Losing faith in “UX”

by Dirk on August 3rd, 2010 - Comments (30)

I’ve been slowly backing away from the field of “user experience” for some years now. More and more, I’m beginning to think it is time that I turn my slow retreat into a full-fledged race to the hills. This evening Juhan pointed me to a terrifying article by renowned user experience thought leader Whitney Hess. Please do read the article, then c’mon back.

Whitney is displaying incredible ignorance and naivete about software start-ups and stating her under-informed opinions as fact based on what must be limited experience. Her claims are flatly false and make the most unflattering of assumptions about VC’s and start-up CEO’s.

Before making my points in systematic detail, let me clarify my credentials on this topic: over the last 6 years as a Founder of Involution Studios I have worked with over 100 software start-ups. In every case I had direct C-level contact, almost without exception including with the CEO. These relationships have run the gamut. A few examples: one was a hand-picked team by Jim Clark that we were on from the beginning and took them thru an acquisition by Shutterfly. Another was the latest brainchild of Dennis Fong, who came to us with just a vague idea that together we took to an Alpha, and Raptr has been flying high ever since. Of course, not all of our clients are successes. We really enjoyed working on a product called BrightMinds from the very start, an innovative and interesting marketplace to bring together researchers with academic institutions with corporations with venture capitalists. They had a crystal clear vision of the who what where when and why of what they wanted to do that Whitney claims is absent. It still failed.

More, I have been inside many of the important VCs in Silicon Valley; examples include Sequoia, Kleiner Perkins, DFJ and Sutter Hill. I also have friends who run more boutique and early stage funding companies, such as Dave Whorton at Tugboat Ventures and Gady Nemirovsky of Inspiration Ventures. I’ve engaged with these VC’s as a product/service consultant and expert, as well as a hopeful start-up.

I want to be explicit in my background and experience inside the very heart of the software start-up and funding communities, because the things I have to say are going to be every bit as declarative as Whitney’s statements with one important difference: they are consistent with the reality of how software companies get done, both by the founders and their funding partners.

Whitney begins by writing:

Startups start up with a single idea: a solution they believe the world has never seen. And while no one can argue that they’re the source of much of the industry’s innovation, they’re almost all lacking in purpose.

That is simply wrong. I have met as many start-ups who have started with a vision for a market that they want to take down as I have those who have “a single idea” and that idea is a “solution”. As many or more start-ups see the who very, very clearly before there even is a notion of a what.

Most people believe that User Experience is just about finding the best solution for your users — but it’s not. UX is about defining the problem that needs to be solved (the why), defining the types of people who need it to be solved (the who), and defining the way in which it should be solved to be relevant to those people (the how).

Here Whitney is trying to uplevel User Experience to be Product Strategy. It isn’t. To be clear, it is well within the province of talented user experience people to provide or contribute to product strategy. But it is not “our” domain, and in my experience the UX people aren’t typically the most qualified people in and around the company to lead that process. It is certainly an area to strive to mature into but not the right, provence or even native skillset of the type.

Yet as a rule, startups are being built on the what.

Wrong. “as a rule”? Are you kidding? Yes, start-ups often articulate their idea by virtue of a “what”. But it is hardly what they are typically being built on, much less “as a rule”! This is just a wild statement without basis in fact.

To prove her point:

Don’t agree? Show me a startup with no programmers. They are all building something. Even if it’s nothing.

Over 20% of the start-ups we worked with engaged us before hiring a programmer. Of the 70+% who started with programmers before working with us well more than half of them had what I would consider fairly sophisticated ideas as to their who/what/where/when/why. Just because they’re building something doesn’t mean it is pointless or ignorant. The way to build software is via programming; should they spend their miniscule monies on someone who can draw pictures but not make something that works? While I would always advocate to clients a process that begins with envisioning their product or service in light of business-level strategy and direction, the fact is many start-ups have only relative pennies to spend in starting their company. I cannot in good conscience or with a straight face tell them to spend the money on UX instead of programming in those cases. Doing so would not be in their best interest, and the reality is before I’m a product/strategy/design/UX guy I am a service provider and I would be a poor one if I would so counsel them.

