Image by Geralt, via Pixabay

A Good User Experience is About More than Users

How and why to consider the larger context of product decisions

Over the past several years, some serious work has been done to define User Experience as a field. As with any good definition, part of the discussion has focused on what UX is not:

In the spirit of these alliterative decrees, I would like to add another:

UX is not only about Users

User experience is more than just the user

User experience is not just about a product’s users — or at least, it shouldn’t be. From a purist perspective, it is entirely possible for a UX designer or researcher to focus their efforts entirely on the user’s experience with a product. It is also sometimes necessary for us to become an advocate for the user within our larger product teams. When priorities compete, it is within the definition of our job to highlight how a technology or profit driven decision might impact our users.

But as the UX profession matures, and we begin asking for more influence over the what in the product decision making process, we need to consider more than just users in the why of our decisions.

The larger context of experience

The extent of the larger context that we consider in our daily work will vary between designers, projects, and organizations, but designers should always try to consider a product in context of its larger ecosystem. There is more to product design than the experience of its users, and product success is defined by more than user opinion. The myriad of factors that drive product decisions come from many layers of business strategy, and can all ultimately impact the user experience of the product.

When distilled, these factors can be roughly categorized under the headings of ‘user’, ‘technology’, ‘market’, or ‘business’. Elements in each of these categories are critical to product decisions, but as designers, we can consider them from a UX perspective. This user-centered perspective adds more dimension and nuance than a simple categorization. I think it is most accurate to describe these factors as expanding dimensions of context around the product and its users:

Context layer 1: The users in context of their experience

What problem does this product solve, who’s problem is it, and what does the best solution look like?

The user experience of a product will always be the core of UX, and despite not being the only piece to consider, it is a critical piece. It is here where we consider the tenants of the user experience — how the user interacts the product and what the experience of using the product is like.

Even within this first context of the user and the product, the role of UX extends beyond how the user interacts with an interface. It is essential to begin considering the experience of the user by understanding why they will use the product, and what they will hope to accomplish. We can then consider the details that enhance the experience of using the product, and allow users to accomplish their goals in a way that is straightforward, intuitive, and even enjoyable. While very interdependent, these details can be roughly categorized:

  • “Back-end” UX, which includes product features & functionalities, product structure & navigation, information architecture, flows through available tasks and goals, and other items critical to the experience of using a product, but which users may not spend much time thinking about.
  • “User-facing” UX, which includes details of the interface with which users interact directly — layout and design of interactive elements such as buttons, menus, and links, visual hierarchy of product elements, voice and style of text and microcopy, visual affordances of available interactions and interaction states, use and style of imagery and animations, and overall design and style of the user interface.
  • Subjective UX, which results from the combination of all of the above elements. How well the product meets user goals and solves the user problem; how intuitive it is to use the product, how learnable, understandable, and memorable… the overall experience of using the product for its intended (or otherwise) purposes.

Context layer 2: The product in context of the competitive market

What makes this product better than any other solution to the problem?

A user’s relationship with a product extends beyond their specific interactions with a single product, and include conscious or unconscious comparisons with available alternatives. When considering the competitive market, it is still critical to think about how our product helps users accomplish specific goals, and also consider how we can do that better than any other option. Factors to consider include:

  • What type of problem does our product solve, and do any other products currently offer a competing solution? Is our product an iteration on existing solutions, or do we have a completely novel approach?
  • How are users currently handling the problem we hope to solve, and what would motivate them to use our product instead? If they are already using our product, what will keep them from switching to another option? How do we help solve their problem better than any other choices they have?
  • Which specific goals are we helping users achieve, and are there any competing priorities we need to consider?
  • Is this product the best option overall, or the best for circumstances specific to our users?
  • Which features are critical to product function, which are non-negotiable to users, and which features will win an indecisive buyer?
  • How will we position this product within the competitive market, and what will be most attractive to our ultimate users? Will we compete on price, features, or name brand? Will the product interface with other products they already use?
  • Is it our user’s decision to use our product, or someone else’s decision which product they use, and who’s opinion carries more weight?

Context layer 3: The product in context of business strategy

How does this product fit into a larger business strategy, and how does the business fit this problem space?

When considering a product in its larger business context, the primary question is of how this product fits into a larger business plan, both now and into the future. In many product environments, and especially large enterprise environments, the UX team is relatively removed from business decisions. But designers should still consider factors driving product development, and how product decisions fit into a larger business strategy:

  • How does this product fit into our existing and planned product portfolio? Is it an extension of our existing market space, or moving into new territory? Are there interactions with existing products or features?
  • What is our primary goal with respect to users- to gain new users, retain existing users, or attract previous users who went somewhere else?
  • What is the business case for building this product? Will the product make money, save money, or serve a deferred purpose?
  • How much will it cost to build this product in time and resources. Do we have the necessary resources and expertise on hand, or do we know how to get them? Where are opportunities for potential compromises with respect to return on business investment?

As designers, our first consideration is how our product solves a problem that is important to our users. And in many product environments, particularly large enterprise environments, the UX team is relatively removed from business and even competitive market considerations. But there are many layers of factors that drive product decisions, and decisions originating from any layer can impact the ultimate user experience. The best user experience outcomes can be achieved when we consider the larger contexts of “why” in the “how” of our designs.