What the heck is User Experience?

Or: a theoretical discourse on the hedonic quality concept of ‘User Experience’.

by Stas Vaisman


According to Hassenzahl and Tractinsky (Hassenzahl & Tractinsky, 2006), the field of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) has recently witnessed an expanding interest in User Experience (UX) as an experiential perspective on the design and evaluation of interactive products. In order to look beyond product qualities only, but also accommodate technology´s experiential qualities, practitioners and academics are now studying new strategies regarding the development of holistic, interactive products (Hassenzahl et al., 2010). However, to this day, there is no commonly accepted, consensual understanding on the essence and dimension of the term ‘UX’. Hence, the attempted explanation of the intriguing phenomenon researchers and practitioners from academia and industry would mostly use, contains rather fuzzy adjectives and formulations. It is being claimed that UX is “dynamic, context-dependent, […] subjective”, and somehow “individual (instead of social), that emerges from interacting with a product, system, service or an object” (Law et al., 2009). It seems that without it being distinctly delineated or well grasped, the concept of UX has been quickly acknowledged and extensively propagated in the Human-Computer Interaction community (Law et al., 2009). Law and colleagues (Law et al., 2009) argue the reason for the extensive interest in UX is the notion of indisputable constraints of the conventional usability framework, “which focuses primarily on user cognition, […] user performance”, and “the achievement of behavioural goals […]” (Hassenzahl & Tractinsky, 2006) of human-machine interactions. Hence, the rather narrow-focused instrumental value became the central point of user-centered analysis and evaluation approaches, e.g. usability testing (Hassenzahl & Tractinsky, 2006). In order to challenge this instrumental mindset, researchers have repeatedly confronted this approach by identifying facets (e.g. aesthetics) which go beyond the instrumental, and are still considered being an important quality aspect of technology. (Lavie & Tractinsky, 2004)(Hassenzahl & Tractinsky, 2006)

Thus, UX is seen as something desirable, highlighting non-utilitarian aspects of interaction, while shifting the focus to user affect, sensation, and the meaning as well as value. However, what exactly something really means, calls for an open debate. (Law et al., 2009) Based on Law´s survey “Understanding, scoping and defining user experience: a survey approach” (Law et al., 2009) there is not the one thorough definition, but rather a high number of differing (pseudo-) definitions and angles on User Experience. Ironically, Law (Law et al., 2009) further claims “some authors tend to eschew defining UX, while elaborating the significance of designing (for) UX […]”. Hence, this naturally raises the question of why practitioners and researchers did not yet manage to elaborate a consensual definition of the term. According to Law (Law et al., 2009) there are several reasons for this intriguing phenomenon:


Generally, it is recommended to use the term User Experience only in regard to products, systems, services and objects a person interacts with through a user interface. Furthermore, unless there is a man-made user interface involved, face-to-face interaction is considered being outside of the scope of User Experience (Figure-1). (Law et al., 2009)

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Figure-1: UX in relation to other experiences that we can study

However, Hassenzahl (Hassenzahl, 2010) argues that the phenomenon of UX and its “underlying principles [are not] very different from experience in general”. A distinction between the mediators of experiences — be it services, products, interfaces, events or human beings — is only relevant in regard to the different ways in which experiences can be created and framed (Hassenzahl, 2010). Other than a UX Designer — the recipient/the consumer/the user does not distinguish between the mediators of experiences. Nevertheless, in order to be able to shape and create new experiences, the focus of the design approach needs to shift from the product to the design of the experiences itself. Yet, this requires a very clear understanding of the subject matter, its implications and the underlying psychological concepts which UX is based on.


