UX focus limits design thinking
Some musings about user intention and user experience. There is more to the human-machine relationship than experience design
Somewhere around 1990, usage emotionality caught the fancy of usability professionals. It seemed like a good idea at the time. After all use of many, especially unnecessarily complex, software products was and still is unpleasant.
To address this sad state of affairs the community of user interface researchers and designers thought it would be good to focus on the experiential aspects of usage. We hoped that we would not only stop the pain but also that we would exceed expectations and come to “delight” the user with our designs.
For those of us who have worked on enterprise software, “delight” is a pretty high bar. Not all products need to thrill the user. Many just need to help the user get things done with a minimum of pain and drama.
Despite my shamelessly provocative title, I believe our focus on experience is not so much wrong as overemphasized. And to clarify, when I suggest this I’m talking mostly about interaction design. Visual design, advertising and game design is all about the experience. If you are doing that kind of design then experience is what you need to focus on.
The rest of us who advertise themselves as experience designers are concerned with user interactions and the resulting satisfaction … or lack thereof. We often tend to give short shrift to other aspects of technology use.
The influence diagram below describes the human-product interaction relationship. There is always an environment or context in which usage takes place. People experience aspects of this context. Their perceptions motivate them to act intentionally to modify the experience.
Products mediate changes in the context to achieve a result. They have interfaces that people interact with. This is the primary concern of experience design. The preceding context, experience and intentions might be seen as influencing but separate from the thing being designed.
To be sure, these other aspects are considered. Product managers and planners attend to market needs (i.e. customer experiences and intentions), competition, costs and profits. User researchers study usage context with contextual inquiry. In a multidisciplinary team most of these aspects are covered by one discipline or another. If the team functions well, perspectives of product planning, research and design are mutually embraced and a product concept emerges.
In the real world however, it often doesn’t work so beautifully. No one person gives appropriate weight to each of the components of the human-product relationship. Each discipline may share their perspective in meetings in which important messages are communicated and received less than perfectly. Different disciplines have distinctly different goals and understandings.
In any event, product managers should have a sense of what will sell. So they tell the designers, “design something that does this”. And the designers go away and define the interactions and interfaces necessary to do just what the product is supposed to do.
Often things like the as-is context and experience are covered early in the project. They play a role in deciding which negative or positive interaction experiences the designer will pursue. Lower priority concerns drop out and are forgotten by the time design begins in earnest.
When I think of the influence diagram above and the design life cycles that I’ve played a role in, I feel that the left side of the diagram has not been addressed sufficiently. User intent should be as important to the designer as user experience. And it follows that to understand intent one needs to understand what people are experiencing prior to using a product.
In fact, this is what the “Jobs To Be Done” concept is concerned with. Jobs To Be Done is about intention. It is about what products are about. It was invented in business management as a way to conceptualize new products. But it didn’t address how products are designed. This suggests an opportunity for a more consilient approach.
When designers are as focused on what users want to do with a product as they are with how they they interact with it what can result? For one thing, the products might enable users to more completely do what they want to do. In doing so products become more valuable to their consumers.
When designers can address intentions, they also have more control over design. They aren’t simply adding interaction polish to product concepts handed to them by product managers. They play a greater role in defining what products do not just how they do it.
This can lead to more creative solutions. Invention occurs when collection of ideas are held in mind at once. Thinking about user intentions and goals in concert with the experience of interaction should lead to better design insights.
Finally, as they design the interface they might find that wider contexts of usage and as-is experiences might be covered without adding additional complexity. Sometimes it really is possible to kill multiple birds with a single rock. You just need to make sure those birds line up with your throw.
I confess that this is mostly speculation in response to the kinds of design that I’ve witnessed in my career. This is more about possibilities than pat answers. But I’ve seen too much design time spent in laying out UI panels without due attention to how user intentions drive option choices. I’ve seen too many designs constrained by premature definitions of what a product is and does.