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User Experience is a Quality, Not A Discipline

One of the things that has been hard for the “usability community” to accept is that usability is not really interesting in and of itself. And that usability isn’t really a goal, and it’s definitely not the end-all be-all. Usability is simply a quality. It’s an important quality, but just one of many. And it definitely doesn’t warrant being a “discipline.”

I’ve begun to think the same thing about “user experience.” In a prior post, I wondered if user experience is dead. I wondered this for a few reasons:
– the people who were “leading” the discussion about user experience were doing so back-asswards
– there is a seeming lack of energy behind the concept of “user experience”
– people feel passion for disciplines such as “information architecture” and “interaction design,” but if “user experience” were to go away tomorrow, no one would notice.

Perhaps the best response to that post was Dave Rogers’ “Is UX Dead?” And in that post, and elsewhere, I slowly realized that “user experience,” too, is nothing more than a quality. When user experience is discussed by people outside the profession, they talk about a site or product offering a good user experience. When Kottke writes about Google Maps and user experience, he doesn’t talk about Google’s user experience designers — he talks about how the sum of elements leads to a “useful user experience.”

This–this feels right. User experience is not a discipline, or an approach, it’s a thing, a quality, an emergent property between a person and a product or service.

This puts me in direct opposition with Jesse’s diagram. Those aren’t elements of user experience. Those are elements of web design. Performing those elements well should lead to offering users a quality experience, yes. But “information architecture,” “interaction design,” “user needs,” etc. etc. don’t comprise the user experience. A quality user experience is comprised of things like desirability, usability, enjoyability, utility, delight, satisfaction, etc. etc.

The UXNet Development Consortium, therefore, misses the point entirely. It’s trying to solve the “user experience” problem through professional associations. Professional associations don’t solve anything. They provide a valuable service gathering place for individuals engaged in similar practices. The development consortium is attempting to develop a “community” of “user experience professionals.” All it is is providing a platform for navel-gazing and rehashing. It is moving nothing forward. The outcome of the consortium is pretty much no different than what was discussed at the 4th Advance For Design, in 2001. Has so little changed?

The problem with the development consortium and its approach is, frankly, that it’s too small, condescending, and elitist. Not intentionally, mind you. Not in spirit or motive. I know many of the folks involved, and they’re good, passionate, upright, and they’re doing what they can to make the world a better place. Still, the nature of the enterprise, suggesting as it does that User Experience belongs to this group of groups, strikes me as condescending.

User experience is everyone’s responsibility. It is not the special province of interactive systems designers. The scope of people involved in helping supply a quality user experience is so vast, that you cannot draw an interesting circle around it and say, “that’s the community.”

The only reason that “user experience” is associated with interactive systems designers is because Don Norman didn’t want his group at Apple relegated to pushing pixels in the “user interface.” As he wrote in an email to me:

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.

User experience should not be just about interactive systems — it’s a quality that reflects the sum total of a person’s experiences with any product, service, organization. When I walk into a store, I’m having a “user experience.” When I call an airline to make a reservation, I’m having a “user experience.” And innumerable elements contribute to affect that quality of experience.

So what can we do? We can move forward by talking about what goes into developing quality user experiences. We should never talk about “user experience design” — there is no customer or user-facing design that doesn’t involve a user’s experience. But we can talk about how our methods, processes, approaches, mindsets, and understandings can contribute to improving the user experiences of the products and services people deal with.

This is what gets me excited about DUX. I know I dissed it in my prior post, but that was less the concept of the conference than the seeming foot-dragging in getting it going. Now that DUX2005 has been announced, and a preliminary call for entries posted, it’s time for us to talk about the work that we’ve done, and how it’s made people’s lives better. The conference is very purposefully titled “designing for user experience,” recognizing that user experience is a quality, not a discipline. A very important quality — in some cases the most important quality.

(Yes, I know that DUX is put on by the same professional associations that I excoriated. DUX is actually put on by individuals, who utilize those associations for their logistical assistance. I hazard to guess that DUX could be as popular if not affiliated with any organization, but maybe a little harder to work out contractual details with venues, etc. etc.)

  1. Thanks for clarifying this, Peter.

    As a content professional (strategist, editor, writer, trainer), I often feel like I’m banging my head against a wall to get people in charge of organizations’ web sites to recognize how important content quality is to the user experience. It seems like they get tunnel vision about aspects of the user experience that they can easily monitor and quantify (such as clicks and sales).

    Often this means that the more qualitative side of user experience (like, are you making sense and do people care about what you’re saying online?) gets marginalized in terms of emphasis and resources. And that shows.

    Any suggestions for how we might raise the profile of content quality (substance as well as style) as a crucial part of the user experience — one that warrants up-front consideration, planning, and resources?


    – Amy Gahran

    (Oh, incidentally, your comment system kept rejecting this post because for some reason it didn’t like the end of my blog’s URL. It also didn’t like a snipURL redirect to my blog. Hmmm. I ended up including a link to another site of mine. You might want to check into this glitch.)

  2. At the UXNet Development Consortium, I argued myself that professional associations are less and less relevant. Technology-facilitated sharing communities, from blogs to LinkedIn to Flickr, have opened up all new possibilities for networking and communicating and sharing work that once depended on professional forums. There’s still a big need for infrastrucutre and tools that increase practitioners’ ability to do better work, and I think professional organizations should refocus themselves towards building knowledge products that facilitate this. That’s the sort of thing that will help improve the quality of user experiences in all kinds of products and services, not championing an indivudal profession.

