User Experience: A response to Adam Connor

What follows is a response to Adam Connor’s attempt to articulate his personal definitions and beliefs about UX Design. I appreciate the effort required to make such an attempt, and respect that these are his beliefs and will try to respond as such.

It is probably worth your while taking a read of Adam’s piece before continuing…

So, let’s begin.

Reason 1: I agree with the premise here, that a person’s experience of the ‘thing’ we’ve designed is the result of a very complex interplay of many, many variables over which we have little to no control. That said, someone on the team whose role it is to consider what that interplay looks like to a potential user (see note below about terminology) feels like an important inclusion. And whilst I laud the sentiment that everyone should be thinking about it, the reality is most people don’t, and many lack the capacity to start.

The reason I say that is many people lack the capacity for empathy needed to adopt someone else’s perspective in any real sense. Yes, that’s why we involve users in our design process – from research through prototype testing etc – but that doesn’t remove the need for a designer to be working through the implications of that perspective on the ‘thing’ we’re designing.

Reason 2: “The UX Designer should be defining the experiences they want users to have.” In many respects, this is all a UX Designer can do. In many cases, they don’t even do that. Or they focus on a narrow part of experience – typically functional. It is rare you see a designer intentionally defining emotional qualities for their design as objectives. You do see it amongst brand strategist, but this tends to be an articulation of an outward-facing quality rather than inward-facing, customer-centric qualities.

Reason 3: I agree with all of this, but you lost me when you said “Design is problem-solving, plain and simple.” Design is, in part, problem-solving, but it’s a lot more than that, too. Yes, it’s the “creation of a solution aimed at achieving a specific outcome/goal.” But it’s also the process of reaching a shared understanding of what that specific outcome/goal should be; and framing (or re-framing) the problem itself so that our solutions have significance and meaning. Design is also craft, and facilitation, and exploration, and creativity, perseverance and a deep-seated dissatisfaction with the world around us. At its more self-expressive end Design is very akin to Art, and very distant to ‘problem-solving’.

Reason 4: Totally agree with this. Case in point: the unboxing experience begins with the packaging.

Reason 5: This feels very much like a post-rationalisation. There’ll be evidence of individual designers who thought this way, but I don’t believe an understanding of, or an intentional objective coached in terms of, experience has formed an established part of design education until relatively recently.

JJG and others articulated a relatively narrow, technology (or, more specifically, Web-) centric definition of User Experience. We’re continuing to explore the more abstract, medium-independent understanding of experience and experience design, and gaining a richer appreciation for the area as a result. We’re seeing a parallel exploration in other fields, influenced and driven by similar discoveries and research.

Any sentence that includes “<something> is just design” is going to bristle with me – I think it’s a gross simplification of design and – see below on terminology – not accurate.

 

Notes around terminology

I think it might have during a conversation with Jon Kolko that he said (and I paraphrase from memory): “I see three problems with the phrase ‘user experience designer’. i) User is such a narrow term, and assumes a context for both the person and designed object that isn’t necessarily true. ii) it’s conceited on the part of a designer to think they can ‘design’ something as intrinsically personal as an experience. And it’s arrogant to think we have control over such a complex, personal thing. iii) Most of what people practice as ‘UX Design’ isn’t design at all. It might be creative; it might be successful; but it isn’t Design.”

I agree with him as far as it goes, and this is broadly consistent with Adam’s thoughts in the section: “Experience Design does exist”

It’s easy to fix the first one by dropping the word ‘User’ and dealing with the now-absent technology connotation in other ways, if necessary. The second point can be covered by inserting the word ‘for’ – i.e. designing for experience. It acknowledges the difficulties of closely and prescriptively defining a person’s experience, whilst maintaining experience as the intent or goal of the design activity. The third is much more difficult to resolve, but we’re seeing (I believe) a growing trend towards experience design work being undertaken using processes and methods that are more true to the intent of Design.

Comments welcome – either here or at Adam’s post where this originated.

6 Comments
  • Kristi

    February 23, 2012 at 7:54 am Reply

    Steve, could you elaborate on what you mean by “Most of what people practice as ‘UX Design’ isn’t design at all.”?

    Do you mean that UX practitioners aren’t going through a complete design process (analysis/genesis/synthesis), either because they don’t know it or because of organizational constraints? Do you mean they are mainly styling, rather than defining products?

  • Steve

    February 23, 2012 at 9:47 am Reply

    Kristi,

    “Do you mean that UX practitioners aren’t going through a complete design process…” – that’s exactly what I mean. I think your reasons apply in at least some cases – lack of knowledge, time, budget, etc. I would stipulate a distinction between a ‘creative’ process and a ‘Design’ process. What is generally referred to as ‘Design’ in the UX arena is more akin to ‘creative’.

    As I mentioned above, that’s not to say they aren’t successful, but it’s a distinction worth noting and speaks to the misnomer of “UX Design”.

    Jonas Löwgren recently wrote an article for Johnny Holland as a lead up to his Interaction|12 keynote that speaks to this point: http://johnnyholland.org/2011/10/designerly-ways-of-working-in-ux/

    Steve

  • […] discussion about the nature of design practice emerged from Adam Connor’s blog. His post and Steve Baty’s reply have spurred me on to writing up my own current thoughts on the nature of interaction […]

  • Matt Nish-Lapidus

    February 25, 2012 at 12:50 am Reply

    My lengthy thoughts on this are here: http://normativedesign.com/practice/the-nature-of-design

    Great post, Steve! I have far too much to say to post it all in a comment, but I’d love to keep this discussion going.

  • Piotr

    March 10, 2012 at 3:59 pm Reply

    At large, I agree with your observations on Adam Connors attempt to define UX, however, I must point out that there is a huge gap between the industry/practice perspective of UX and that held by academia. In The two approaches can be summarised in terms of tendencies towards, on one hand an effective methodology and on the other, a robust general abstraction, respectively. Adam’s view, in my opinion, is largely a response to the definition and commentary presented in chapter 3 of the interaction-design.org Encyclopaedia (http://www.interaction-design.org/encyclopedia/user_experience_and_experience_design.html). A volume which constitutes a valid discourse, but hardly a notion of nailing down any concrete or readily executable means and “tools” of practise.

    Regarding your comment “I would stipulate a distinction..” I’m not entirely sure if I understand what you intended to capture in that statement or perhaps we make slightly different distinctions. I see UX as a fusion of “routine/craft” and “creative/art” aspects (classes) of design. Namely, the craft-like identification tasks e.g. user research or testing and on the other end of the design continuum, the art-like interpretation tasks of innovative and inventive generation of novel artefacts and structures.

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