Can Experience be Designed?

Essay

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.

Do experience designers shape how we feel, or do they shape products with respect to how we feel? It’s a small but important nuance. 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 (although I do have sort of an idea).

The Rhetoric

Tautology

The design of a product 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” becomes meaningless.

Pleonasm

User Experience Design somehow suggests that a designer has direct control over how every user experiences the 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, “User Experience Design” is a big promise that cannot be kept.

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 across 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 more complex construct. Used like this, User Experience Design is a valid term.

The Substance

Some (but not all) using the term “User Experience Design” are charlatans. What do serious people mean when they use “User Experience Design”? Why don’t we just say “web design”?

Dreamweaver won’t help

Everybody that publishes a website can call themselves a web designer. Calling yourself a user experience designer suggests that you measure your designs with a substantial audience, and deal with a wide range of user opinions on a daily basis. If not, you are not a user experience designer.

It makes you feel small

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 has been turned upside down. The experience designer tries to empathize with as many different users as possible.

It doesn’t win prizes

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.

Not Every Passenger is a Pilot

Everybody has an opinion on how their “user experience” should be. And many are very eager to utter their opinions strongly. But that doesn’t mean every user is a designer, just like asking for salt doesn’t make you a cook. 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 superior to the initial options.

You don’t need to be an engineer to find out that your car doesn’t start. But you do to fix it. When it comes to use, all opinions are equal, but when it comes to engineering they are not. Like scientists, engineers collect feedback, test and validate their assumptions, and develop both theory and practice. As a user experience designer you need to know how things work, not merely rely on your own perception or opinions. You need to test products with their audience.

Designing interactive products for several years gives you more experience about what works and what doesn’t. But it should never stop you from testing it in the field. Only by dealing with feedback do 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 collect feedback. What is hard is how you deal with it: feedback makes complicated things more complicated. And beware! If you do everything your users want you end up with the car Homer Simpson designed.

Theory and Practice

Becoming competent takes more than being active on social media, reading about it, talking about it or even selling it. Practical experience is essential. For User Experience Design that’s designing interfaces, building interfaces, and dealing with the (often very angry) feedback. However, once you’re hooked you’ll find pleasure in weird things like:

  • Studying user behavior via Analytics etc. on a daily basis, just for fun
  • Usability tests and interviews
  • Prototype testing and optimization
  • Fixing mistakes after the launch by closely watching and evaluating angry user reactions
  • Learning about new technology and business processes

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 is a lot of surprising feedback to digest and learn from.

Conclusion

A lot of agencies abuse technical language to upsell, some more bluntly, some in a more entertaining way. Bullshit in UX comes in funny colors: Unconventional meetings, esoteric brain-storming, irrelevant chats at preposterous prices, stacks of obtuse “documentation” with little insight. Con men use experience design as a slogan to make empty speeches, sell white papers, and upsell clients with hot air.

They are not easy to spot, but from the way they work you can tell: Amateurs don’t want to talk to and understand clients, they don’t want to discuss things with “stupid” users, they want to go in and do it live, to change things based on their gut. The strategy is: “We’ll work until it works”. Amateurs are cheap at first but they fail to complete the job. Without proper preparation, user research, and user opinion, you can’t make things work for the user.

  1. User Experience Design is not a magic method that allows you to foresee how people will feel about your design, but a design approach based on testing and feedback in different phases of the project.
  2. Testing and feedback alone won’t make a good design, but will show you what works, and what doesn’t.
  3. The more experience you have with user testing, the better you can deal with hard-to-handle feedback. Only few are born Stoics.
  4. The more experience you have handling user feedback, the more likely you will find a superior compromise in your design development.

In short, to discern the bullshitter from the user experience designer, look at what they say and compare that to what they did.

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