UX as an Intangible Asset

The concept for UX becomes crystal clear as soon as hotel analogy is applied to product.

“UX” stands for everything these days or, in other words, for nothing. UX has become such a broad term that it’s safe to define it as “something about UI, but not coding or programming”. Unfortunately, no one has bothered with codifying UX at the very beginning, fifteen years ago or so, as it has happened with usability. But the real action came later, at the arrival of iPhone, when hordes of web designers, the only qualified crowd for the task at hand, have rushed into UI design for smartphone apps. They needed a new word to describe themselves. Goode aulde “web design” was surely not suitable for apps and the “app design” sounded lame.

So many words in so many (27 and counting) definitions for UX.

Unfortunately, a broad term is a bad one. The good terms facilitate clarity and understanding. Broad term isn’t going to deliver both. We cannot tell what our interlocutor means by UX and vice versa.

For example, on this very day, 13 July 2016, the LinkedIn group UX Professionals gives its members such treats as:

Just to name a few. And there are countless spots in the books or on the Web where UX is treated as usability, ergonomics or graphic design (or some mix).

Personally I don’t care much about the term, “UX” is FUBAR already. Yet, the concept behind the term is extremely useful. There is a simple way to look at UX that helps not just to understand this concept, but also to evaluate any UX action. This mental shortcut is quite old — in fact it’s not just a shortcut — but it’s the primary source of UX of old, pre-iPhone ways. It’s called “the hotel”.

Let’s invest in hotel

Imagine the scene. I’m sitting on a large but finite pile of money. I want to invest my funds in hotel business. Being a methodical chap, I spend some time researching different hotels to learn about my future occupation. There is much to learn, but the first thing that catches my eye is rather simple.

Structurally, all hotels are the identical. They are just places to sleep, take a shower, leave the baggage and eat some toasts for breakfast.

Yet:

I will surely go broke if I’ll create a place just to “sleep, take a shower, leave my baggage, eat some toasts etc.” There will be no guests this way.

Obviously, the hotel needs something way more than basic services. But what exactly? There are few options. We can make our hotel:

  • More functional. For example, we can build a sauna inside, design and build larger rooms and/or buy better and more expensive furniture and equipment.
  • Better structurally, for example choosing a place near a transport hub.

In fact, we have to pursue both options in order to compete. Still, from the investment standpoint, both directions are rather dull.

  1. The first direction simply requires more cash at the very beginning, and the cash is always short. We will also burn more cash on maintenance. For example, we will have to spent time and money on repairs, cleaning and management of the pool (keeping the fingers crossed that today no one will drown here). Yet, our hope to return our investments in case of sale is quite slim. The buyer may well plan to set offices in the building and the pool in his eyes will be just a wasteful sore. The splendid and expensive tiles of the bathrooms will become cheaper as soon as they will leave the shop and reach the building site — and the tiles will become nearly worthless after their removal from the walls during remodeling.
  2. The second direction is nice but it’s based on general luck. We can hope to grab a building or a building permit in a good place, yet we cannot plan here. There are exceptions to this rule, mostly in areas of personal connections. For example, in my country the son of the minister of the state railways someway got splendid land plots from the railways itself and built quite a lots of hotels (pure coincidence, I’m sure). Yet, the railway ministers are a rare breed, they are not numerous enough for all aspiring hoteliers. Even is the same starting positions, different investors depend on luck. For example, we can get a building near a railway station and everything is jolly good — but in a year time another and better building got vacant and the other hotelier got it as our cash was locked already.

To sum it up,

investing in fixed assets is generally an exchange of pile of money to handful of joy.

Such investments are allowing profits but are not generating profit themselves. Worse, they are prone to depreciation. For example, the furniture will surely decay over time and someday it has to be fully repaired if not replaced.

It’s much more pleasant to invest in areas which have no need for big spending upfront and are not prone to depreciation. There are at least three of them:

  • Brand, including consumer awareness.
  • Internal processes (sales, service etc.)
  • User experience (technically Guest experience).

Brand attracts clients by itself. Having a choice — to stay in a hotel with a known brand or stay in one that is completely unknown — many people will choose the branded one. Having more visitors allows us to raise prices and/or the turnover, therefore we will generate a bigger profit.

Internal processes help reduce staff wages (instead of highly competent staff with higher wage we can employ cheaper staff but provide checklists etc.), the number of employees and some external waste too, such as seasonal recesses.

