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What's In a Name?

by Whitney Quesenbery

What’s in a name, indeed? User Experience v. User Interaction v. User Interface v. Information Architecture v. Information Design v. Human Factors v. User-Centered Design v. Performance Centered Design v. … As far as I can tell, a choice of title says more about "where you got on the bus" than any real distinction of goals or often even of results (assuming two equally good designers are being compared). In other words, it says something about your background, and perhaps your skill set. It might also say something about your approach to design.

Perhaps we can all agree on this: To create a successful web site, application or virtually any product you must know something about your users – who they are, what they are trying to accomplish, and they way they think about the task.

But, perhaps not. Definitions of an information architect as "the individual who organizes patterns in data, making the complex clear" focus on the person and their design process. Contrast this with the definition of usability in ISO 9241 - "The extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in a specified context of use" – and its focus on the results of the design work. Does information architecture start from the information, while usability or user-centered design starts from the person and the context of use?

After that, specific skills solve different problems: indexing and information retrieval organize large collections of information; ergonomics informs the design of physical interaction; ethnography and psychology provide research techniques; usability and user-centered design help people work effectively.

In defining a field, each person seems to look at the world and place themselves in the center of the circle, giving their specialty top billing as the summation of all the others. What exactly is gained by this political one-upmanship? In the face of this inflation, I find myself pulling back to the simplest craft title I can find. Or avoiding titles altogether. Sometimes it’s easier to simply say that for any project I take on, I start from the people who will use the product and try to figure out what I need to do to make it usable for them.

Efficient, effective, satisfying.

Let’s concentrate on doing the work.


This article in the May 2001 issue of Design Matters, the newsletter of the STC Information Design SIG. A dozen contributors were asked to comment on the differences between Information Design and Information Architecture. I was asked to provide a usability perspective."Efficient, effective and satisfying" are part of the definition of usability in the ISO 9241-11:1998 standard.

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Whitney Quesenbery works on user experience and usability with a passion for clear communication. She is the co-author of Storytelling for User Experience from Rosenfeld Media. Before she was seduced by a little beige computer, Whitney was a theatrical lighting designer. The lessons from the theatre stay with her in creating user experiences. She can be reached at www.WQusability.com