Yet fewer than 1% of startups have a full-time user experience designer on staff, and their obsession with the what is in large part why.

Whitney, kindly provide your source for the “1%” number. You accusing them of an “obsession with the what” is really inflammatory word choice – particularly about a thesis that you are simply incorrect about.

The challenge lies in the lifeblood of startups: the venture capitalists. Most VCs put their money in whats — not whys or whos or hows. No startup is going to close a Series A round of $5 million without a highly functional what to demo. The product (what) is a lot sexier than the business (why, who, how), and sadly, sex sells. But it also kills.

VC’s absolutely do not put their money into “whats”. I’ve met more than a dozen VC’s and, while what they put their money into is invariably complex and bifurcated, the most important thing with all of them is the who. VC’s care about markets. They really, really, really care about markets. If you want to close a VC, the #1 most important thing you need to solve incredibly well is the market opportunity. Who are you going after, why will they be interested, and what is the relationship between market potential, product/service price points, and the context of the competitive landscape.

Now, one thing that Whitney is correct about is it is very, very rare in this day and age for a VC to invest $5MM in an idea, they want a prototype. Actually for $5MM they almost always want more than a prototype: they want users. Indeed, they rarely care about the what. All they care about is there is a what and the who’s seem to like it. If it is putting asses in the seats they don’t even care too much what that what is.

Even that is an oversimplification, but it is one that strikes far closer to the truth of the matter than Whitney’s incorrect claim. And it is based on market maturation and the relatively low cost to get a product built and out to users, not some perceived myopia.

In Paul Graham’s essay, “The 18 Mistakes that Kill Startups,” #10 is “Having no specific user in mind.” A few great paragraphs, but it can be said in just two words: no strategy.

And lots of other things kill startups, too. To pull out #10 on a list of 18 and use that as a proof for this thesis is evidence enough of the weakness of the entire piece.

You know what happens to products with no product strategy? Joost. Wesabe. Pownce. Ning. Tipjoy. I Want Sandy. Bebo. Yahoo!

Is she kidding? I know people inside three of those very companies; all three had an articulated product strategy and could deftly answer the who/what/where/when/why question that Whitney claims they cannot. They may have had a failed strategy. Or they may have had failed execution. Or bad timing. Or a lack of focus. Or, or, or. Lots of reasons companies fail. To tie their failure to one thing – a thing that is incorrect in at least three of those cases – and tie it to a thesis that UX consulting is somehow the panacea, well, I don’t have words to reply to that.

However I will point out that the CEO of Tipjoy, one of the companies that Whitney calls out on the carpet, is the very bright and talented Abigail Kirigin who just happens to be a…drum roll please…UX Consultant!!!

I once saw a startup demo its product at the NY Tech Meetup, and when someone from the audience asked the founder on stage, “Why would someone need this?” he actually said, “I don’t know.” He sure didn’t.

Funny anecdote. Data point of one.

Whitney concludes with this call-to-arms:

We as user experience designers can develop the strategy that startups need to survive the hype. Some founders rest on their laurels, but it never lasts. Eventually they step back and realize they need a plan. Understanding. Focus. Differentiation. Framework. Process. Meaning. Think maybe you can help?

1. Most founders realize they need a plan. In fact, they usually have a plan.

2. They usually have understanding.

3. Some have great focus; others are all over the place.

4. Differentiation and framework are often left to the technology, which is a shame, and if they can afford design they should certainly be infusing it.

5. Process is sometimes present, sometimes not – depending on the background of the founders. Often is an all-or-nothing.

6. Meaning, again, either is or not: many start-ups have an insane focus, drive and mission that is meaning-based, others are just looking to make some money or do something cool. But it’s unclear to me how or even if it is design’s place to transform the meaningless into the seemingly meaningful. Should we really be trying to infuse meaning into something that is meaningless?

Also to that point, there is another group of professionals who would claim to be the ones who should provide the product strategy and answers that Whitney claims are needed: product managers. And they are often present in early-ish stage start-ups, often tasked to lead/manage/help with strategic issues and have a long track record of doing so, to varying degrees of success. I suspect that, if UX people were claiming among the product management community that it is UX’s role to provide that insight they would choke on their coffee before wiping their face with a smile and saying, “Ummmm…no.”

