I started writing this article a few month ago. Mainly because I didn’t agree with a certain understanding of UX design that some people had. I gathered some feedback and rewrote the article here and there, and feel like it’s about time to set these thoughts free.
The Common Understanding of UX Design
The Oxford Dictionary defines experience as follows:
Experience: Practical contact with and observation of facts or events
So when talking about user experience in a very broad sense, that means how a Customer uses products or apps. To me that is his or her individual result of practical or visual interaction with this product.
The International Organisation for Standardization (ISO) defines user experience in ISO 9241-210 as follows:
A person’s perceptions and responses that result from the use or anticipated use of a product, system or service
Where the first cite deals with practical contact and observation - two terms that are not really worth discussing when it comes to their understanding - the second one brings perception and anticipation to the table. Those again representing processes that are taking place in our minds. Thinking about that, I felt a strong connection to some learnings I have had during my philosophy studies.
Experience in the Philosophy of Mind
Unfortunately UX design is not really defined in philosophical literature. So I’d like to pick up a philosophical view on the term experience by looking at Immanuel Kants definition of it:
Experience is the combination of an intuition with a concept in the form of a judgment.
So we had perception and anticipation before and can now add intuition, concept and judgement to the list of terms related to processes in the human mind. So my issues with the terminology of “designing someones experience” can be summarized in the following question:
How are we supposed to design the process and outcome of such abstract and individual factors as perception, anticipation, intuition, personal concepts and judgements?
In philosophical matter this is part of the “Philosophy of mind”. Once speaking of intuition or experience from a viewpoint of the philosophy of mind, we are talking about “mental phenomena”. Most mental phenomena like memories, emotions or pain have a qualitative connotation to the person experiencing it (so called Qualia).
Now the problem is, that we can only describe and compare these qualities by talking about them, but in fact we can never know if the quality of one persons mental phenomena are identical to the ones someone else is experiencing - even if both people claim to be in the same mental state. So basically, the quality of a mental event is only known to the person experiencing. In Philosophy of mind this circumstance is referred to as first person privacy as the person experiencing something is the only one having full access to it.
I consider these theoretical criteria as quite plausible (those who want to dive deeper into that topic should read Philosophy of Mind by Jaegwon Kim, Westview Press, 1996 ).
Keeping this main thesis in mind, we’re getting close to the point of this whole article:
If experiences underlie the first person privacy - how can we claim to be able to design them for someone else?
Maybe studying philosophy for several years got me a little picky about terminology, but I consider this worth a thought.
So if we come to the conclusion that it would not be possible to “design a user(s) experience” would this whole UX Design thinking still make sense?
The Boundaries of UX Design
It still would! No question that there are aspects in the way customers interfere with our software that we can design pretty well (even if might not be their experience). Let’s take the individual touch points of a customer journey and we will find many ways where we can influence or at least ease the contact of a user with our product. The ways we send them, what we show them, how we address them. We can design how the interface looks and run user tests to gather insights on their individual experiences and judgements.
Users Test with only 5 users can already help to narrow down most of the major UX issues of our Apps. We can test, design and optimize continuously - and we should do so - but in the end we are still building a one fits all (or at least as much as possible) solution. In designing a product as in statistics in general - we will always have to face dropouts in form of users that will just do the opposite of what we expect them to do. Or users that expected something different. Plus they will probably not experience the exact same as others. And there is really nothing we can change about that.
UX is a very broad field that unites a variety of different disciplines under its banners. All of them help us building tools, apps and products that are meant to be helping the user by making their live easier. They should be easy to understand and fun to use.
But we should not go that far to consider us, as UX Designers, being the ones who determine how users will act or what they will feel by using our software. UX Design is one of many services in customer happiness. It is “customer centered thinking” which has been around for decades.
As UX Designers we are not designing experiences - we are designing in order to provide a product where the experience of interaction is as positive as possible for as many people a possible - and this is how we should think about UX Design.
This is not only a different awareness of the terminology and its reception - it is also (maybe mainly) a change in our mindset. It will enable us to act and design really user centered (in opposition to theory-, self- or design-centered). It may lead us to situations where user tests disprove our theories or assumptions, but the outcome will be a product that is known to be usable before we even ship it. The earlier we hand our product to users and check their actual feedback, the earlier we will find flaws in our concepts and designs.
This way we will hopefully never end up telling someone “You are holding it wrong!”, but build products that work intuitionally for the people using them. And this is what we all should want if we consider ourselves UX Designers.