UX and the common sense question
Is UX just another word for common sense? As a discipline, after all, UX is dedicated to creating intuitive, simple and straightforward experiences. Good UX design is common-sense design, and good usability requires common-sense product pathways.
Because of this close relationship with the obvious and the understandable, many see UX as synonymous with common sense. The connection seems logical and unproblematic on a surface level. In fact, calling UX ‘common sense’ sounds like a common-sense description in itself.
The reality is not quite so clear-cut. Looking past face values, defining UX as common sense is reductive at best, and a business risk at worst.
UX and common sense have much in common. Even UX practitioners acknowledge the ties between the two. This article from TeazMedia states that, “It’s common sense – that’s UX.” Product designer Mike Locke writes that, “UX design is common sense.” Or, in the words of UX renegade Jason Clauss, “This s*** just requires common sense.”
The fact is that UX and common sense overlap by their very nature. UX designers strive to remove undue thought and friction from the user journey, and to do that the experience created needs to be palpably smooth with clear, obvious options.
Adhering to the ‘don’t make me think’ principle often starts with common sense questions. What is the simplest, most logical way to design a user flow? What is the easiest, least intensive way to allow the user to achieve their goals? How can the user get from A to B in the quickest, surest way possible?
In other words, to empower users to require common sense alone when navigating a product or website, UX designers must also embrace common-sense thinking. It is this interplay between UX and goofproof logic that props up the ‘UX is common sense’ contention.
Looking through a reductive lens
Unfortunately, throwing UX and common sense together synonymously does justice to neither. As anyone working in UX will know, the field has a far broader scope of responsibility than most people realise. There is much more to UX than dabbling with colour schemes and deciding the best place to put buttons. Good UX is the oft-overlooked je ne sais quoi that turns a functional product into a consumer-loved commercial hit.
Similarly, common sense in a UX context typically translates into years of systematic research, habit creation and behavioural psychology. That user step that you deem to be common sense today is the product of careful best practice and convention building. As this author puts it, “‘Common sense,’ represents a ridiculously large body of work.”
Saying that ‘UX is common sense’ might work as a flippant throwaway comment or a one-second field guide, but the oversimplification leads to looking at UX through a reductive lens of understanding.
The reality of UX
Many fields of work are looked at with an imperfect understanding by those outside them. Why, then, is it so problematic to use ‘UX is common sense’ as a simple layman’s explanation?
The reality is that UX is still a fledgling field in the modern workplace, despite its long heritage. From the first studies of ergonomics in 1857, to the first psychology lab in 1879, to the emergence of human factors as a field in 1949, UX is deeply rooted in science and psychology. To quote Brian Pagán: “UX is based on 200 years of scientific knowledge, 30 years of industry best practices, and specifically applied research.”
For all this history, UX is only now gaining a seat at the business table. The first ever UX job was not created until 1993 – making UX as a professional field younger than many of us reading this article. UX continued to gain momentum after the dot-com explosion and the unveiling of the iPhone, but it is still only in the last decade or so that UX jobs have entered the mainstream.
Even now, there are currently only around 1 million people working in UX. (Compare this to 22 million developers – a line of work with a much-publicised shortage.) UX is still new, still not widely understood, and still fighting to formalise its role in the workplace. Reducing it to ‘common sense’ undermines the work of centuries, and threatens to undo hard-won efforts to win UX a place in the boardroom.
The reality of ‘common sense’
The other side the ‘UX is common sense’ debate is that elusive element: common sense. Trickily, the stark reality of common sense is that it does not exist. Common sense is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma – and it is not common at all.
If common sense truly was common, peanut packets would not need to offer the cautionary notice that they contain nuts. We would not need the helpful instruction on bleach bottles to keep the fluid away from our eyes. And UX designers would not need to spend their working lives crafting user personas, creating user stories, and analysing the plethora of ways users interact (and struggle) with ‘simple’ products.
In fact, when a developer says that a product is ‘common sense’, what they typically mean is that is familiar to them. What might be common sense to one user might be a mystery to another. As any UX practitioner knows, ‘common-sense’ tech assumptions are often woefully incorrect.
Adi Tedjasaputra phrases it well when he says, “It is very unwise just to rely on common sense in ensuring the usability of a product. Using common sense is not only unwise but sometimes also dangerously misleading.” So, to say that ‘UX is common sense’ is to discredit the depth of work and painstaking analysis it takes to make a product feel easy to use.
Building a product is undeniably difficult. Designing a product that users love, however, is even more so. While UX is easy to trivialise and criticise, it is hard to do well. After all, if it was really just common sense, flawless design would be common.
The truth is that it takes truly uncommon work to deliver a common-sense experience. A product can only seem common-sense to an entire customer base if it has been perfectly built. As Andrew Stewart writes, “When something is designed well, it seems obvious that that is how it should be.”
Excellent UX design hides in plain sight; it is invisible within the ‘obvious’. By talking about UX in sweeping simplifications, we further cloud its true impact and value. Though it may seem like a compliment to say that UX is common sense, it thickens the smokescreen through which it is too often viewed.
The bigger picture
So, is UX common sense? If design is colouring things in, copywriting putting words on a page and development just logical thinking then yes, UX is common sense.
Otherwise, it is best to use labels that give accountability and context. When Donald Norman first coined the term “user experience”, he explained that: “I invented the term because I thought interface and usability were too narrow: I wanted to cover all aspects of the person’s experience with a system, including industrial design, graphics, the interface, the physical interaction, and the manual.”
The goal, ultimately, was to expand depth and responsibility via this new definition. As inconsequential as it may seem, falling back to limited generalities like ‘UX is common sense’ is actually counterproductive to the UX cause.
We originally published this article on Usability Geek.