The Bones of UX

The intersection of archaeology and empathy for User Experience.

We’ll all end up here eventually! Credit: phys.org

I did not plan on becoming a UX Designer. This article was inspired by other great articles on Medium about how other disciplines enrich skills for UX Designers, and by my interest to share my perspective and knowledge.

Like many people, I stumbled into the field of UX after studying different, and supposedly ‘unrelated,’ fields in the arts and sciences. After a healthy yet morbid childhood, I began my college studies wanting to pursue medical illustration but quickly fell in love with bioarchaeology (similar to regular archaeology, but for organics) and forensic archaeology (reconstructing the cause of death of organics). This was after a well-instructed and extremely rigorous introductory course in human osteology — RIP Dr. Phillip Walker.

I did fieldwork and wrote papers, then graduated from college and began working at an archaeologically-focused nonprofit company dedicated to creating a mobile application for archaeologists who were collecting data in the field. This was a small company where I was doing financials, traveling to exotic locales for User Testing, database design, and graphic design, and trying to sell the product at conventions — all simultaneously. I was slightly overwhelmed, to say the least. I discovered I really wanted to focus on User Experience and how applications functioned in the real world once they were employed by myriad people. I have since left the nonprofit world and I now work for a world-class AR/VR experiential firm in San Francisco as their sole UX Designer.

…one involves slightly more camel spiders…

Archaeology is in many ways similar to UX and User Testing; both involve hours of meticulous back-breaking manual and mental labor (one involves slightly more camel spiders — full disclosure, I design a lot of experiences for camel spiders), both require you to learn the history and society of the people/places you’re studying, and both disciplines have many misconceptions about how the day-to-day work is accomplished.

Reconstruction of Þjóðveldisbærinn (Commenwealth) Saga-age farm, Iceland. Credit: Me

Think of bioarchaeology as the original User Research. Once you find the body (or bodies) then you need to ascertain a few key things. How was their society structured and what was their climate? What technology did they possess? Did they have access to trade? Then, you need to use the context of their remains and any clues left (injuries, grave-goods, burial position, disinterment, etc.) to reconstruct their lives (and eventual death) within the larger context of their society. Instead of projecting forward in time to anticipate how Users will react to your app, you’re projecting back in time to imagine the history experienced by these formerly living persons. First you examine the User (read: excavated body), then you move on to the society in which they lived.

First you examine the User (or their excavated body), then you move on to the society their body lived in.

Why was a disease prevalent in a society (expressed through physical marks on skeletons or genetic typing)? This can be caused by various factors: substances viewed as medicine that exacerbate sickness, or hazardous materials used by craftsmen (think arsenic used to make green pigments or lead used in food preparation vessels) are just two examples. Why does your User engagement drop off after the [blank] page? Maybe your iconography or CTA is unclear, maybe Users don’t know that a certain function exists, or maybe Users just can’t be bothered to continue because there are easier applications out there. The point is, knowing the context of where and how your Users live in their environment can give you major insights into how they can be expected to use your application. Are you thinking about color-blind Users? What about left-handed Users? Do people want to use your app while driving? First examine the User, then move on to the society in which their body lived.

Both fields require detective work that favors the curious-minded. Did some materials have to be imported from afar which made them exclusive to the ruling class? How were these people’s tombs decorated, ostentatiously or simply? Knowing that people like looking at beautiful objects or uncluttered interfaces isn’t enough. Beauty is useless — or even disingenuous — if it willfully hides functions or choices from the User. Beautiful design still needs a ‘why’ — a reason to exist that aids the User. Investigate how people currently use a similar application and what they currently expect this application to do. One thing constantly impressed upon me — by much smarter and more experienced people than myself — is that you have to know the rules in order to break them.

Not just a cute pillow design! Credit: zazzle

Don’t just introduce new iconography or repurpose a known gesture to simply do something different. People need a familiar framework to start new experiences in order to venture off into the unknown. Remember skeuomorphic design? It’s only with the rise of material design, newer iOS releases, and Web2.0 that we’ve started to move beyond these known symbols. How many people do you know who actually used the traditional ‘save’ icon as a data storage device? My point exactly.

Empathizing with the past can help us live better in the future. It’s not news that empathy makes greater UX, but combining empathy with a healthy dose of historical knowledge and a willingness to dig up some skeletons can really help.