The Trouble with User Experience Design

I am–for most professional intents and purposes–a User Experience Designer. That’s the job title on my business card and LinkedIn profile. That’s how I’m introduced. I go to UX conferences, I read UX books, go to UX Happy Hours, and generally have a good time with UX people. Some days it feels as if I eat, sleep, dream, and soak in UX bath salts.

Yet, I’ve always had trouble with the term “User Experience”, and especially the implication that one can design a specific experience for someone else. It inevitably conjures up images of Winston Smith’s primal urges and the dystopian question whether androids dream of electric sheep.

Take a deep breath, sit back. Grab your favorite drink, and let me take you through a roundabout way of explaining why I feel this way. The TL;DR version will be at the end.

In my night job, I teach yoga. Last night, in my Intro to Yoga class I introduced a concept called svadhyaya, translated from Sanskrit as self-study, self-inquiry, or self-reflection. (For fellow etymology nerds out there, sva = self, dhyaya is from the verb dhyai, “to contemplate, to call to mind”.)

“So, self-study, like, spiritually?”, a student asked.

“Possibly”, I replied, “What about noticing where your feet and knees and shoulders are? And how you’re breathing right now?” Being aware of where you are in space and what you’re doing is also a fine way to self-reflect. This habit, with practice, and over time, can show up elsewhere outside the yoga mat. You’ll start to notice when you’re slumping at our desk, or that your breath shortens when someone cuts us off in traffic.

If being aware of where your toes are turns out to be useful in other parts of your life, great. “But, I don’t pretend to know how you should reflect spiritually. That is your personal experience.” I told her.

I see a lot of yoga teachers talking about feelings and emotions with their students, and I’m not that brave. It’s not my business to tell someone how to “feel”. If I suggest that you ought to feel divine bliss in a yoga pose, and you’re actually in pain and feeling shitty, both of us are imposing someone else’s reality on ourselves, and how fun is that?

In other words, my user experience is not your user experience.

The only thing I can do when I teach yoga is to make sure the surface is even, the floor is clean, and you feel safe, so that you can confidently work on getting strong and flexible or whatever it is that you need from yoga.

Similarly, in design, it’s my business to do everything I can to create, provide and fine-tune all the factors necessary for a functional and beautiful product. It’s my job to make sure that my design is useful and understandable and all these things.

But, as Kim Goodwin, author of Designing for the Digital Age said:

Since each person brings her own attitudes, behaviors, and perceptions to any situation, no designer can determine exactly what experience someone has.” – pg 5, Designing for the Digital Age.

We don’t have to look to far to see evidence of this. For some people, the iPhone and iOS devices provide a superior user experience. For others, it’s Android. For yet some others, it’s Windows Phone. I love my Mac to a disturbing degree, but I’m sure there are those who will enrage at the sight of the glowing fruit that I love to fondle.

For a non techy example (and for you foodies): while I love a juicy Portabella sandwich, a boyfriend I once had won’t touch a fork that’s been in the same zipcode as a mushroom.

I think of myself as an Interaction Designer, but I don’t mind (so much, anymore) when I get called a User Experience Designer. I get that we need a word to rally around and to communicate, and there’s no reason to be pedantic about the semantics. I’ve come to fully accept it. But, I’m also aware that the user experience is likely never going to be 100% my own doing.

TL;DR: We can’t really design an “experience”, since everyone’s experience is based on their attitudes, behaviors, perceptions, and choice of fruit. The best we can do is to set up the environment in which a person’s experience can be optimized.

“It is interesting reading your reactions. Your five predecessors were, by design, based on a similar predication: a contingent affirmation that was meant to create a profound attachment to the rest of your species, facilitating the function of the One.

While the others experienced this in a general way, your experience is far more specific. Vis-à-vis: love.”

Search for: Better Form Design at Seattle CitySearch

I occasionally use CitySearch, and less occasionally need to log in. Thank God for that. Here’s what happened when I tried using it tonight. I’ve included two Usability Heuristics that apply here. Please click on the screen shots for bigger views if you fancy that.

First, the log in.

Since I don’t remember my username, or if I’m even registered, I signed up for a new account. The system let me put in all the info, waited until I clicked on “Sign Up”, *then* it told me my username already exists. Couldn’t it have done that as soon as I typed it in? That would surely save me some time and effort inputting the other fields. And, the sooner that I found out I was a member, the sooner I can move on to other tasks, such as retrieving my forgotten password.

I'm in the system! Yay?

After all the usual password sent/reset dance, I’m in. Now I’m doing what I came here to do, vote for a business I like and write a comment. It tells me that there’s a 255 character limit. Okay, great. How long is 255 characters? I have no idea. As I typed, there’s no indication of how many characters are left. I’m typing, typing, typing. I click “Post”.

