Is UX Design a Science?

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As a field in its relative infancy, UX design is often misunderstood. Even within the industry, there seems to be much debate about what it is and how to categorize it. Ever more frequently the question arises: is UX design a science?

Now you might be wondering: why does it even matter? It’s not necessarily a case of finding the right label. Rather, it’s about understanding what shapes this crucial discipline, the methodologies involved, and how UX designers reach their solutions. The lens through which we view UX design also has an impact on how it evolves over time.

If you’re a new UX designer looking to break into the field, you may be curious about the path you’re about to go down. If you’re a seasoned UX designer, you’ll be no stranger to that all-too-common conundrum of trying to explain your job to others. Either way, exploring both sides of the debate can help us get to grips with this fascinating (and complex!) field.

A Brief History of UX Design

Looking back through the history of UX, you can see that it’s a rich tapestry woven from many different threads. Cognitive psychologist and designer Don Norman coined the term “user experience” in the 1990s, but UX has been in the making for decades.

The beginnings of UX can be traced as far back as 4000 BC to the ancient Chinese philosophy of Feng Shui. Feng Shui is all about arranging your surroundings in the most harmonious way — much like a UX designer will seek the most user-friendly layout for a website or app.

UX design also has some roots in ergonomics, the scientific discipline concerned with understanding the interactions between humans and other elements of a system. There is evidence to suggest that, as early as the 5th century BC, Ancient Greek civilizations were designing their tools and workplaces based on ergonomic principles.

Fast forward to the 1900s and we start to see the relationship between UX design and engineering. In his quest to increase workplace efficiency, mechanical engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor conducted extensive research into how to optimize the relationship between workers and their tools.

In 1955, industrial engineer Henry Dreyfuss wrote Designing for People — shifting the focus away from the workplace and introducing UX into the realm of consumerism. Dreyfuss’ design philosophy was largely based on applied common sense and scientific principles, and he is credited with improving the usability of some of the most iconic consumer products, including the Hoover vacuum cleaner and the tabletop telephone.

The dawn of the 1970s marked the era of personal computers, with psychologists and engineers working together to focus on user experience. Cognitive scientist Don Norman joined the team at Apple in the early 90s as their User Experience Architect, making him the first person in history to have UX in his job title.

So far, so scientific. In fact, skimming through this timeline, you could be forgiven for concluding that UX design is, quite simply, the product of science and engineering.

However, this is an abridged version based on a small handful of factors — it certainly doesn’t tell the full story. When it comes to defining and understanding the field of UX, the present is just as important as the past. How do today’s UX designers navigate and interpret their role within the current landscape?

UX Design: The Here and Now

Perhaps because of the history of UX, many designers today feel compelled to make the point that UX design is not science.

One such designer is Sherry Wu, who argues that design is neither science, engineering nor art. When trying to explain her job as a product designer, she finds that “the confusion of setting design apart from science, arts and engineering is pretty common to people.”

Indeed, despite growing recognition within the business world, UX design remains something of a mystery in the mainstream. In trying to understand UX design, there’s a tendency to place it in more familiar boxes, like science or art.

Read the full article on UX Planet.

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