November 24, 1998
Whither "User Experience"?
As of Thanksgiving, I'll be an independent contractor. And I considered describing what I do as designing "User
Experience." But in researching the etymology of that term, I uncovered an unsettling notion with how it encourages
practitioners to think of the audience as a singular faceless entity.
I ask: Web designers (and by that I mean, information architects, interaction designers, graphic designers, etc.),
how many of you have said, "users don't [do this thing]" as if the entire audience were one seething
mass? ("Users don't scroll" is probably the most uttered such phrase.) The ascent of the noble notion
of User Experience unfortunately caused the rise of the faceless monolithic User, leading to lowest-common-denominator
design becoming the standard on the Web. It is time for designers to embrace the individuals comprising their audiences
and take into account their particular needs and desires.
The nebulous compound noun "User Experience" has become a too-vague notion of to what we are designing.
I suggest the small step toward designing the "user's experience," with the simple possessive to remind
us for whom we are designing. I think that acknowledging the focus of scope is also important--for me, specifying
it as the "Web user's experience" reinforces that my work is part of a greater whole.
The research that lead to this notion is, I believe, of interest itself. Forthwith my tale of pursuing the origin
of the term "User Experience.'
Whence "User Experience"?
As with damn near everything around the field of user-centered design, all signs pointed straight to Don Norman. Using
the HCI Bibliography
(a great resource, by the way), the earliest reference I found was a 1995 CHI proceedings paper, wherein Don and a
couple colleagues write an organizational overview where they
cover some of the critical aspects of human interface research and application
at Apple or, as we prefer to call it, the "User Experience."
Posing the origin question to the CHI-WEB mailing list, I received some amazing
responses. Of particular note was Tom
Erickson, who worked with Don Norman at Apple. An electronic pack rat,
his post contained these electronic meeting notes from 1993:
"These are rough notes on the user experience meeting ...
"Don also described and solicited discussion on, the "User Interface [sic] Architect's office" (hereafter
Sustained with this lead, I consulted the Oracle himself. A quick email to Don
Norman elicited a reply which contained:
I invented the term because I thought Human Interface and usability were
too narrow: I wanted to cover all aspects of the person's experience with a system, including industrial design,
graphics, the interface, the physical
interaction, and the manual.
Since then, the term has spread widely, so much so that it is starting to lose its meaning.
As it was that last concern that started my research, I found Don's justification
interesting. But I think he may have sowed those seeds of misunderstanding, as his term is so broad in the
disciplines and people it requires, that it was inevitable for folks to reduce its meaning in order to get their
arms around it.
An additional thread to pursue came from Nick
Ragouzis, who, true to his thought-provoking form, revealed this to me
The earliest example I can find ... is Brenda K. Laurel in "Interface as
Mimesis" (in Norman & Draper's User Centered Systems Design, 1986). It appears
as "the user's experience" in the last para of the sectioned titled "Interactive Aspects of First
Nick went on to say how, even though folks approaching "User Experience"
have done so with only best intentions in mind, the term has helped lead to "the concept of individual, real,
experience, [being] transformed into some sort of generalized result."
It was at this point that I began to percolate the ideas that formulated my thesis, above. I love that my preferred
term goes so far back--it's time to let it no longer be forgotten.
As with all pieces on peterme.com,
your thoughts are welcome.