And so we come back to the point of this article: I am losing faith in “UX”. Whitney Hess is a very nice woman; we crossed paths briefly two or three years ago when I was in my last months as the president of, ironically, the industry non-profit for user experience and she was a newly-minted board member. At that point she was a star on the rise, just beginning to ascend among the thought leaders of the field. Her rise has indeed been meteoric as she is keynoting conferences and generally seen as a serious A-lister in that community. Yet this screed about start-ups is just ignorant. I can’t think of any other word for it. Her thesis is incredibly flawed and became embarrassing and ridiculous when she punctuated her claims with audacious and absolute language.

This is about far more than Whitney Hess: the site that published her article is called 52 Weeks of UX, subtitled “A discourse on the process of designing for real people.” Ignoring the softball they left hanging for me to hit (you mean there are fake people?!), I want to point out it is in the top 100,000 most visited sites by people in the United States. That might not sound impressive but for a user experience industry site it is very strong. It is a trusted industry resource that is read by many people and helping to set the definition and trajectory of the professional space. And it is publishing articles like this – it would appear publishing it very proudly? What does it say about that resource, and the community of people who consume the content as if it were truth? This is a far more serious situation than it might appear based on just one broken article.

In my experience, “UX” people too often overstep. They are very smart people, frequently systems thinkers, and with the appropriate authority and experience could make really meaningful impact. Hell, my company is proof enough that we do make a startlingly meaningful impact when positioned properly and funded. But I have found that many people in “UX” sadly lack both the authority and the experience to participate at the level they ask to be positioned. Being smart people they are able to talk with authority, much like Whitney has here. But talking and knowing are two very different things, and this is another example of the very worst of what the UX community sometimes provides: an ambitious reach, desperately exceeding its grasp and making the whole community look foolish in the process.

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30 Responses to “Losing faith in “UX””

  1. Abby says:

    Whitney writes: “Most people believe that User Experience is just about finding the best solution for your users — but it’s not. UX is about defining the problem that needs to be solved (the why), defining the types of people who need it to be solved (the who), and defining the way in which it should be solved to be relevant to those people (the how).”

    In fact, all people making things – all hackers, all founders, all designers – should _at a minimum_ be able to answer the why, who and how as Whitney states above. People who can’t answer these questions are just ‘clocking-in’ and ‘clocking-out’. Answering those questions is not the exclusive domain of the User Experience designer. Answering those questions is the baseline to being good at what you do, especially if you are a startup founder.

    Since 2008 I have had the opportunity to get to know many startups very well. I’ve run my own, worked as an IxD consultant for several, and am friends and colleagues with many more as a result of the Y Combinator alumni network. I have found that the best startups have founders (and employees) who kill it when it comes to product strategy (what Whitney calls UX above).

    They know their market and they know how to reach them. They know all the big picture stuff about the why and the who. They know it so well they can do a damn good version of the how. (No wonder VCs like this type of founder.)

    As Whitney alludes to, Interaction/UX designers can help hone ideas to their essence, making sure they fulfill the needs/desires which the founders and their users think they have. But if a designer stops there, then they’ve only done the easy stuff. Unlike the mushier (but often glamorized) aspects of UX design as defined in Whitney’s article, knowing how to translate product desires into crisp & elegant screens, vision into pixels and grand features into detailed user flows shouldn’t be expected of the founders or developers on the team. This is the most critical expertise which a company’s designer should bring to the table, and the reason startups should invite her there.

  2. nick gogerty says:

    like all belief systems: the belief systems known as science, engineering, finance, art, UX etc. have a few false prophets pointing to false profits. caveat emptor. Good to call them out.

  3. J. Jeffryes says:

    How do you rectify these two disparate positions? Easy.

    Dirk is talking about startups that are doing it right.

    Whitney is not.

    Whether you call it UX or something else, every startup must have at least one Design Thinker at the helm that understands the why. I think we can all agree on that.

    We can also all agree that many startups don’t have this person, and they almost all fail.

    The disagreements are mostly in the details and semantics.

  4. Jeremy Heath says:

    “Whitney, kindly provide your source for the “1%” number.”