Inherently, experience is a concept with a rich history and meaning (Hassenzahl et al., 2010 cited Jay 2005). Hassenzahl (Hassenzahl, 2010) claims its derivation from the interweaved theoretical concepts on “perception, action, motivation, emotion, and cognition in dialogue with the world (place, time, people, and objects”. Thus, it is central to understand experience as the consequential interaction of several distinct systems (Hassenzahl, 2010). According to Hassenzahl (Hassenzahl, 2010), people perceive interactive products along two different quality dimensions. The theory distinguishes between: pragmatic and hedonic quality. While pragmatic quality specifies “the product´s perceived ability to support the achievement of [a task]”, hedonic quality “calls for a focus on the self”, referring to the rather philosophical question of “ ‘why’ does someone own and use a particular product”. Pragmatic quality focuses on the product´s utility and usability in relation to potential tasks, i.e. “making a phone call”, “setting up a website”, “watching TV”. Hassenzahl refers to it as “do-goals”. In contrast to the pragmatic objective of do-goals, hedonic quality supports the achievement of the so-called “be-goals”, such as “being competent”, “being related to others”, “being special”, etc. (Hassenzahl, 2007). Thus, the concept of be-goals is moving beyond the instrumental facets, being motivated by the implication of general human needs, such as “a need for novelty and change, personal growth, self-expression and/or relatedness”(Hassenzahl, 2007). In his “[…] perspective on User Experience and its measurement” (Hassenzahl, 2007), Hassenzahl introduced the hypothesis claiming that “the fulfilment of be-goals (i.e. basic human needs) is the driver of experience.” He outlines a clear emphasis on the importance of be-goals, by claiming that “a lack of usability might impose a barrier to the fulfilment of active be-goals, but it is in itself not desired.” In contrast, he puts forward the claim that what is desired is the fulfilment of “be-goals, such as being autonomous, competent, related to others, stimulated, and popular”. Through the product´s ability to fulfil be-goals, people will attach hedonic attributes to it, thus, directly contributing to the core of positive experience. On the contrary, since usability in itself is of no psychological value, pragmatic quality gets its value through facilitating the pursue of meaningful be-goals, by making products easier and more usable.


Human-Computer Interaction´s need for a theoretical framework is not self-obvious. It is apparent that in HCI, researchers and practitioners often describe the methods employed but only rarely frame their work within a theoretical framework (Kaptelinin & Nardi, 2012). However, a closer look affirms that theory in HCI plays a more significant role than what it seems. In this respect, HCI, as a field of research, should be credited to embracing the information processing psychology perspective on human interaction with technology (Card et. al, 1983). From its early beginning, Information processing psychology played a key role as an interdisciplinary mediator by bringing together “psychologists interested in computer technology and computer scientists interested in user interfaces and user behavior” (Kaptelinin & Nardi, 2012), providing a universal language for people with different disciplinary qualifications. A number of theoretical frameworks, such as phenomenology (Winograd and Flores, 1987), situated action perspective (Suchman, 1987), or activity theory (Bertelsen & Bodker, 2003) devoted to extending the scope of HCI and “prioritizing understanding and supporting meaningful interaction” between the human being and technology (Kaptelinin & Nardi, 2012). Initially, it may seem that the “subject-object” unit proposed by activity theory is similar to the established pivotal point of HCI, that is: “human-computer” interaction. However, this implied perspective made obvious that “computer” is naturally not an “object of activity” but a “mediating artifact”. This leads to the assumption that “people are not interacting with computers: they interact with the world through computers” (Kaptelinin & Nardi, 2012). Given this scenario, by placing the use of computers in the hierarchical structure of human activity, as proposed by activity theory, researchers and practitioners are able to relate the instrumental (low-level) aspects of interaction with technology “to meaningful goals and, ultimately, the needs and motives of technology users” (Kaptelinin & Nardi, 2012). However, initially, it may evoke the implication that formal models developed in early HCI research are being rejected. Quite the contrary, this scenario extends the scope of analysis beyond the low-level interaction to the higher level concepts of motivation and goal seeking, corresponding with the need of the field to move “from human factors to human actors” (Bannon, 1991).

