The limitations of the phrase user experience

Sticky notes: "Buy sticky notes", "???", "PROFIT!"

Robert Powell has written a piece about how the meaning of the phrase user experience has changed over time. Grumblings about people confusing user experience and user interface design are nothing new. But this particular piece was actually quite insightful and thought-provoking.

He notes how successful Don Norman’s original definition of UX was, and yet how quickly it “fragmented and disintegrated”.

The market has even created an entire industry for all the real world things UX used to do but doesn’t do any longer, we call it Customer Experience. CX is, broadly speaking, offline, UX is, broadly speaking, online and the stupid thing is, we’re so busy arguing over where the crossover is between the two, over which came first (Hint: Nobody knows, they’ve both been around longer than you’ve been led to believe) and what and where the boundary between the two is, that we’ve forgotten that there wasn’t supposed to be a boundary in the first place, it was all supposed to be a single experience for our audience.

Robert Powell notes that UX has become a purely digital role — according to the market.

For many places, perhaps even most places, we’re no longer designing for a carefully identified human demographic who really exist, we’re designing for a generic digital entity called user who doesn’t.

I have certainly worked with people who saw user experience as some kind of sub-branch of front-end development. There are some people whose plan at transitioning to UX has been:

  1. Buy sticky notes.
  2. ???
  3. PROFIT!

I was that person myself. It’s a learning curve to discover that there’s more to user experience than improving an interface or tweaking some content. It’s pretty frustrating to encounter someone who doesn’t make it through that learning curve.

But the shift from digital designer to UX is also a perfectly natural progression. I came to user experience via an early career as a jack of all trades web-design–content–front-end person. A lot of UX people got there by wanting to take a user-centred approach to a digital design.

It’s also understandable how UX came to be seen as a digital discipline given that its name contains the word user, which comes straight from computing. This is problematic for a host of reasons, as outlined not only by Gerry McGovern, but also Don Norman himself — the person who popularised user experience.

The term is also restrictive in that it makes designers focus too much on individuals and not enough on society as a whole.

Now that I’ve spent the past year or two focusing much more on user experience, and less on web content, my plan is to learn more about service design. Because the more we look into the ‘digital’ problems we are asked to solve, the more we understand that the often biggest gains are to be found beyond the digital.

User experience can still be a useful name, not least because it’s got some traction. But I’m coming round to thinking more about human-centred design.

After all, a person doesn’t seek merely to use a piece of technology, and they’re often not even looking for an experience. They really just want to get something done.

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