What is User Experience Design (UXD)?

Let me start by saying I hate the word “user” in the phrase “user experience design.” If you walked up to someone on the street and called him a user he would think you were mistaking him for a drug addict. Spending countless hours on Facebook or Angry Birds may be addicting, but not like that. Problem is, there isn’t a better word to describe people who engage with, consume and experience digital content. “Digital consumers.” “Experiencers.” “Engagers.” Bleh. “Users” is just so direct, simple and practical that it’s hard not to prefer it to some contrived substitute. “User” is the convention, and it would be hypocritical of me to eschew convention, since I believe strongly in the contrary when it comes to UXD. But I still hate the word. So here’s a better one: person. (But I doubt that “Person Experience Design” will catch on…)

There is always a person for whom you are designing your website, app, banner ad, email or other digital thing. In point of fact there are probably thousands or possibly millions of people who will eventually use the digital thing you are making. Now these people are complex creatures. While in some respects we all behave according to certain predictable patterns, in many other ways we are unique and unpredictable. It would be much better to say “he or she” than to say “user.” I often like to substitute just “she” because more often than not she is our target audience in the marketing communications world.

What is a user?

A user is not an anonymous automaton – or a drug addict. She is a person. If you don’t have a particular persona to help you visualize her, picture your mother, sister or a good friend as the user. What would she think of your digital thing — would it frustrate her, or make her day better? Of course the best way to answer that question is not to guess, but to ask her to try it. 

Next, one more nit to pick before I define UXD. That’s the “D” in UXD. UX means user experience. An experience is something you have — in this case something that she has. UXD (use experience design) is something you do to improve the user experience. I know that’s probably an arcane nuance, but I just had to get it out there for the record, because the nuance is not always recognize. Technically, you don’t do UX.

Defining user experience design

For whatever reasons, people involved in the industry seem kind of hung up on the semantics of how to define UXD. Just Google it and you’ll find debates raging within the UXD community. I guess that’s all part of getting our bearing in the brave new world. But it doesn’t need to be overly complicated.

Wikipedia defines User Experience Design (UXD) as:

User-centered design practices to generate cohesive, predictive and desirable designs based on holistic consideration of users’ experience.

That’s a good definition but I think it’s a little obscure. I’ve cobbled together my own definition, combining elements from several that I’ve heard or read over the years. It goes like this:

UXD is understanding what she wants to do and helping her do it without fuss or bother.

I chose those words carefully. I could have said, “knowing what she wants to do” but understanding is a much more apt word when it comes to UXD. Seeking to understand the person who is interacting with your website, app, mobile device, or digital thing, is at the heart of UXD. Think of the mantra from the ancient Prayer of St. Francis, “Grant that I may not so much seek to be understood, as to understand.” (Perhaps St. Francis should be the patron saint of user experience designers.)

Seeking to understand involves getting out of our own heads and realizing that the way she thinks is very likely to be different from the way we expect her to think. In particular, understanding the context within which she is interacting is something that’s very important to consider. These simple ideas can be difficult to practice. But applying a disciplined UXD approach to digital projects will assure a vast improvement over not doing so.

The next carefully chosen word is she. A user is not an anonymous automaton – or an addict (well, maybe she’s a Facebook addict). She is a person with a unique personality and point of view. Her expectations may not match yours. If you don’t have a particular persona to help you visualize her, picture your mother, sister or a good friend as the user.

The next key word is helping her. We can best help people in all aspects of life if we see things from their point of view. If we successfully understand what she wants to do, then helping her is not getting her to see things our way, it’s seeing things her way. Help is not passive. Help, from the user experience design professional’s point of view, means applying all arts and sciences of our craft (personas, user flows, information architecture, heuristics, prototyping, usability testing, etc.) to design solutions to meet her needs. Good UXD actively facilitates action, progress, success, satisfaction and a pleasurable experience for the user (at the same time as it meets business goals).

Next is without fuss or bother. This part of my definition came from the Nielsen-Norman Group. This thought goes to the idea that people don’t interact with a device, app or website for the sake of interacting with it. They have other reasons to be there than to struggle with how to get done what they came to do.

