My #1 Problem With UX

Travis Kassab Avatar


When I was young I said a lot of things about what I wanted to be when I grew up. But looking back, all I’ve ever really been interested in was alchemy. And, while I haven’t yet turned lead to gold, here I still am trying to create something of value from nothing.

I can at least say my approach has evolved over the years. And, in the most recent season of my life, UX Research was my alchemy. I believed I would extract valuable product ideas from it. 

At first I thought users would tell me what they needed, but after the first several studies I realized this wasn’t the case. Users don’t consciously know what they want or need. Even if they did, they wouldn’t be able to explicitly tell me for my purposes. After all, how could Mr. Ford’s future customers have asked for an automobile with wheels in an age of horses and hooves?

That’s okay though. The experienced researcher will tell you that the point of research is not to get product ideas from users, but to gain an understanding of users, and then infer what should be built based on this understanding. I agree this is possible, I’ve seen it done many times. Any product team can map features from user research.

However, something is missing from this explanation. It leaves out the all-important, initial step where the user group and use-case were decided on. Research and design cannot proceed before these decisions are made, otherwise how would you know who to talk to and about what?

The point is that before research and design have taken place, deep assumptions have already been made about the product. These assumptions affect everything downstream and are the leading cause of product death, not the product team’s execution.

Let’s use the analogy of painting a picture. By the time most UX teams get ahold of the canvas, the product has already been outlined (B). We may have trouble imagining what the product will look like in the end, but someone has already established what it will do and who it is for. 

Thus, UX is like paint-by-numbers. Research and design fill in the details, and control how everything looks; however, no amount of “coloring” will change the image’s content and form.

Is this art? I wouldn’t try to answer objectively. I can answer personally. The interesting step for me is going from A to B, because, I argue, that’s when the product is truly architected. That is the product’s true 0 to 1 moment, from blank canvas to outline. The image is set then.

Several things follow from this.

When you start from B, you have less control over C than you might realize. I think most dissatisfaction stems from the fact that designers & researchers continuously find themselves ‘coloring within the lines’ of a product they don’t believe in.

This is the feeling of having your hands tied, that nothing you do makes a difference to the end result. This is the thought that the product is already dead before Version 1 has shipped. You know there are things that are wrong with, or vague about, the product, but you can’t quite put your finger on it.

Even if you did put your finger on it, you’d still be stuck with it. And that’s the fundamental problem. You’re not able to pivot away from the initial idea, so its faulty assumptions will pollute everything downstream. 

Here’s your sanity check: how free are you to scrap the current product concept and start back at zero? 

A lot is said about agile product development but, in my opinion, you’re not agile unless you have a “full reset” at your disposal. Also, the amount of time that must pass before you can hit “reset” matters. 

You probably don’t want a trigger finger, but it’s safe to assume that it can be reduced from what it is now for most corporate product teams. Actually that’s not true, most product teams don’t have the ability to hit reset in the first place.

Finally, with great power comes great responsibility. If you have the power to reset back to zero, it is your responsibility to eventually get back to 1. The most common complaint I hear from UX’ers is that “design doesn’t have a seat at the table”. What better way to get a seat at the table than to own the product idea itself?

This sounds good, but how do you go from 0 to 1? Unfortunately, a formula doesn’t exist; however, there are places and people where lightning has struck more than once. Silicon Valley ushered in the PC revolution in the 80’s, the Internet Revolution in the 90’s, the Social Media revolution in the 00’s, and the Cloud Computing revolution in the 10’s. 

And it appears to be continuing this trend, pouring billions of funding into startups in Web3, AI, Space, Renewables, Health+Bio, EdTech, and more. All are attempting to go from 0 to 1, and all welcome a good pivot every now and then. One might start the search for product wisdom here.

At the end of the day, there’s no proof that lead can be turned to gold. There is proof, however, of an expanding global GDP. There is proof that technology improves human living standards. Perhaps, I don’t have to give up alchemy after all.