    You’re right on target, Peter.

  3. [The UXNet Development Consortium is] trying to solve the “user experience” problem through professional associations.

    I think that is a false assumption Peter. I don’t think UXnet is trying to solve any UX problem. I think UXnet is simply trying to support the UX community which is by large IAs, IDs, Designers, and much more.

    The development consortium is attempting to develop a “community” of “user experience professionals.”

    Again, I am sorry but you are misinformed here. We are not trying to develop a community, one already exists long before UXnet came around, we’re just formalizing it.

    For the sake of clearity you may want re-read what is on the UXnet home page and better understand exactly what it is we are doing. Here it is:

    UXnet is dedicated to exploring opportunities for cooperation and collaboration among UX-related organizations and individuals.

    This means we are trying to get the usability engineers to start talking and working with the interaction designers, and the technical developers to start collaborating with the infromation architects, and the industrial designers to start conversations with the web designers.. and so on.

    I know from the side lines it’s easy to make assumptions, but had you been involved directly with UXnet you might have a better understanding of what it is we are and are not going or trying to do.

    Peter, we are talking about bringing people together to make better products and offer better solutions. You of all people should be supporting that effort.

  4. Norman coining “user experience” created a visceral image of what we all feel during “an interaction.” It’s something we latch onto, whether it be during the experience itself (“wow, this is a great user experience”) or while trying to develop a team within a company to create a great user experience.

    The most important thing we all need to remember is that participating in the creation of great “user experiences” is job #1.

    Too much ceremony and not enough work makes Jack a bullshit artist.

  5. Great post, Peter. (And thanks for the kind pointer to my earlier thoughts.)

    When I became an information architect, I thought I had finally found the vocation I’d been looking for. But I’ve since realized that UX is the common theme of my career, whether it was retail, training, CD-ROM development, marketing or IA. I “did” UX (along with the requisite collaborators) in all of these. It is indeed more than a “discipline;” perhaps it’s an art.

    While UX thus applies to far more than interactive systems, in such systems the potential for creating a superb UX is more within our grasp than in other fields.

    As a retail store’s manager, say, I could do my absolute best to create a terrific UX for my customers, but only within the constraints of the store design, product line and marketing sent down from on (corporate) high.

    In interactive systems, however, such constraints are lessened (or should be) by the collaboration such projects require. I think this is why I get so fired up about UX–and maybe it’s part of Norman’s original meaning.

    This deserves more than just a comment, but I’m on vacation. I’ll try to get back to the topic at UXCentric in a couple of weeks.

  6. The Development Consortium was “condescending” and “elitist”? Hmm… those two words seem to more appropriately describe that portion of your blog entry.

    As one of the conference chairs for DUX 2005, I’m glad you saw fit to praise that conference this time around. But as the person who organized and led the Development Consortium, I’m perplexed as to why you choose to insult efforts at increasing collaboration among professional associations.

    You say “we can move forward by talking about what goes into developing quality user experiences.” So why is assembling people to talk about what goes into developing quality practitioner experiences of professional associations and their offerings (which you include within your definition of “user experience”) “moving nothing forward”?

    I don’t know that any of those who participated in the Development Consortium would argue that user experience is not a quality.

    And to my knowledge, and contrary to your assertion, no one involved with the development consortium has claimed that user experience belongs to the professional associations which participated. I encouraged participation by leaders of as many professional associations that I could for which the focus of the consortium resonated, which were mostly organizations often identified as serving professionals involved at the core of designing for user experience. No claim should be inferred that they are the only relevant organizations, or that user experience belongs to any particular “group of groups.”

    Besides, participation was solicited via an open call (see Yes, even you could have participated, Peter, and frankly, I wish you had, instead of choosing to make condescending proclamations about something you didn’t attend.

    And a comment to Amy: CMPros had planned to participate in the development consortium, but had to cancel those plans.

  7. I would agree usability is a quality, few of my thoughts to add

    I have always read usability as a term evolving around providing a better experience for the user or customer, it could be in design in service or in thought. It’s omnipresent in all industries and for some time provides a competitive edge for those who deploy it earlier then others.

    This competitive edge stays around for a while and then becomes a standard where everybody deploys it, till the next big step comes forward in better user/customer experience.

    For ex: a bank that gives a faster service has an edge just like a toaster which has simpler and minimal control or a website that lets user find what he wants fast and simple.

    What surprises me is usability is increasingly being associated as a magic wand; some have even attributed the dotcom bust to lack of usability. I really wonder if we are biting in more than we can chew.

    – Usability cannot and will not get customers.
    – Usability is no rocket science, it’s a constituent of simple methods worked to get simpler solutions.
    – Usability is mandatory for all corporates who keep customers/users as a priority, and it does not necessarily mean employing a usability professional
    – Usability is multi-professional, it involves dedication of people from different professions and different skillsets to ensure the user is at the helm

  8. Your pretentious blathering is “insulting and condescending” to all the UX practitioners out there. Who are you to dismiss industry recognized terms and affiliations?

    For all your chest pounding on the merits of ‘user experience,’ you do nothing but further fragment the community of user experience professionals dedicated to making technology more accessible to the common people.

    While you and your little circle of mis-guided critics argue semantics, others around the world–especially Asia, are moving foward to improve the user experience.

    You, on the other hand, seem more interested in promoting yourself with your pseudo-intellectuual drivel.


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