This without fuss or bother idea can also be expressed in one word: intuitive. Intuitive is a word that should always be top of mind for the UX designer. The goal of an intuitive user interface is to make it so that she doesn’t need to think. If she has to think too hard to accomplish what she wants, it’s just too much fuss and bother.

The bigger picture

UXD is nearly synonymous with Human-Computer Interaction, or HCI. Good college programs, books and websites on UXD and HCI typically cover all the same topics. The core idea is to consider users’ context, wants and needs, and to design hardware and software systems and user interfaces that help them achieve their goals as painlessly as possible.

User experience design (UXD or UED) is a broad term used to explain all aspects of a person’s experience with the system, including the interface, graphics, industrial design, physical interaction, and the manual. It also refers to the application of user-centered design practices to generate cohesive, predictive and desirable designs based on holistic consideration of users’ experience. (Wikipedia)

UXD is not a trendy name for, or synonymous with:

  • User-centered design
  • User interface (UI) design
  • Information architecture (IA)
  • Interaction design (IxD)
  • Usability testing

All of the above, and more, are encompassed within the holistic practice of UXD.

Most authorities say that user experience design is a subset of a broader field called experience design. In the advertising agency business one of our main goals is to help build our clients brands. Brand development has been almost synonymous with the agency business for decades. In fact in years gone by, most marketers would have thought it impossible to build a brand without advertising. Now that idea is starting to seem antiquated.

starbucksWhen the first major international brands rose to success and universal brand awareness without advertising, it was big news in the agency world. It’s over a decade ago now that Scott Bedbury, a former Starbucks advertising executive, wrote A New Brand World: Eight Principles for Achieving Brand Leadership in the 21st Century.  Much has been written about Starbuck’s success, and about its downslide in more recent years. But but regardless of its ups and downs, the fundamental idea is that its customer experience — and not advertising — is what built the Starbucks brand. Of course there are other examples of successful mega-brands being built with little or no advertising, such as Google and Amazon. These are companies that build great brands by delivering an outstanding experience to their customers. With Starbucks it was through enjoyable in-store environment and pleasurable product experience (it helps to sell an addictive drug, but that’s another story). With Google it was delivering exactly what people are searching for with a simple, uncluttered user interface. With Amazon it was (originally) getting any book in print to your door in a few days at a better price than anyone else. (Now it’s getting anything to your door.) That’s all experience design.

There is no doubt that the advertising industry is experiencing momentous changes. In the past decade we’ve seen rise rise of “connected consumers.” The target audiences for our client’s marketing communications now often eschew traditional advertising. Connected consumers are voracious consumers of content across all manner of personal, social and business networks, 24/7, via desktop computers, tablets, smartphones, game consoles, and more new gadgets all the time. The advertising industry follows the eyeballs, and the money. Consequently traditional media advertising tactics are on the decline with the rise of content marketing and social media.

When you put together how brands are built without advertising, and the interests of the 24/7 connected consumer, you start to see the importance of experience design. Advertising agencies and design firms should be looking at every aspect of our clients’ target audience experiences. This includes how the product is made, it includes the online or brick-and-mortar store experience, and it includes how people interact with the user interfaces and apps and content that we deliver to them via digital devices. That last area is what UXD is all about.

A brand has never been a company’s logo or slogan. Savvy marketers have always understood that a brand is the composite impression or image that people hold in their minds about a company or other organization, and that image is created first and foremost by people’s experience with the organization’s products, services, employees, stores (online or offline) and through engagement on social media channels — and secondarily by the company’s “traditional” branding devices: logos, slogans, advertising and other marketing communications tactics. It’s an exiting time to be in the advertising or design business because we are moving closer to delivering experiences on behalf of our clients, and because of that we are able to shape a client’s brand more directly than ever before. UXD let’s us touch people where they live and connect with their daily lives more directly than the “mediated” ways we have done in the past.

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This post is excerpted from a draft of my upcoming book, Agency UXD.

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