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Three level hierarchy of goals, based on (Hassenzahl, 2010)

With the existing knowledge of activity theories and the implication of a “hierarchical organisation of goals”(Hassenzahl, 2010 cited Carver and Scheier, 1989), Hassenzahl examines his understanding of HCI as “goal-directed action mediated by an interactive product”. Furthermore, he proposes an abridged three level goal model, which “relates the actor´s self to the world through activity” (Hassenzahl, 2010), similar to what Activity Theory suggests (e.g. Kaptelinin and Nardi, 2006). It accentuates the existence of do-goals, motor goals, and most importantly, be-goals:


On the second level of the hierarchy are the do-goals: a do-goal is an actual outcome, an actor wants to complete, such as “making a telephone call” or “watching a movie”. Despite its nature of not necessarily being dependent on technology, the do-goal in itself would not exist without the creation of technology-mediated communication (Hassenzahl, 2010).


On the lowest level of the hierarchy are motor-goals. a motor-goal is generally understood as the design of the structure below the do-goal. That is, sub-goals, down to the motor goals, such as pressing buttons, tapping, swiping, zooming and pinching the screen in order to read letters from a display of an interactive product. To be more precise, motor-goals provide ways to achieve do-goals (functionality) through low-level interaction with the product. By primarily focusing on methods and theories illustrating the achievement of do-goals, HCI is mainly involved in the “what” and the “how” of the interaction of a product (Hassenzahl, 2010).


On top of do- and motor-goals, there is another level of goals: be-goals. Based on theories on human needs, “Being competent”, “being admired”, “being close to others”, “being autonomous”, and “being stimulated” are considered being examples of such goals. Do-goals, such as “making a telephone call” are naturally not classified as meaningful goals, thus, they do not provide an intrinsic motivation for action. However, seen from a high-level perspective, when feeling isolated or lonely, the need for “being close to the loved ones” becomes obvious. Thus, the be-goal becomes meaningful while implying the appropriate motivation for action (that is, attaining the do-goal). This theoretical framework may be useful when discussing HCI and its experiential approach. Accordingly, it is highly relevant to extend the instrumental concept of HCI beyond the mere do-goals, to a rather holistic approach, examining the “why” of an interaction up to the elemental reasons for motivation for action. By this means, the three level model pays explicit attention to non-instrumental high-level aspects of experience, that is, perception, action, motivation, and cognition, while providing a theoretical framework, which enables its concurrent activation and “integration into a meaningful, inseparable whole” (Hassenzahl, 2010).


In psychology, a number of theories about the content of motives, often interchangeably called needs or values, exist. In order to contribute to a better understanding of a high number of theories about motives (often used as a synonym for needs or values), Kennon Sheldon and his colleagues (Sheldon et al., 2001) recently provided a succinct list of the top ten psychological motives (Figure-2) by analyzing many of the available theoretical concepts. (Hassenzahl, 2010)

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Figure-2: Top ten needs based on (Sheldon et al., 2001)

Hassenzahl´s research builds on Sheldon´s (Sheldon et al., 2001) hypothesis of needs being a source of positive experiences with technology, suggesting the comprehensive categorization of experiences by the primary need they fulfill. In addition, when formulating the substantial link between need fulfilment and positive affect, Hassenzahl revealed “stimulation, relatedness, competence and popularity being the most salient and contributing needs”. By this means, he further argues that by classifying and categorising experiences, its design can be improved decisively. Additionally, it would provide a better understanding of their fundamental essence, “rather than the myriad of slight variations that let experiences appear so unique and so ever-new.” Yet, the proposed category system should not be considered a devaluation, but “vessels yet to be filled”, by providing understanding about classes of experiences, “related feelings, typical behavior, conditions, rules and typical failures and problems“ (Hassenzahl, 2010). Thus, the essential requirement from a design perspective is the clarification and the thorough understanding of the connection between do-goals and most importantly, the underlying be-goals. Consequently, from a true User Experience perspective, it is essential to focus on human needs, and the particular design technique which enables the creation of interactive products that match those needs. In the best case, the consequential experience is far beyond anything a usability-oriented approach could create (Hassenzahl, 2007).


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