Both are good but today let’s focus on UX only:

  • Instead of expensive standard furniture, in which portion of a price is a premium for long availability, we can buy cheap stuff from aspiring designers. To drive cost down even more we can forgo surplus and equip rooms with different furniture, buying leftovers. Instead of unified rooms, our hotel will provide unique experience in each room.
  • Instead of costly wall decoration — such as wallpapers — we can just paint everything more or less white and hang everywhere some pieces of art. Instead of walls, which will deteriorate, good art is safe from the loss of value. On the next stage we can instruct the cleaning staff to switch art every day, turning a simple hotel stay into a changing, museum-like experience.
Hotel Lloyd, Amsterdam. The rooms are different from one another, the only detail that unifies them is small items, such as bedside tables. In addition, the hotel defines itself as a Cultural Embassy.
  • Instead of wasting space and money on big and expensive bathing spaces in every room, we can just install compact bathrooms but provide a really good sauna/Turkish bath on the premises — selling the stay not just a stay, but as a way to socialize.

In any case the quality of a hotel stay is accomplished without a big upfront investment. Frankly speaking, this is a cheap way. Having reduced costs, we got cash to spend elsewhere — obtaining a better staff, providing better breakfasts etc. There are myriad ways to spend money, so that we can easily find ours. And here we come — that’s how the concept of the so-called “boutique hotel” was born (and quite a long time ago, at the middle of eighties).

From Guest experience to User Experience

In the Nineties, part of the usability crowd (small those days) felt some dissatisfaction. The decade old concept of usability had started to show a gap where the user’s feelings were expected.

  • The videogames industry was already huge and it became apparent that human-computer interaction (HCI) is not just about work, but also about joy and play. It was also clear that work will grow linearly while play will grow geometrically. Usability, on the other hand, was too focused on functional interaction, nearly ignoring the user satisfaction, not to mention the user experience. Remember, those days’ computers were hugely expensive and rare.
  • Many interactions are complex; they are not directly related to the “buttons on the screen”. For example, in the CHI WEB mailing list a funny narrative was going on fifteen years ago. Why, asked people each other, you can turn on a new Mac and make it ready for work in fifteen minutes while a comparable PC takes an hour? The answer, those days, was simple: Mac ports were easy to distinguish and hard to connect the wrong way, while PC ports were unlabeled, specific to device and hard to configure; the epic battle of “Intel Corp. VS the ports” is too long to discuss here in detail. But there is no UI in the ports! They are just pins and receipting holes! And, yet, someone, somewhere, had had to design them.
  • User satisfaction derived from usability is, someway, a shallow concept. It’s totally unnecessary for a good product to provide satisfaction. There is stuff we adore because it not only satisfies us but because it adds some emotions to the experience. Often this happens because it’s something is an opposite to joy or happiness (like capsaicin or a horror movie). For example, if we speak about a church website, should it just satisfy the flock of the believers? And what about the site of a hospital? Shouldn’t they rather provide something more and different too? The life consists not just in ecstasy and rapture, there actually exist lots of other useful emotions (for further reading, consult Altruizine; or, a True Account of How Bonhomius the Hermitic Hermit Tried to Bring About Universal Happiness and What Came of It from The Cyberiad by Stanisław Lem).

It was clear for many people in the field that new activity was needed — one that would cover the cases where everything stays structurally and functionally the same, but becomes better for users. The Guest Experience had already mutated into Customer Experience (for retail), so now it was easy to transform it again into User Experience. It was much later that hordes of web designers would come and confiscate the term (but not the concept behind it).

User experience from the accountant point of view

Let’s finally drop the hotel theme and switch to digital and other interactive products. Now you are in the designer’s hat and your product is an app (a website, a service etc.).

This app is called a tangible asset in the accountant lingo. Strictly speaking, the app is immaterial. Yet, for your purely digital business, it’s a main and only profit generator which makes it a fixed asset too. But the part of it that makes your product valuable (a positive difference from your competitors’, a user base etc.) is its intangible asset.

The good differentiating point here is that tangible assets should depreciate and will certainly do so while intangible assets will not (depreciation will only hit expiring patents, temporal licenses and so on). Hence the conclusion:

Although you are working on a tangible asset, it’s much better to work on improving the value of an intangible asset.

Working on graphics/visuals

A complete redesign of the product is often needed and sometimes it can be fun, but there is “but” involved here: someday it will be written-off. Or, worse, depreciation may unexpectedly occur if the platform changes. For example, when iOS 7 was released (the “flat” one) lots of colorful, rich and fresh apps (the “skeuomorphic”, as grieved designers started to call them) suddenly became obsolete.

The day-to-day job of gradually improving single areas at a time is called “extensions, reconstruction and modernization of the assets” by us, accountants. It’s much more tolerable from a financial standpoint. Such work does not require huge investment in the beginning, the funds will actually deplete gradually. Still, it can’t avoid being be written-off just as it happens to redesign.

