UX Theatre: Are You Just Acting Like You're Doing User-Centered Design?

Back in January 2018, I wrote a Twitter thread about projects that pay lip service to user-centered design (UCD) and what we can do about it as designers. Here's an expanded write-up of the topic, for those of you who requested some additional context. (The original tweets are in italics.) In 2020, I also created UX Theatre: The Poster which is free to download and use with attribution (Creative Commons CCBY3.0).

A few projects I've come across recently are doing UX theatre, not actual user-centered design. Sadly, it's becoming more prevalent as execs learn the term UX but their teams aren't empowered to do all the work that UX entails.

Organizations have latched on to "user-centered design" as a buzzword. In many cases, executives seem to misinterpret it as a euphemism for "thinking from a user's perspective." They don't fund user research or provide project owners the latitude to create teams that include UX and service designers. For all the talk about users, there is no consideration given to including them in the design and delivery process.

People pepper their presentations and project charters with claims of user-centered design, but don't talk to users, don't mine data for user insights, don't validate assumptions with users, don't test prototypes or even existing apps/ services/sites with users...

The organizational tone and messaging claim that user-centered design is key, but teams don't have the means to implement it. Instead, UCD is half-heartedly incorporated into projects as a watered down methodology. More effort is spent on briefings that tell a user-centered story than on researching user needs and producing user-centered results.

No actual users are involved at any step in the process. But we *think from a user perspective* as in, we role-played using assumptions we made about user behaviour based on our own experiences with the tool.

One of the suggestions I saw put forward recently in my organization suggested that new tools and services should be tested with the most senior executive before go-live. In most cases, the executive isn't even the target audience for the services and products the organization is supposed to deliver. The risk with this direction is that the highest paid person's opinion (aka the HIPPO) has the potential to become more important than feedback from actual users.

It would be better to include the HIPPO as a stakeholder throughout the design process: instead of asking them to contribute with opinions, it would be better to have them understand the feedback from user research and buy into a true user-centered design direction.

But hey, people played with post-its, plastered stuff all over their wall space and used the word "users" a lot in their documentation, so they must be doing this UX thing right. Right?!

And then there are the design workshops. The ones where the team plasters a room with post-its and role plays as the user, and then launches into design. But not a single user is sought out to validate the team's assumptions. No effort is made to shadow users performing tasks. No research is conducted to determine why existing users complain about deficiencies with the current system. "We think" becomes a substitute for "we saw" and "we heard." And that's the biggest travesty of all because everyone leaves, patting each other on the back, and acts so damned proud. Proud and yet so wrong.

User-centered design is a lot of work. It can be hard (esp in gov) to find and talk to your users, to arrange to watch them use things, to conduct in-field research and gather tangible data.

Without including actual honest-to-dog users, you're only *pretending* to do user-centered design. You're acting. It's theatre. Users deserve more.

UX Theatre is easy to spot. It's applying any sort of design methodology without including a single user in the process or including users merely for show. Look around, it's going on a lot more than you might realize.

If your project starts looking like UX theatre, call it out. Push for research-based decision-making over opinion-based. Make everyone aware how to incorporate users into the process for feedback and validation. Advocate for your users.

So, did you spot people claiming to be user-centered without ever talking to a single user? What can you do? Call it out. Do some informal user research and explain why the team (or the HIPPO) isn't the user. Explain how usability testing and user research can help to validate the team's assumptions and test drive the new design. Propose a methodology to have users validate the results of that UX improv workshop.

And if you can't change the direction, you can document the lack of user input in the process. You can identify risks related to designing without user input. You can recommend future steps to test assumptions and designs with end users.

Even if you don't run projects in your organization, there is plenty you can do as an individual contributor: You can point out when the team is performing UX theatre. You can try to do things the right way by identifying the steps that are being skipped and highlighting UX industry best practices. You can talk to your project managers about designing users into your methodology.

If a project is too far along to be influenced, you can document what the team isn't doing as much as what they are doing. For every report or document created without user validation, include a short description of the methodology and explicitly state that this work was completed without consulting users. Identify the team's assumptions and explain the risks of not vetting the work through user research. Propose next steps and suggestions of ways to incorporate actual user feedback into the design process.

You can evaluate the results of the delivered product and conduct post-mortems. You can do pre-mortems on new projects to review what worked and what didn't on previous projects. You can run informal sessions to teach proper UX methodology to your team members.

Even at a micro level, you can influence how people think about UX. Over time, you might be able to influence how the organization designs for users.

Designers don't always have a say in how projects are structured or run, but we can advocate for doing things the right way. Even if we don't win every fight, by speaking up we can influence the culture over time. Small wins are still wins. /end

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