    It’s funny, but all i read in this article was name dropping and anecdotes about your personal experience. Which isn’t any different than Whitney’s presentation (minus the name dropping). If you want to prove somebody wrong and voice frustrations, fine, but don’t call someone out on stats and then proceed to do nothing but tell stories(just like her?). Obviously your personal experience is different than hers, or mine, or anyone else’s. You’ve obviously had lots of experience with great startups, but it’s what, 100 you said? how many thousands and thousands are out there you’ve no interaction with? My experience is horribly limited, but most startups i’ve dealt with barely have an idea sometimes and i think she hit the nail on the head for the most part. don’t see the issue here at all.

  5. I completely agree with Dirk. I think it’s really easy for a UX specialist (of whatever flavor) to equate an understanding of the systems and workflow that make up a product with an understanding of everything that goes into a successful business. The two pieces aren’t congruent.

  6. Nick Finck says:

    Dirk, it seems most of the cases you are pointing to have to do with her absolutes and information stated as fact. I think the underlying point of her article has solid footing, its just how she executed on it.. or rather, the lack of editorial oversight and fact checking before it was published.

    That said, I think her intent was to not cause harm but to encourage the adoption of UX within startups. While she may have, as one commenter pointed out, only experienced startups “doing it wrong,” it is really not that uncommon to find the basis for her article within the confines of startups.

    Could it have been edited and written better, yes. Is Whitney off her rocker, no. Do all UX people think in absolutes like this, no. Do all startups behave the way Whitney portrays in her article, no. Did we really need to have a rant post attacking her article in the tone that you have here, no, but its your site, you do what you want.

  7. Anna Smith says:

    Hi Dirk,

    My former boss uses tiny url – I use bit.ly because it’s more pleasurable to use. Though I can’t disagree with anything you write, I feel like I ‘get’ what Whitney’s post is about: Startups could benefit greatly from hiring a user experience designer.

  8. Dirk says:

    J. Jeffreys – I’m not just talking about startups that are doing it right. Some percentage of our clients and prospects – somewhere between 10 and 30, I imagine – do it wrong. Some of them maddeningly wrong. Some so wrong that we choose not to work with them. I’ve seen it all; this is not a case of my reflecting the good side of things and Whitney the bad. I’ve got the grey hairs to prove it!

    Jeremy Heath – Not name-dropping at all, establishing my expertise within this domain. I gave specific numbers based on first-person experience. Whitney’s “1%” number seemed arbitrary; I asked her to back it up. That seems a reasonable request. Within the bounds of confidentiality in some cases I can list all the start-ups I’ve been exposed to in pretty minute detail. The numbers are not made up. Maybe Whitney’s isn’t either, but if it IS real the start-up scene in New York resembles nothing I’ve ever encountered.

    Nick Finck – Ah Nick, it has been too long. I think you’re missing the point, which is that this kind of article – written by somebody people listen to, published at a forum that people trust and care about – is a truly terrible thing. Why?

    1. It threatens the credibility of *everyone* who uses UX in their title or as a descriptor to their profession. Here’s a challenge: post this on a listserve for each: start-up founders, VC’s, engineers, and product managers. All of those groups would go thru the roof. If you told them one of the hot UX thought leaders who is shaping opinion wrote it they would have serious issues with UX: as if we don’t already have enough problems! It would not ring true to any of those constituencies.

    2. It is sending the wrong messages out to aspiring UX’ers. One thing I’ve learned from the fallout of this episode is that Whitney is reaching a whole bunch of YOUNG professionals. They are impressionable, and they are likely to take something like this written by someone they “follow” and trust at face-value. It is a disservice to them. Even some of the comments here and on Twitter reflect the turnings of the youth: they are looking for middle ground, trying to reconcile the two sides, seeing it as different “experiences” in the industry.

    It is not about sides; it is about truth. We – those of us with the knowledge and experience in the industry – need to inculcate the coming generations with truly good learnings. There is a lot of mediocrity out there; fighting all of that is impossible. But when there is something that is really giving the wrong idea about something important to a lot of people, I think it is incumbent upon us to set it straight.

