Every once in a while (but really, as often as you can manage), it helps to appreciate where you are and what you have. I understand … that is difficult when ‘where you are’ is on London’s Central Line at 8:20AM on a Monday going to a job you are not inspired by.
There are too many things wrong with that idea, but I want to go somewhere else for the moment. One day we will come back to the inevitable, “Why are you doing a job you are not inspired by?” but that is for another time.
Where I want to go now is that your chimney sweep of the ‘Days of Old’ could be your UX designer of today. And before anyone says it (though I get the sense that it is already too late!) this is no comment on social status or skill set or anything as loaded as that, my point is far simpler and more trivial.
So, first point … we have a far more equal playing field than previously existed. Before chimney sweeping became a regulated industry in 1875 (yes, regulated not relegated!) at least chimney sweeping was a profession of sorts (get up and dirty on the history here). But it was a profession steeped in exploitation, and thankfully in most areas of the Western World this sort of exploitation has ended. So, yes — the person that was once faced with few other options than being a chimney sweep could now (hopefully) have a shot at being a UX designer. And when you think about this, it makes you realise why heroes past pursued these objectives of ‘opportunity for all’. We are closer to an ultimate objective, and if you accept that our chimney sweep past could be our UX designer of present, then the big win is that we have developed the middle class where people do not provide productive capacity for those with position (or capital resources) but rather reap the benefits of their own efforts. Today’s UX designer is, in all likelihood, every bit the consumer that today’s bank manager is. But this is too political a point for me.
The somewhat tenuous link I am making is that a chimney sweep improved the marginal utility for someone in meeting their need for warmth and shelter. The fireplace worked better (there was also a slightly reduced chance of fire) because there was an improved ‘draw’ and the fire burned brighter. Hooray for Mr Armitage-Wells. And fireplaces were a technology of their time (… just because we are entering the Fourth Industrial Revolution, let’s not forget their Greatest Hits, Volumes 1–3).
So, the chimney sweep made that present-day technology work better. And well, that is kind of what the UX designer does today, no? And if we think about how in the space of that relatively short period of time (what’s 140 years between friends?), imagine where we will be in the next 140 years. Or, if you want to get all Kurzweil-ian in this Age of Spiritual Machines, perhaps even less than 100 years.
Just think about the subset of human experience that will support industries or professionals. We have gone from pragmatic (it works), to experiential (it works better), and surely thereafter to existential (it works best for me).
I’m not going to lie, I also think there is something else that they may have in common in that just as the chimney sweep is less of a necessity today, so (hopefully) will the UX designer of the future. May we live to see the day where UX is unnecessary because technology is so fluid (and hidden) as to be able to adapt to the user in real-time.
In the meantime, who doesn’t appreciate someone making things work better for you.
Though I’m covered with soot
From me ‘ead to me toes
A sweep knows ‘e’s welcome
Wherever ‘e goes