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.”

The Pursuit of Happiness

Throughout this past week and a couple before that, I have been randomly running into the concept of “happiness” everywhere I looked. My guess is, because it’s the end of the year and also the end of what TIME Magazine called The Decade from Hell (geez, sensational much?), a whole lot of us are reflecting more than usual, and movies like Up in the Air have got us asking, “What am I doing with my life?”, and “What is it all for?”

On Friday, I read the article This is the Greatest Good by Richard Layard, author of Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, who suggests:

“So it is time to reassert the noble philosophy of the Enlightenment. In this view, every human being wants to be happy, and everybody counts equally. It follows that progress is measured by the overall scale of human happiness and misery. And the right action is the one that produces the greatest happiness in the world and (especially) the least misery. I can think of no nobler ideal.”

Now, I won’t go into what exactly constitute happiness, because that in itself is a giant black hole, and it’s the crux of the argument that what Richard Layard proposes is not practical, nor desired, as this dude said in the counter-essay: The pursuit of happiness is a fool’s errand.

“For one thing, pain too will be part of any rich human life as, say, when people fall in love. For another, pleasure comes in all sorts of different guises that can no more be compared than can the joy of reading a book with the buzz of dancing until dawn.

Today’s utilitarians believe they have overcome this difficulty, since we can now observe people in scanners: pleasure centres light up in the brain, producing an apparently objective measure.

Only it isn’t. The problem is that there is no way to read a brain directly: no grey fold or ganglion is pre-labelled ‘happiness'”. – Mark Vernon

I very much see where these two guys are coming from. Today my friend Andy briefly talked about why we haven’t been out and about partying as much like we used to, and I mentioned what my senior yoga teacher Judith Lasater said in an interview:

“There’s a difference between fun and enjoyment. Fun is something I might want to do to get away from my life and enjoyment is something I can bring into my life. With fun, I’m thinking of trying to escape for the moment. Enjoyment is something that brings me into my life. It is the attitude I have within my life.”

It’s not a stretch to say that we are all pursuing something called happiness. We all want to have fun, to enjoy life, to be happy. Why then, does happiness seem so elusive? I have a couple theories, but I want to hear from you. What do you think? What’s your definition of happiness? And according to that, are you happy?

You don't want to see my unhappy face, trust me.

You don’t want to see my unhappy face, trust me.