    While I would be very interested to be proven wrong and have it be illustrated that Whitney has a litany of real-world experience and examples that make her claims legitimate, I suspect that one of two things happened: either she drew presumptive conclusions on much too limited data, or something about the assignment for this article led her to be really extreme and absolute in her claims, beyond what she would normally do or say. A third option is that, as she is launching a new start-up focused service to her consultancy, she took an extreme slant in order to generate attention or opportunity. Or something else entirely; I sure don’t know it all. Whatever the means, along with insufficient editing, (as you pointed out) we had something on our hands with the potential to be damaging.

    I have no doubt that Whitney’s intentions were good. And to be perfectly explicit about it, as near as I can tell Whitney is a nice, bright person that people like and enjoy working with. She’s certainly a marvelous self-promoter, and I am not intending any disparaging connotation in saying that: she has ascended at an astounding rate and commands truly meaningful mindshare. All the more reason the response to what she wrote needed to be firm, even harsh. This is serious shit, it is not tea and crumpets. How business-side people in software view the UX community, and how the UX community is taught to frame business-side people and find their way among them, is critically important.

  9. J. Jeffryes says:

    If only 30% of the startups you’re in contact with are doing it wrong, you don’t have a representative sample.

    To peel back the onion a bit more, I think there’s a nomenclature issue here. It’s the same problem the larger design community has, and part of the reason UX was split off in the first place. No one can agree on what UX is.

    Is your UX person the thought leader that has a deep understanding of what the end user wants and needs, that shapes the business rules, strategy and interaction design to create a compelling experience?

    Or is your UX person the one that takes your existing user base, strategy, and business rules, and optimizes the user experience for that?

    I think Whitney is arguing from the perspective that UX must be a leadership position within a startup.

    You seem to be arguing it doesn’t.

  10. Well, to be perfectly blunt, Dirk, I’ve never heard of Whitney Hess. But I know you, and I’ve never found you to be anything other than clear in your thinking, careful in your expression, and possessed of integrity in the way you frame your arguments. I think you’ve laid out a strong but eminently valid line here, and that’s why I’ll be turning to you for advice as I roll out my new venture, and not anybody offering the kind of content-free cheerleading you’ve done such a good job of demolishing here.

    Nick, I think you need to look more closely at some of the viewpoints and (ahem) “thought leaders” you’ve given a platform to in the past and, for all I know, continue to provide with a bully pulpit. The primary reason I removed Digital Web from my list of reads a few years back was the inanity of so many of the pieces you saw fit to publish, and the stenographic and uncritical quality of the site’s reporting on UX trendlets, tropes and fads arising elsewhere. Dirk isn’t “ranting,” he’s calling out bullshit for what it is. Your own magazine would have been infinitely more useful to me if it had provided a similar service.

  11. Dave Malouf says:

    @JJeffreys
    Dirk is arguing that
    a) her foundation that Founders and VCs don’t consider why is false.
    b) her foundation that UX minded people are not founders at more than 1% of startups is false.

    Dirk is also accusing Whitney to put her money where her mouth is. Whitney’s years of experience are just not there to substantiate her leadership as general authoritarian in this area at all.

    Dirk is upset w/ the general UX sentiment that the world stops or fails w/o our presence. I would have to concur with this sentiment more and more.

    I would go further to say that UX as anything separate from ‘design’ is just marketing and positioning and not based in any contemporary reality and is a hold over from a distant past created in an organization that itself doesn’t use any longer: Apple by Don Norman.

    Design strategy is real, but requires more than UX to do correctly and a “UX Strategy” is just a silly premise as it is too narrow in and of itself to be strategic in any valuable way.

    What I am taking to heart from this thread is to slow down. Blogging is taking us too fast. It is lifting up ideas that have had no time to percolate and giving them credence where they should be left to die. The memes that pass through twitter and the become blog posts and then become presentations and then become books or formal articles is happening too quickly. Discussions are great, but formal publishing needs to be taken more seriously. We need to have more rigor in our community again.

  12. Chris Thorne says:

    Hi Dirk,

    I just wanted to say I’m proud to be a senior information architect working in UX on the web. However, I also really enjoyed your article. It sounds like you have a lot to offer the UX community. As Jessie James Garrett said at the IA summit 2009 (and Im going to paraphrase here, apologies if Im wildly misquoting, but I seem to remember….) , “When you look at the so called superstars of UX, what have they done that’s good?’.

