April 20, 2005

User Experience is a Quality, Not A Discipline

One of the things that has been hard for the "usability community" to accept is that usability is not really interesting in and of itself. And that usability isn't really a goal, and it's definitely not the end-all be-all. Usability is simply a quality. It's an important quality, but just one of many. And it definitely doesn't warrant being a "discipline."

I've begun to think the same thing about "user experience." In a prior post, I wondered if user experience is dead. I wondered this for a few reasons:
- the people who were "leading" the discussion about user experience were doing so back-asswards
- there is a seeming lack of energy behind the concept of "user experience"
- people feel passion for disciplines such as "information architecture" and "interaction design," but if "user experience" were to go away tomorrow, no one would notice.

Perhaps the best response to that post was Dave Rogers' "Is UX Dead?" And in that post, and elsewhere, I slowly realized that "user experience," too, is nothing more than a quality. When user experience is discussed by people outside the profession, they talk about a site or product offering a good user experience. When Kottke writes about Google Maps and user experience, he doesn't talk about Google's user experience designers -- he talks about how the sum of elements leads to a "useful user experience."

This--this feels right. User experience is not a discipline, or an approach, it's a thing, a quality, an emergent property between a person and a product or service.

This puts me in direct opposition with Jesse's diagram. Those aren't elements of user experience. Those are elements of web design. Performing those elements well should lead to offering users a quality experience, yes. But "information architecture," "interaction design," "user needs," etc. etc. don't comprise the user experience. A quality user experience is comprised of things like desirability, usability, enjoyability, utility, delight, satisfaction, etc. etc.

The UXNet Development Consortium, therefore, misses the point entirely. It's trying to solve the "user experience" problem through professional associations. Professional associations don't solve anything. They provide a valuable service gathering place for individuals engaged in similar practices. The development consortium is attempting to develop a "community" of "user experience professionals." All it is is providing a platform for navel-gazing and rehashing. It is moving nothing forward. The outcome of the consortium is pretty much no different than what was discussed at the 4th Advance For Design, in 2001. Has so little changed?

The problem with the development consortium and its approach is, frankly, that it's too small, condescending, and elitist. Not intentionally, mind you. Not in spirit or motive. I know many of the folks involved, and they're good, passionate, upright, and they're doing what they can to make the world a better place. Still, the nature of the enterprise, suggesting as it does that User Experience belongs to this group of groups, strikes me as condescending.

User experience is everyone's responsibility. It is not the special province of interactive systems designers. The scope of people involved in helping supply a quality user experience is so vast, that you cannot draw an interesting circle around it and say, "that's the community."

The only reason that "user experience" is associated with interactive systems designers is because Don Norman didn't want his group at Apple relegated to pushing pixels in the "user interface." As he wrote in an email to me:

I invented the term because I thought Human Interface and usability were too narrow: I wanted to cover all aspects of the person's experience with a system, including industrial design, graphics, the interface, the physical interaction, and the manual.

Since then, the term has spread widely, so much so that it is starting to lose its meaning.

User experience should not be just about interactive systems -- it's a quality that reflects the sum total of a person's experiences with any product, service, organization. When I walk into a store, I'm having a "user experience." When I call an airline to make a reservation, I'm having a "user experience." And innumerable elements contribute to affect that quality of experience.

So what can we do? We can move forward by talking about what goes into developing quality user experiences. We should never talk about "user experience design" -- there is no customer or user-facing design that doesn't involve a user's experience. But we can talk about how our methods, processes, approaches, mindsets, and understandings can contribute to improving the user experiences of the products and services people deal with.

This is what gets me excited about DUX. I know I dissed it in my prior post, but that was less the concept of the conference than the seeming foot-dragging in getting it going. Now that DUX2005 has been announced, and a preliminary call for entries posted, it's time for us to talk about the work that we've done, and how it's made people's lives better. The conference is very purposefully titled "designing for user experience," recognizing that user experience is a quality, not a discipline. A very important quality -- in some cases the most important quality.

(Yes, I know that DUX is put on by the same professional associations that I excoriated. DUX is actually put on by individuals, who utilize those associations for their logistical assistance. I hazard to guess that DUX could be as popular if not affiliated with any organization, but maybe a little harder to work out contractual details with venues, etc. etc.)

Posted by peterme at 10:08 PM | Comments (32)


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