2012_07_02_featured Theory

Why The User Experience Can Or Cannot Be Designed

This is a guest post by our friend Paul Olyslager.

It seems an endless discussion whether the user experience can or cannot be designed. The difficulty of the discussion lies in the level of abstraction. I believe that is because everything is an experience and everyone is a user. There is no standard definition, nor consensus among the practitioners, of what experience design really is.

In this article I hope to shed some light on the issue. I will share my thoughts about the difficulties to design the user experience and give some practical tips how to overcome this challenge.

The challenge behind UX

Let me start with a little story: I briefly worked as a student for a company which provides cable television, high speed Internet and telecom services. One day, they decided to plan in-person user testing sessions to find out how people use digital television. Before the tests started, they furnished the room with a big couch, some closets, frames, a nice carpet, lamps, the whole works. They tried to avoid any external influences by copying the home environment and making everything as comfortable as possible.

The thing is, if I come home from a long day at work, I put on some comfortable running shorts, grab a cold gin tonic, and put on the TV. I wouldn’t consider doing this if I was participating in one of their user research tests. The question of course is whether my running shorts have any influence on me using the remote control. But fact is, no matter how hard you try to recreate reality for a user research session, to some extent it will always remain artificial.

While some products, such as a home theater system, are used in a specific place, surfing the Internet or using mobile applications isn’t. Mobile devices, like smartphones and tablets, are used almost anywhere. That’s why we can’t control the context of a product, even if we knew where people use it.

With traditional methods, such as observation, interviews and surveys, we learn to understand people, what they think about a product, and how they experience it. We can then alter the product according to the test results, but does that mean we improved the experience for everyone?

User Experience is about many things. Not only aesthetics, but also emotions, involvement, engagement, physical and social interaction, cognitive and perceptual psychology define how people experience a product. Yet, the user experience is not only about the product, it’s also about the situation in which the product is being used and the person who is using it.

The context of use

Let’s take Mailchimp’s approach and why they implemented humor and informal copy into their system. By introducing Freddie, the chimp mascot, they gave the website a personality which makes the interface feel more human. Mailchimp found out that customers actually remembered their experiences with the mail services better after they had introduced the mascot.

Does this mean that formatting and sending emails with Mailchimp became easier and was therefore experienced as being faster and better? Or was it just more fun? We can never truly predict the impact an application has on its users because it depends on the specific context of use and the different standards people have. That is why Mailchimp integrated the Party Pooper Mode to switch it off.

The user

The context is volatile and thus not under our control, as I previously explained. Neither can we design the person who is using it. People have different expectations, goals, opinions, perceptions, abilities and need a different stimulation to use the product.
Ask 10 people what they thought about this article and you’ll get 5 different answers.

So can we design the user experience or not?

We can not design the user experience, but that we can design for UX.

A good answer to this question comes from Helge Fredheim, a front-end developer and user experience expert, who thinks that we can not design the user experience, but that we can design for UX. As he further explains, “the difference between designing the user experience and designing for it is subtle but important. It can help us understand and remind us of our limitations. It can help us think of how we want the user experience to be.”

Personally I believe, with the current knowledge of different scientific fields, we can manipulate people in using a product in a certain manner. We could even try to guide them in perceiving it the way we would like them to. But the real question still stands. We have an idea of what the perfect experience should be like, but will it be valued the same way by all our users? Isn’t that simply making decisions with the aim of achieving a certain experiential outcome?

Designing for UX

Designing the ultimate and perfect user experience is an utopia, but there are a few things you can do to come close to the impossible. In the following I will list four best practices that will help you to design for a great user experience.

Apply best practices and lessons learned from UX patterns

Patterns are recurring solutions that solve common design problems. Think about it: you’re not the first one who dealt with a bad structural template, so don’t try to reinvent the wheel. When implementing a pattern it is absolutely necessary to find out if it didn’t cause more harm than good. A while ago I wrote an article which is a good resource for UX patterns.

Offer alternatives

If you’re not sure whether people appreciate your application the way you would like them to, you might want to consider to offer alternatives. As I mentioned above, Mailchimp is a great example for this. They integrated the Party Pooper Mode button as an alternative for the little jokes of the mascot Freddie.

Use emotional design

You can consciously shape your visitors memories of your application. This is a common psychology concept called priming where you increase the sensitivity to certain stimuli due to prior experience. In other words you make it easier for the visitor to recall things that are good or bad for them. Emotional design can shape the user’s perception of an application and could enhance the user’s experience. Again, think about Mailchimp’s approach of making a mundane work feel like a lot of fun.

Do user research

Your product will only work if it meets the requirements and expectations of the user. We have several research methods which will offer an understanding of how they are using the product. Surveys, ethnographic research, interviews, contextual inquiries and web analytics are just a few of them.

If you’re looking for research methods that will work best for your application, you should check out the UCDtoolbox by Tristan Weever.

Conclusion

These pointers will help you to manipulate your user’s senses and affect them on different levels. However, we can’t fully and intentionally control the experience for each and every user. Best practices don’t guarantee success and for every product we need to look at the context of use and the users separately in order to get as close to the ultimate user experience as possible.

If this article was a positive experience, let me know. If not, let me know as well.

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