    It concerns me greatly that people are suggested to be thought leaders who really aren’t, and it might be what makes me leave the UX community, but for now I intend to stay engaged and try to find the articulate practitioners who can teach me. I’m lucky enough to work with several, they just don’t do many talks at conferences, or blog posts on UX websites.

    I look forward to reading more of your blog :-) .

    C

  13. Robert Gaal says:

    I was so incredibly angry when reading that article, but since there was no comment section underneath I let it go. This post rules. As a startup founder and designer: thanks for writing it.

  14. Gabby Hon says:

    That one article–an editorial, mind you–has been blown rather entirely out of proportion by people with varied, disparate axes to grind seems ever more possible.

    If anyone honestly believes that one woman’s opinion (yes, please, do note that word) is going to negatively impact the futures, fates and incomes of all UX professionals, well, I just don’t know what to tell you. Though it might be advisable to raise one’s periscope above this tiny, claustrophobic UX world we dwell in.

    Hyperbole met hyperbole comin’ through the rye, and here we all are.

  15. Whitney Hess says:

    Dirk, thank you so much for being willing to express your opinions and put your name behind it. I can’t tell you how many people like to argue with me using anonymous comments; standing behind your ideas is far more beneficial for all of us.

    I definitely learned a lot from reading your post, and I very much appreciate that we have had different experiences, are at different experience levels, and value different approaches. That’s what makes this community so great.

    My post on 52weeksofUX was wholly my opinion based on my experiences, and given the deluge of positive responses I received, it seems to reflect other people’s experiences as well.

    I was excited to read that you see things differently, because then that means that there are already a lot of startups out there doing it right (if we may take the liberty of expressing our opinion of what “right” is). What I would love to see happen as a result of our differences is to create a wider, public discussion around these topics. I wrote the piece in large part because I see very little talk about UX in the startup world, and I’m trying to foster that. I don’t expect to always be right, but I want to get people talking.

    So what would be a good venue for us to encourage these conversations? The UX blogs and mailing lists are inappropriate because most startups don’t hang there. HackerNews? TechCrunch? VC roundtables? Tech meetups? What do you think?

    Again, thank you so much for caring enough to write a rebuttal. I’m really excited to see where this goes.

    All the best,
    Whitney

  16. I’ve worked with about 5-10 startups myself over the last 4 years or so (I’m a UX consultant and designer) and as a general rule, I do see a lack of UX thinking and design at many places. However, often times there is an acknowledgement that it is missing when I arrive (duh) although usually visual design is the driver is the driver for my solicitation. From my experience alone, I can say that I see some of the same issues she discusses.

    The interesting thing from my experience is that many times, these startups got quite far with no conscious design effort or thought – they built a product, it went 5 steps in the right direction, but needs to go 10 more – and they call me to help. But, the fact remains, they actually BUILT something – and watch out – it may have been built without us Designers being involved. No personas existed. No wireframes may have been built. A graphic designer may have come in at the last hours to put some colors over a prototype and the first 5 steps were taken (possibly successful ones). But, they got something out and it did something – it made money, got press, got subscribers, got ridiculed…but it did something.

    The more and more I experience different companies, cultures, and product teams, the more I realize how teams of different specialties are what seem to matter the most. I prefer working with engineers, product people, and even sales people to enlighten the overall approach to the design and product guidance that I provide.

    I do feel sometimes that there is a general thought in the ether that “UX” thinking will solve most of the problems so many apps/services have. It won’t. Often times, the people handling UX at the places I work don’t always look at business goals and objectives either…and when I go out to “designer” hangs, I don’t usually hear this topic being discussed. If your killer UX-rich app costs $10,000/unit to be profitable, you better be looking for a sales and marketing person, not a UX designer.

    As a final note, I’ve also seen at least 1 example where it seems VCs look less at the What and more at the Who and the Who’s previous experience as a factor in funding the startup. So, in my observation, a LACK of focus on the “what.”

