Can Experience be Designed?
Do experience designers shape how users feel, or do they shape with respect to how users feel? A small but important nuance. Did you catch it? No? Then let me ask you this way: Do architects design houses or do they design “inhabitant experiences?” The bullshit answer is “They design inhabitant experiences”. The pragmatic answer is: “They design houses”. The cautious answer is: Architects design houses that lead to a spectrum of experiences, some foreseen, some not. But they do not design all possible experiences one can have in a house.
People’s perceptions of user interfaces are too different to be precogitated by a single person. Yes, I designed this site. But no, I don’t know exactly how you experience it right now (but I do have sort of an idea).
Look at the Agenda
Con men: As in every other field there are con men that fool naive clients using experience design as a slogan. Some just make empty promises, some sell empty white papers, some use the slogan to pump up meaningless speeches, some just upsell naive clients with hot air.
Bullshitters: Bullshitting is not lying, it’s fooling people into assuming whatever suits your purpose. Bullshit in UX often comes in pretty funny colors: Unconventional meetings, esoteric brain storming and irrelevant chats at preposterous prices with arm-thick bullshit documentation (documentation is important, but just because it’s printed and time-consuming doesn’t mean that it’s worth thousands of dollars). Some invite programmers and secretaries to design user interfaces, others push management executives to engage in childish games, and some make you do really crazy stuff like eating soap in a handstand.
Wishy-washy managers: Insecure managers like anything that can be tested, because it allows them to avoid responsibility. The more insecure a manager is, the more he wants to ask other people. There is nothing wrong with serious user testing, but consulting your husband, wife, kids, secretary, cousin, or yourself is not serious user testing testing. Usability tests and user research need to be done by professionals. Not everybody can be as badass as Steve Jobs, but an exceptional product needs a clear vision, solid user research, an experienced designer, and a management willing to take some risks.
Sales-y Emptiness: User Experience Design as a tautology: The design of a product — voluntarily or involuntarily — defines the interaction between human and artifact. Interaction leads to experience. From this point of view, all design is experience design. Used like this, the term “user experience design” doesn’t mean anything.
Amateurish Exaggeration: User Experience Design as hyperbole: User experience design somehow suggests that a designer has direct control over how each and every user experiences their product. A massive exaggeration. The more experience you have in our field the more you are aware of how much the perception of a product varies from person to person. Design defines experience, it doesn’t control it. Used like this, “experience design” is a big promise that cannot be kept.
Technical language: User Experience Design as a synecdoche: The user experience of a product doesn’t start with the first hands-on contact, and it doesn’t end there either. It includes all contact points: business, technology. and design. Skilled designers use the term “user experience design” instead of “web design” to express that the visual design is a representative part of a far more complex construct. Used like this, user experience design is a valid term.
So yes, some (but not all) that use the term “user experience design” are charlatans. So what do serious people say, when they use “user experience design” instead of just “web design”?
User Experience Design is not as easy as Dreamweaver: Everybody that publishes a website can call himself a web designer. Calling yourself a user experience designer suggests that you measure your designs with a substantial audience, and deal with a wide scale of user opinions on a daily basis. If not, you are not a user experience designer.
User Experience Design proficiency makes you feel small, not big: Traditionally, design is a hierarchical notion where the designer is King and the consumer pays designer taxes to get a spark of design genius. In the field of user experience design, that notion of a glorified, omniscient designer has been turned upside down. The experience designer tries to empathize with as many different users as possible.
User Experience Design doesn’t win ADC prices, it wins percentages: User experience design is the part of a design that can be measured in clicks, time on site, return on investment, return visits, and in direct feedback. User experience design is design where every opinion counts. User experience design is engineering — it doesn’t try to find the perfect solution, but the best compromise.
Everybody is a user, so is everybody a user experience designer, right?
Since everybody is a user, everybody has an opinion on how their experience should be. And many are very eager to utter their opinions really strongly. But that doesn’t mean that every user is a designer. Asking for salt doesn’t make you a cook. Each user has their own opinion, and the user experience designer deals with the many different opinions and tries to find the best compromise. Good compromises are not in the middle, they are higher than the initial options: good compromises are synthetic (If your options are cowardly or foolhardy, the synthesis is courageous).
You don’t need to be an engineer to find out that your car doesn’t start. But you need to be an engineer to fix it. As a user experience designer you need to know how things work. When it comes to use, all opinions are equal, but when it comes to engineering, they are not. The engineer collects the feedback and finds ways to deal with it. His opinions are not just based on personal experience. Like a scientist, he tests and validate his assumptions, he develops both theory and practice — not merely relying on his own perception, but by actually testing his products with his audience. And yes, designing interactive products for over ten years makes you more experienced about what works and what doesn’t. But it should never stop you from testing it in the field. By dealing with feedback you get proficient in “experience design”.
The more response you get the more you learn, and the better you can do your job in the future. It is not so hard to find feedback. What’s hard is how you deal with it: feedback always makes complicated things more complicated. And beware! If you do everything the user wants you end up with the car Homer Simpson designed.
Theory and Practice
You cannot claim to be an expert in interaction design without practical experience. Building things and dealing with user opinions is what makes a user experience designer. Being an active Facebook or Twitter user, a talented speaker, a winning salesperson, or a collector of UXD articles doesn’t make you an expert on user experience design. What makes you an expert in designing interfaces is building interfaces and dealing with the (often very angry) feedback. Actual user experience designers find pleasure in weird things like:
- Studying user behavior on a daily basis just for fun (Analytics, SE-logs)
- Usability tests and interviews
- Prototype testing and optimization
- Fixing mistakes after the launch by closely watching and evaluating angry user reactions
- Learning about new business processes
- Studying new technology on a daily basis
The bigger the audience the more stoicism you need. Relaunching T-Online ten years ago was a personal baptism by fire — the new design was ripped apart by the whole German tech community. Over time you get used to relaunch protest. Looking at the numbers, iA’s designs seem to improve (and for some reason the reactions are not all that angry anymore). But in every project, there are a lot of surprising feedback to digest and learn from.
Yes, a lot of agencies will abuse technical language to upsell, some more bluntly, some in a more entertaining way. But you can’t slam the bullshit hammer on an entire industry that employs some of the smartest and honest men and women in tech without looking like an amateur.
Amateurs don’t want to talk to and understand clients, they don’t want to discuss things with stupid users, they want to go right in and do it live, change it and improve it in the way they deem necessary. Their strategy is: “Let’s work until it works”. Amateurs are cheap at first but they often fail to complete the job. Because, simply put: without proper preparation and user research and user opinion you can’t make things work — for the user.
- User experience design is not a magic method that allows you to foresee how people will feel about your design, but a design approach that is based on user feedback in different phases of the project.
- The more experience you have with user testing, the better you know how to deal with the usually hard-to-handle feedback (feedback alone won’t make a good design), and only few are born Stoics.
- The more experience you have handling user feedback, the more likely it is that you are going to find a higher synthetic compromise in your design development.
Okay, but… how can I discern the bullshitter from the user experience designer?
— Look at what they say and look at what they did. Then compare.
Well that’s just… like… your opinion man…
Written with WriterÐ