How to talk about User Experience

The user experience is a measure of your end-user’s interaction with your organization: its brand, its product, and its services.

In 2015, Craig M. MacDonald wrote a paper reporting “the results of a qualitative study involving interviews with 16 librarians who have ‘User Experience’ in their official job title.” He asked, basically, what is it that user experience librarians actually do?

Don’t worry. This writeup won’t be as niche as it looks. Ask the same of any user experience designer and your answers will be the same — all over the place.

We lack a consistent professional definition

These kinds of roles are increasingly in demand. Named or unnamed, the communities growing around discipline-specific user experience, wherein once design-niche talks bleed into — for instance — regional library conferences, signal a burgeoning but nevertheless shallow field.

While we can design-sprint and card sort, we collectively find it pretty hard to succinctly answer: what is user experience?

Some resist definition in the way others resist referring to people as “users” — you know who you are — but this serves only to conflate an organizational philosophy of being user-centric with the practice of user experience design. These aren’t the same. Muddling the two confuses a service mentality — a bias — with the use of tools and techniques to measure and improve user experience.

And although she is writing about “Service Design” here, Jess Leitch sums-up my same concerns about the fluid definition of “user experience design.”

I will argue that the status of Service Design and its impact as a professional field is impacted by the absence of a single consistent definition of the area, the wide spread of professional practices and the varied backgrounds and training of its practitioners. — Jess Leitch, What is Service Design?

How we talk about user experience matters.

What is the user experience?

When we talk about the user experience, we are talking about something that can be measured. It is plottable and predictable. The user experience is the measure of your end-user’s interactions with your organization: its brand, its product, and its services.

The user experience is the measure of your end-user’s interaction with your organization: its brand, its product, and its services.

The overall value of the user experience is holistic: a cumulative quality, one we try to understand through models like Peter Morville’s Honeycomb that serve as practical ways to focus our efforts.

Some, like the Kano Model, reflect how new features to a product or service impact — positively or negatively — the customer experience, the work involved implementing them (and whether it is worth it), and predict what impact if any these features will have in the long run.

The Kano Model

Others, like Coral Sheldon-Hess’s CMMI-based model, simply define how much consideration is afforded to the user experience at organizational levels.

A CMMI-Based Model by Coral Sheldon-Hess

This is to say that the value of the user experience is both qualitative and quantitative, in which the who and why give meaning to the when, what, and how.

In this way, talking about “user experience” as a measurement makes otherwise woo-woo intangible car-salesman bullshit — “this insert-thing-here has a super UX” — into something that can be practically evaluated and improved.

The customer is always right — but the user isn’t

What we choose to call our end-users can betray the underlying assumptions we make about them, our relationship, the business model, and these imply how we might interpret results. “Customer experience” is conceptually different from “user experience.” The role of the patron is different from the member.

These distinctions can have real impact in determining which metrics matter, and where to focus.

I like “user” as a default. It gets a little tsked-at for being impersonal, but I suspect “user” is more conducive to data-driven design and development than one where the customer is always right.

What matters is that our user-, patron-, member-, customer-, xenomorph-centric ethic is the same, whether we are motivated by business, bosses, or — er — our humanity.

Usability isn’t the Point

Useful, usable, desirable: like three legs of a stool, if your library is missing the mark on any of these it’s bound to wobble. — Amanda Etches and Aaron Schmidt

It is easy to confuse “usability” for “user experience” because a product or service’s ease of use is often so crucial that blogs like mine beat that drum ad nauseum, but we should resist using these interchangeably. We otherwise narrow the scope from a nuanced holistic approach to product and service design and business, to one reduced to — I don’t know — bashing hamburger menus on twitter.

When all user experience designers see is usability like bulls see red, they may forget that hard-to-learn, ugh inconvenient interfaces, tasks, services, can nevertheless net a positive user experience, succeed, make money, do work.

One of the reasons I like Peter Morville’s User Experience Honeycomb so darn much is because it is such a useful way to visualize a multifaceted user experience where “usability is necessary but not sufficient.” Where the value of the UX is cumulative all ships rise with the tide. The look might suffer, but what drag poor aesthetic creates is tempered by its usefulness.

“The honeycomb hits the sweet spot by … helping people understand the need to define priorities. Is it more important for your [service] to be desirable or accessible? How about usable or credible? The truth is, it depends on your unique balance of context, content, and users, and the required tradeoffs are better made explicitly than unconsciously. — Peter Morville

The added value of this model is that user experience is represented as a hive. We can add, remove, jostle facets as we need. It can not only grow in area, but we can even demonstrate its three-dimensionality by — let’s say — elaborating on the relationship between “usable” and “useful.”

When we talk about “usability,” it should be in relation to something’s “utility”

  • usable — something is easy to use and intuitive
  • utility — something fulfills a demonstrable need
  • useful — a usable product, services, application, process, etc., fulfills a demonstrable need
The Library User Experience Honeycomb, by me.
Usability and utility are equally important and together determine whether something is useful: it matters little that something is easy if it’s not what you want. It’s also no good if the system can hypothetically do what you want, but … is too difficult. — Jakob Nielsen, Usability 101: Introduction to Usability

Good user experience design is about efficacy

Good design is determined by its functional success, its efficacy, how masterfully it served this-or-that purpose. Its aesthetic has a role. Its emotional impact plays a part. But design is not art. The practical application of design thinking to services or instruction or libraries isn’t to just make an awesome website but empower decision makers with user-centric strategies to better meet mission or business goals.

Most of the time there are business- or mission-sensitive stakeholders behind user experience design work. In the same way we differentiate design from art, it may be generally more practical to differentiate a user experience design strategy from the desire to make whizzbang emotional experiences.

Often in real-world business/mission-driven design work, particularly in which design decisions need stakeholder support — sometimes in the form of cold hard cash — “making good experiences” can be nebulous, whereas “demonstrably improving the user experience of such-and-such service that correlate to the success of such-and-such bottom line” is better suited for the kind of buy-in required for organizational user-centricity.

The user experience is a metric, and that’s good for user experience design as a discipline

For this reason we benefit from treating the user experience as a metric, a measurement: something plottable, predictable. Consistency of our description here makes it easier to practically teach, and learn. It disambiguates the woo design-is-art-and-thus-intrinsic nonsense baked-in to the very notion of the “creative” professional. What bullshit.

When the user experience is a metric, the reality of its holistic value creates room in our discipline not just for designers or researchers, but librarians, health care professionals, educators, civil servants, and in every vertical where it’s true that good user experience is good business.

That is to say, all of them.