    I would also like to see the 1% backup Dirk asks for. I tried to be careful about putting “in my experience” into my comments ;-)

  17. Hi there,

    Being one of those aspiring UX’ers, from another country, and modest professional experience, i too did relate to what Whitney said. But that doesn’t mean i read her words as being the writings of the bible. You must have faith on the young “padawan’s” too.

    The lack of UX is blatant where i live. Most company’s and startups rely on “things”, objects, products and “what’s” to try and sell something and only rarely in my opinion, look for constructing a process through design or UX. Well, i do think Design and UX are really the same but that is another story…

    Design is seen as beautifying something, and UX is an Alien word to most. So, while some try to answer the who, what, etc, they are answering it the wrong way or through the wrong process.

    This discussion is really great for someone new in the “UX Business”, for it shows different perspectives. Damn, more people to follow on twitter :)

  18. “And it is publishing articles like this – it would appear publishing it very proudly? What does it say about that resource, and the community of people who consume the content as if it were truth?”

    Hi Dirk, I’m fine with you writing a rebuttal about an article we published and I’m fine with you suggesting it could be better edited. But implying the community that reads 52weeksofUX is somehow less respectable as a result is complete bullshit and undermines your entire argument.

    I’m confident our readers can determine what is valuable to them and what isn’t without your help. And, judging from the positive feedback we’re seeing about the article (including several of the comments here), Whitney’s experience isn’t far off the mark.

  19. Larry says:

    Very good article Dirk. Thought provoking.

  20. JW Garnett says:

    Dirk, you really, really hit the nail on the head with this one.
    A few things.
    As a member of the design community, I have heard of Whitney Hess.
    Upon investigating her, her community and the interactions she has with others, it appears that she is very inexperienced, is narcissistic, and has the power of older members in her community to carry her and defend her.
    I personally someone who is afraid, but presses forward anyway.
    If you look at her comments, she states
    “and given the deluge of positive responses I received, it seems to reflect other people’s experiences as well.”
    If you look closely at the people who are writing the comments, it’s simply her friends.

    Nick Finck and Joshua Porter both go on to defend her.
    If you don’t know Nick, He’s a Uxer, IA guy who was wrongfully placed in the TOP 30 Web Designers article by W3. The guy’s not even a web designer.

    Josh Porter…I don’t know him. But he obviously goes on to defend her because he’s the guy who owns the site.
    The part that scares me is that he states “But implying the community that reads 52weeksofUX is somehow less respectable as a result is complete bullshit and undermines your entire argument.” – This is just wrong and not scientific. If Josh can not see how Whitney’s crap is being spewed across the Internet, how is this in any way undermining Dirk’s argument?

    He then goes on to say “And, judging from the positive feedback we’re seeing about the article (including several of the comments here), Whitney’s experience isn’t far off the mark.” – However, the responses are all friends of Whitney and Josh!

    The most unfortunate thing about Whitney Hess, is she is really and truly not qualified to lead 3/4s of the things she is leading in the UX community. She had it easy because Jarod Spool took her under his wings. This seems to be the trend of the UX community. Young little girls, being mentored by “experts” in the field and enjoying the benefits of stardom. (Just look at Abby the IA, what a joke)

    The UX field is a complete joke because those who are on top silence and ignore those who desire to rise up. Only by being befriended by a star UXer can someone have their voice heard.

    This is dangerous to the creative community and is one of the biggest reasons why you have people like Hess leading in the field.

    The problem as I see it is that within the UX community, there is an inner core of people who talk to each other consistently on Twitter and Facebook. The bond they have is tight so it is very hard to oppose them.
    If one person doesn’t like you, none of them do. If one person says something like how Whitney did, they all agree.
    There is no real challenge within the UX design community. If you challenge one, you challenge all.
    If you look closely at every UX article, it’s all the same things, being said over and over again by the same people on the same topic.

    If one UXer says something, be sure that a book will be written about it and the whole community will defend it tooth and nail.

    The problem as I see it, is that there are many things that are said with no real backing to it.

    Whitney has displayed terrible judgment and a severe lack of knowledge that is extremely embarrassing to her community.

    The question is, is she too young and immature to know this?

  21. Tyler Hayes says:

    There’s nothing wrong with saying “I don’t know.”

