I’m not a User Experience Designer. And neither are you.
What? How would you know what I am or am not?
I don’t for sure. But give me a chance to back it up. In order to make such a claim I need to establish what I mean by the term user experience. To do that, let’s roll back to 1995. Gangsta’s Paradise by Coolio is the number one hit song and Don Norman publishes a SIGCHI proceedings paper, in which he writes…
In this organizational overview we cover some of the critical aspects of human interface research and application at Apple or, as we prefer to call it, the “User Experience.”
And there it appears (emphasis by me). The first occurence, it seems, of that compound noun ‘user experience.’ Norman coined the term to encompass a range of elements from a systems perspective.
He explained the term further in an email to Peter Merholz a few years later, stating “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 the 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 it’s meaning.”
It’s in this broad sense, one that reaches across all aspects of the human-product relationship, that ‘user experience’ entered our vocabulary.
As Marc Hassenzahl reminds us, if a product’s purpose and function is the ‘what’ then the experience created through our relationship with it is the ‘how’ and ‘why’. We’re actually quite good at mastering the ‘what’ and to a large degree the ‘how’ of product design. We can invent things that help us accomplish tasks and solve problems that we once only dreamed about. But when we talk of experience, the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of design are the means, not the end according to Norman. Ultimately, product experiences emerge in the form of narratives that describe how they enhance our lives. And just like traditional stories, we tell them to others.
What does ‘user experience’ mean today?
UX itself still retains its original meaning in some circles, but has been used more and more frequently as a surrogate for more specific domains such as interaction design, visual design, or usability. Some professionals who’ve been perfectly satisfied calling themselves web|product|interaction|app|etc designers (or just designers) now feel an urge to adopt this more loftier sounding ‘user experience’ prefix. Perhaps it’s seen as something one graduates into if they’ve been designing long enough. Or maybe it comes from a fear of being perceived as lagging behind forward edge thinking in their industry. Whatever the motivation, it’s hard to argue that the term hasn’t become diluted among a broad range of practitioners.
Peter Merholz interviewed Norman a decade after their initial correspondence in which Don reflects once again on the term he helped popularize:
Yes, user experience, human centered design, usability; all those things, even affordances. They just sort of entered the vocabulary and no longer have any special meaning. People use them often without having any idea why, what the word means, its origin, history, or what it’s about.
Can you sense a little disappointment there? I think it comes from a growing disregard for the systems nature of product design. What’s taken hold is this notion that because a user’s experience with a product is influenced by that product’s design, the experience as a whole can therefore be designed.
This is false. What is actually being designed is a support system to facilitate the formation of user experiences.
Design as a support system
In a comment on Marc Hassenzahl’s thoughts on UX, Norman explains where experiences ultimately come into being:
To use another design term: we can design in the affordances of experiences, but in the end it is up to the people who use our products to have the experiences.
Put another way, we can use what we know about our own brains to create a framework that guides users toward having the experiences we’d like them to have, but it’s up to them to actualize them. We have full control over things like objectives, features, interaction design (i.e. one can make a user complete a process in a certain way), information structure, UI design, visual design, and written language. But even if you control all of those things yourself, you still can’t say that the system will result in a predestined experience.
The products we create are systems that support positive (we hope) user experiences. You could think of the things we design as experience facilitators or experience enablers.
Why I’m not a UX Designer
Design implies control. Experiences resulting from things we design and saying we design those experiences are not at all the same.
I don’t call myself a UX Designer for one simple reason: I don’t believe experiences can be designed. At least not outside the realm of science fiction or without knowledge about ourselves that we have yet to discover. I view User Experience as a field of study with a range of disciplines within it, not something we author (particularly not by a single designer). Products are designed. Experiences are their resultants.
Many will disagree. But for me it seems presumptuous and a bit hubristic to view it any other way.
What does UX design mean to you?