Error! My comment is too long. Okay, but how *much* more too long? How many words should I cut out? I have no idea. All the web site does is tell me emphatically, in red, that my comment must be of a certain length. I know there is a 255 characters max, thank you. But could you help me out by telling me how much I went over the max limit?

I quickly googled for a Character Count tool online and fixed the problem, but what if I didn’t know I could do that? I’d probably throw my towels in and say, to hell with this.

Quick! How many characters are in this box?

Nielsen’s Usability Heuristic #5: Error prevention

Even better than good error messages is a careful design which prevents a problem from occurring in the first place. Either eliminate error-prone conditions or check for them and present users with a confirmation option before they commit to the action.

Nielsen’s Usability Heuristic #9: Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors

Error messages should be expressed in plain language (no codes), precisely indicate the problem, and constructively suggest a solution.

Tool Time vs. Goal Time, or, the Fallacy of the Microsoft Windows Phone 7 Ad

No doubt you’ve seen the video ad for Microsoft Windows Phone 7 (if not, you can watch it on YouTube).

Now, this is not a post about the quality of the Windows Phone 7, or any other phone for that matter. It’s a post about the confusion between the concept of tool time and goal time.

Tool time is the time that, if dragged out longer, does not improve the quality of the experience. It’s an inverse relationship. Goal time, on the other hand, describes a positive relationship between time spent doing something and the quality or outcome of that activity.

Here’s a concrete example. You’re thinking of buying a new phone. You go to, oh, let’s say your nearest most favoritest phone store. You play with the phones. You take pictures, you compare the camera quality. You read every review you can get your hands on. You talk to all your friends about what they like or don’t like about their phone. That’s goal time. The more time you spend doing this, the more informed your decision will be.

You’ve settled on a phone. You go back to the store. It’s the Holidays shopping season. The line is out the door. They have a new temp person working. The computer has weird quirks. The lady at the top of the line is trying to find her check book. You’ve waited for this moment. You’ve done your due diligence. You can’t wait to tear open the package to play with your new phone. If the line went any slower, it would go in reverse. You’re ready to scream. Now, that’s tool time.

This is a real life example, but we can easily translate this to online. Whatever you’re buying, the time it takes for you to browse around, to decide on the right item, etc. all that is goal time. That’s why sites have reviews and items that you might also be interested in, and what other people have also bought, etc. All of that is geared towards helping you make a decision, and well… buy something, spend money, and then spend even more money. Tool time is the check out process. You may not mind spend ing 45 minutes browsing around, reading reviews and checking out alternative products, but I would bet that a 45-minute check-out process is something that belongs in eCommerce hell.

Why am I talking about this?

The Windows Phone 7 ad seems to imply (to me at least) that the people burying their nose in other kinds of phones, risking their lives and neglecting their sex lives, are doing so because of tool time, whereas the Windows Phone 7 is “designed to get you in and out and back to life.”

Let’s first give credit where credit is due, the ad got something right. It hits home for… possibly all of us. Who here hasn’t crossed the street with their face in their phone, trusting with full faith that every driver on the road is sane, sober and obeys traffic lights? Who here hasn’t slept with their phone and looked at it first thing in the morning?

I won’t talk about our addiction to our mobile devices here, that’s another post, but I’m going to say this: not every instance where someone is “forgetting about life” is due to how hard, or easy, it is to use their phone. It could be that they’re playing Angry Birds and thisclose to getting three stars on every level. Just… one… more… try….

In fact, I’m going to go as far as saying that when someone’s immersed in something, a mobile device, a book, a movie, they’re enjoying it, they’re lost in it. (Not bad, not good, just is). Maybe, just maybe, they’re not thinking about “getting back to life.” (Again, I’m not suggesting what they ought to do here.)

From a User Experience Design angle, if someone is so hooked by what you’ve created, to the point where a hot woman standing by in a silk lace teddy wants some action, and they don’t want any, well… you done did good! I mean, how many other things could possibly be  capturing the guy’s attention here? Very few. I’m going to bet that one of them is not… oh, finding out how many email messages he has.

Again, like that iPhone 4 customer in that awesome video said, I don’t care what phone is better or worse, for what purpose and for whom (and that’s an entirely different discussion). A phone is a personal choice, and it’s become borderline deranged how some of us have gotten worked up over it. Root your Android, enjoy your tactile keyboard, and let me have my geebees. (I may tell you your phone is inferior, but that’s only because I like bantering.) Besides, we’re fighting the wrong fight anyway.

All I’m saying is, don’t confuse the time you spend doing something and the quality of the tool. For a more in depth discussion of tool time and goal time, check out  Jared Spool’s article: Dividing User Time between Tool and Goal. Really.

Now this, is what I call Quality Time