  22. Dirk says:

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. I didn’t quite know what impact this article would have when I wrote it – a two-hour jamfest from start-to-finish after reading Whitney’s original article – and am glad it has proven a catalyst to thinking and conversation.

    I’m going to turn off comments on this article now but will write another article to continue the conversation in a different direction. The reason I’m turning off the comments is I’m uncomfortable with some of the “anti-Whitney Hess” feelings that are coming out from some commenters. I want to be explicit that my anger was about an article, not a person. I haven’t read much/anything else that Whitney has written and don’t have an opinion on her as a thought leader. What I do know is that people who I have known for years, deeply respect, and dearly love think Whitney is a good person and an important voice in the community. What I have observed is she is enthusiastic and active and the tone and tenor of her contributions appear very upbeat and attempting to be part of helping the collective good not hurting it. That is a great thing; we need more people with that level of care, giving and conviction. So if there is one thing from all of this that I want to be absolutely explicit on, is that I see Whitney as a good person and one with a tremendous potential for good to our industry. Few others would have the courage to engage me, comment here and be open to what must be a terribly uncomfortable process of watching something you created be publicly disemboweled. So please join me in acknowledging the many good qualities Whitney offers freely to us all, whether you agree with her opinions or not.

    There are two final points I would like to make in the direct context of this article:

    First, I do agree with the basic point made by one or more commenters that the preponderance of support for Whitney’s perspective came from her friends. I don’t want to bang that drum as part of reinforcing being right, but rather to say I’m glad, and it further reflects well on Whitney. When we think our friends are being picked on we should defend them and let them know we love and will fight for them. While I felt some of those people’s comments on this site were generally defensive and not necessarily constructive to advancing a meaningful conversation they are part of the total picture here: ultimately we are people, not just articles or comments.

    Second, I want to accept and encourage Whitney’s own comments here, specifically:

    “What I would love to see happen as a result of our differences is to create a wider, public discussion around these topics. I wrote the piece in large part because I see very little talk about UX in the startup world, and I’m trying to foster that. I don’t expect to always be right, but I want to get people talking.

    So what would be a good venue for us to encourage these conversations? The UX blogs and mailing lists are inappropriate because most startups don’t hang there. HackerNews? TechCrunch? VC roundtables? Tech meetups? What do you think?”

    I want to respond to this in an article, as opposed to the comments here. The purpose of that article will be to hopefully serve as a catalyst for good, productive, community building. It is certainly my hope that my thoughts or suggestions on it are interesting to, among many others, Whitney and she and I are both part of something positive. I would be similarly delighted if she has ideas that I get excited about as well; owning the idea is not the purpose of this for me. I am traveling this week so it may not be written until next, but I will publicize it when it is written.

    The final thing I want to point out here is how my eyes have been opened to all the young ‘uns in the UX community. I’ve been a service provider for over a decade, and partially or fully part of “UX” for almost as long. “My” peers are now a generation or two removed from young-to-medium practitioners of today. Seeing the people who took an interest in this conversation, all the youth, the new names, the new ideas, the new energy – it was a little bit of a wake-up call. “My time” in the spotlight was 6 or 7 years ago, and the community for me has always been that moment and those people, kind of frozen in time. I must confess to feeling energized, challenged and deeply engaged by all of the younger people who have approached me or somehow surfaced around this conversation. I’ve been feeling bullish about re-establishing my voice and presence in the community lately and this only accelerates it. So, thanks to all you precocious “kids” out there. Ultimately, my passion is about making us and what we do the best it can be for you and even the future generations to come.

  23. [...] Dirk Knemeyer loses faith in UX, but finds it again in the new energy from “all the young ‘uns in the UX [...]

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  26. [...] Kneymeyer of Involution Studios writes on his blog about how he’s losing faith in UX. He’s reacting primarily to an article by Whitney Hess characterising start-ups as being [...]

  27. [...] had never heard of Whitney Hess and I have no experience with Startups but Dirk Knemeyer said some things that I think needed to be said. In my experience, “UX” people too often overstep. They are [...]

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  29. [...] a counter-point, Losing Faith in UX, was written (by Dirk Someone-or-something) as a response to the StartUXs article. He does a very [...]

Losing faith in UX