But, if your design has such quality and depth that your product dramatically stands over competition and improves and promotes your brand — well, that way you do Design. This way your work will not be easily devaluated. On the contrary, it will rather improve the value of your intangible assets. A simple glance around is enough to tell that design of such scale is rare, it’s not a “hero image on the landing page with a pinch of animation”.

Working on usability

As well as graphic design, your work is likely to be temporary (albeit necessary and relevant) if you simply find an acceptable implementation of a new functionality or fix problems in the current UI.

Only if UI of yours provide a competitive advantage — well, in such case that’s design. As with visuals, competitive advantage in usability is a rare bird.

Working on user experience

It’s hard to create wonders in UI and visuals. So why can’t we stop the fight altogether? We can let the bar stay raised on the current height. Instead, we can switch to improving UX instead. Such design will definitely not be written-off. The task is easy and useful. You just need to:

  • Find the weak spots in UX and fix them.
  • Study other products and mediums and borrow all the good solutions you spot there.
  • Identify the experience “plateaus”, i.e. areas of interaction where users don’t feel a thing and change them into something interesting — adding some joyful/deep/unique part to it.

It’s easy, isn’t it?

UX ahead

This is the essence of User Experience Design: it stays put regardless what product or industry you work on. Sure, methods and techniques will be different from case to case, as well as UX designers themselves are different one from one another. The only common ground is the lack of interest in UI or functionality per se and the focus on user experience and on the ways to improve it.

Here are some examples of UX in action, with some failures and some achievements:

  • Headhunter.ru
    The biggest Russian job seeking and head hunting website is unable (at the time of writing) to send emails from different applicants with different Subject fields putting the applicant name into subject line. Users with inboxes that group messages based on Subject lines are getting spaghetti-like message threads where answers from different applicants are mixed together. It is a function of Headhunter.ru (or technically the lack of a function) but it does not have any UI at all. It’s only visible inside other products and their interfaces. Yet, the displeasure and anger of HRs are real and directed to Headhunter.
  • Xiaomi Mi Band
    Cheap and unassuming step counter with quite a nice UX. It’s easy to forget it while on charging, leaving the device behind. So the Band sends a notification to the linked phone telling the user “I’m done, feel free to put me on!” Users see it inside the OS, yet the satisfaction is directly connected to the bracelet.
  • Timely Alarm Clock
    Not a particularly pretty app that provides a great user experience. If you have multiple devices (smartphone and tablet in my case) it links both to a single alarm — and voilà, all devices ring simultaneously. It’s very cool because you don’t have to worry about having a single device charged — if one dies through the night, the other will ring. Moreover, you don’t need to cancel alarms on every device — silence it on the smartphone and the tablet will go silent too. Even more, the app senses the movement and as soon as you grab the device to turn down the alarm, it lowers the volume. If to all this, you add some nice alarm sounds you will have the best software alarm ever — despite its average UI.
  • Intel Corp. VS the “those bloody ports”
    Hoping to fix the aforementioned problem of bad ports, Intel chaps have devised the so called Universal Serial Bus. Finally, something universal and without a configuration! Yet, the port was awfully non-symmetrical — awfully, because you had to look on both the cable and the receptacle to fit it properly, haptic feedback is non-existent. Even worse, the cable head is neatly sized like an Ethernet port. There is no UI here. But we have millions of people spending countless minutes crouching in dust under the table trying to plug in the cable in the computer arse and putting it either in the wrong hole or in the right one but upside down!

The sad part is that nearly every artefact and service around us is more or less awful from the point of view of experience. The good part is that prospects for UX design are both huge and bright.

The road to User Experience design

What stops us from improving the UX of our products? I see two chief reasons: firstly, we are too passive ourselves and secondly, we allow and tolerate a blurred concept of the term.

https://dribbble.com/search?q=ux in all that UX glory.

There is very little UX design so far, yet the battle cries of “UX designers from Dribbble” are loud and numerous. This is bad because it devalues good design in other areas. Both visual design and usability are great and important areas. Switching back to the hotel business, no UX design can help if guests are forced to stay in a hovel (lack of graphic design) with its entrance through the basement (not a clue of ergonomics). A good and competent graphic designer or a usability expert are much more useful than a “UX designer from Dribbble.com” but, unfortunately, their voices are weak and tiny against the chorus.

The world is still lacking lots of dedicated UX designers, but how can they appear while everybody claims UX? Today, UX is the side work of many different individuals working full time on management, of tech writers, developers and many others. But they have other stuff to do too. They are simply lacking free time: we have to give it to them and the only thing that can help here is to make an impact with UX. That should be our focus time and again.