A century separates the words of George Henry Lewes and Maya Angelou. But when merged, they both can help us form a new conception of experience design.
Lewes, a 19th century English philosopher, gives us some insight into the familiar phrase “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” More on him later. Angelou, the esteemed poet, memoirist, actress, director, and civil rights activist, reveals something more visceral when she said “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Think about that. Information is ephemeral, but emotions are sticky.
What your app says and does can be easily duplicated. But how does it makes someone feel? That is the real realm of UX. Throwing up apps to see if they stick based solely on what they say and do is outmoded. Now it’s about getting users to generate positive memories about them. So when you’re in the business of user experience design, you’re in the business of making users feel good. It’s cerebral.
UX Designer to the rescue!
So no problem, right? You will take charge like Don Draper. You’ll be an advocate on behalf of your user. You’ll wear their shoes. You’ll think how they think. You’ll imagine using your app for the first time. You’ll sit down and create the most beautiful, brilliant design you’ve ever created, and your work will be proclaimed a spirited success.
But here’s the fly in the ointment: You’re not the one creating the experiences you think you’re creating.
Or at least not the only one. One can’t put emotion in a bottle, hand it to a user, and guarantee how it will taste when they crack the seal. The idea that one person having the sole power to fashion that experience strikes me as brazen. User sentiment is ultimately the result of many sets of fingerprints on the development process. UX is engineering. It’s copywriting. It’s information architecture, analytics, testing, interaction design, identity and purpose, too. User sentiment comes from a collective effort, not from one person with “UX” on their business card.
From emergence comes emotion
If you think of an app as a system of constituents that are seemingly dissimilar on a component level, you can see they have an emergent quality that is only gained when the components are collected. Lewes describes emergence this way:
Every resultant is either a sum or a difference of the co-operant forces; their sum, when their directions are the same — their difference, when their directions are contrary. Further, every resultant is clearly traceable in its components, because these are homogeneous and commensurable. It is otherwise with emergents, when, instead of adding measurable motion to measurable motion, or things of one kind to other individuals of their kind, there is a co-operation of things of unlike kinds. The emergent is unlike its components insofar as these are incommensurable, and it cannot be reduced to their sum or their difference.
George Henry Lewes in Problems of Life and Mind, vol.2, p413 (1875) (Emphasis by me)
Let’s look at the “co-operants” and how they impact sentiment and influence the emergent whole.
UX is engineering. I can’t think of a anything with more potential to sour an otherwise positive user experience than poorly executed engineering. An app with scaling nightmares, performance issues, broken services, security holes, or just plain doesn’t work is one that leaves you unhappy.
UX is copywriting. Words are power. Words motivate, communicate and inspire. They can also offend, confuse or feel off-color. A writer who doesn’t understand who they’re speaking to risks striking a dissonant chord with users.
UX is information architecture. Complex systems that are fashioned to appear outwardly simple make for better overall satisfaction. A user who can easily and freely traverse a landscape of information will be happier.
UX is analytics and testing. In many cases, design teams that infer the right choices based on evidence can create better apps. Sitting at your desk thinking about something for a while doesn’t count as evidence for a design decision. Evidence is intelligent analytics. Google’s data-driven design philosophy rests on this idea. Asking the right questions and executing the right tests to answer those questions can not only improve conversion and business goals, but improve usability as well.
UX is interaction design. Like engineering, interaction design is a heavy factor in determining if an app delights or fades into the fog of the forgotten. It’s hard to recover once a product is mentally categorized as unintuitive and hard to use.
UX is identity. Your product may be associated with a brand which the user is familiar with. This often leads to presumptions that color subsequent interaction. When I was an art director at ESPN.com, I did an unscientific survey of sports site users. I asked who they thought had the fastest, most up-to-date live scoring and game data. More than half said ESPN.com. But that wasn’t true (other sources, including Yahoo Sports, were faster). It’s fair to assume the ESPN brand had some positive influence on performance perception.
UX is purpose. What is your product’s purpose and why is it valuable to people? If there’s a hesitant answer (or if it takes you 5 minutes to explain the answer) then build something else. All of the other co-operants can’t manufacture a positive, sticky sentiment without a valuable purpose.
UX is everybody’s domain
If you hold power to undermine an experience (as all the roles I mentioned above indeed have) then logic tells us that you also have the power to maximize the efficacy of what your role brings to the project it’s part of. If people are having forgettable experiences with your product, think twice before pointing at the “UX Designer.” Likewise, share unashamedly the success of products that create memorable, sticky experiences.
Users paint how your product makes them feel on the canvas of their memory. Making that picture look as positive as possible is everyone’s domain. Anyone touching the product development process should think in terms of how they can shape sentiment, and how their component adds to the whole.