment: Matthew Oliphant (Jul 21, 2005)

How about those of us who never, ever aspire to be a guru? I am happy just being a sherpa, thanks. I don't mind doing actual work. ;)

Comment: Rob Fay (Jul 21, 2005)

A "user experience guru" is tantamount to a medical doctor who is an expert in all physical maladies and can both birth a baby and also perform brain surgery on the same day.

Personally, I believe that a ux guru is someone who is a go-to expert; not that he or she is an expert regarding every facet of the topic, but instead has specific areas of expertise and a general knowledge of other areas (and knows who to ask or refer to).

I think the real question to ask is: what areas of expertise make up the totality of the ideal user experience discipline? Certainly I would argue that right and left brainers can get involved, including those from a variety of academic backgrounds.

Comment: peterme (Jul 23, 2005)

Guru-dom is pointless and, ultimately, I think, hurtful to any profession. Let's just admire, support, and identify people doing good work!

Comment: Bob Doyle (Jul 23, 2005)

Hi Lou,

A year ago you tried to clarify UX and Usability for me as we were drafting the CMS Glossary. We are again working on the Glossary and this exchange led me to revise the current draft.

Please check it out.


Comment: Borge Kristensen (Aug 5, 2005)

Here are a few books by 'UX gurus'. I consider these titles truely multi-disciplinary:

Kelly Goto, Emily Cotler:
- Web ReDesign 2.0: Workflow that Works

June Cohen:
- The Unusually Useful Web Book

Ani Phyo:
- Return on Design

Carrie Bickner:
- Web Design on a Shoestring

Jesse James Garret:
- The Elements of User Experience

Douglas K. Van Duyne, James Landay, Jason I. Hong:
- The Design of Sites

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