Are UX roles becoming multi-disciplinary?

Back in the early days of digital there were far fewer roles than there are today. You basically had people selling for the agencies, project managing, designing and writing content, and building. Life was simple – yet in many ways everyone’s role was multidisciplinary.

Early project managers’ roles encompassed sales, strategy, project management, account management, requirements gathering, and developing of site maps. This last bit, with some additional thinking and sketches, laid the groundwork for ‘creative’ designers to do their work – and also for a discipline that would eventually emerge and become what we know of today as User Experience.

User Experience had a hard-fought role to play in the digital process. UX professionals have come from project management, content, design and technology disciplines.

Over the last 15 years UX has grown from being an adjunct to someone’s day job, into a profession with its own associations, conferences, university degrees, specialist agencies, and recognition as a fundamental part of the process.

It has taken a long time to get to a place where there is wider recognition of UX as a profession.

Which is why recently, I’ve been following with great curiosity a path that UX seems to be taking. A proliferation of UX Strategy and UX Engineering roles, along with the intersection of Agile and UCD, appears to be pushing the traditional UX professional to begin considering multidisciplinary paths.

A simple response to this is that User Experience has never been limited to just us. It affects, and is affected by, all of the other disciplines in digital, by our client’s business and internal stakeholders, by their customers, and their competitors, the economy, the Government, and many other factors that extend well beyond the general purview of the individual UX professional.

While we were churning out process flows, wireframes, prototypes and specifications, and encouraging our clients to conduct user research to inform all of their activities, we were training them in the value of informing their digital strategies with a broad range of input and thinking.

And as our work came to contain more research, methodological review, competitive analysis, and white paper recommendations, we slowly moved into the realm of strategists, who were using their own tools – PEST, VRIO and Porter’s 5 Forces among others – to analyse a client’s environment and business.

Disparate analysis is not enough. Clients need to make the most of the knowledge gained from both disciplines to create opportunity for their businesses and customers.

In a similar way, UX has driven prototype development as a means of demonstrating functional design. This has driven the proliferation of tools like Axure that enable UX professionals to develop rapid – or often overly complex – prototypes to give a client an indication of the end product.

These prototypes can be used in user testing, as demonstrations to stakeholders, and work in Agile and Waterfall environments to inform the developers in their work.

In some ways we are victims of our own success. Agencies and clients are now looking for UX professionals who can prototype – and more than that – UX professionals who are also developers, who can write CSS, develop HTML templates, write JavaScript, and far more.

All of which brings me back to my original question, and the title of this post: Is UX returning to being a multidisciplinary role?

I believe – as probably many of you do – that UX has always been a multi-disciplinary role. I think that we are seeing some of the strands of UX develop and evolve in quite a natural way at this point. I’d like to think that the situations I’ve described above are only a couple of many strands of development for UX professionals – as there are others we’ve not talked about like the UX/designer, UX/programme manager or the UX/content strategist.

I would be wary of a future where all UX professionals are required to also be developers or strategists. I think some people naturally evolve down some of these paths – in the same way that some people like to stay in the trenches and wireframe, while others like to run teams and develop overall frameworks.

I think going forward it is going to be a challenge to both the UX profession and other professions to understand how to handle these intersections. They present interesting opportunities and challenges, not least of which is the sense of dissolution they sometimes bring when they happen. I think it is also important to understand that there is a core UX profession that is now established, and these intersections can represent new paths for growth.

I have my own thoughts on the paths I’m interested in. I’d be very curious to know what others think.

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