If you spend even a little time reading about tech you know there are always trendy buzzwords skulking around, looking to leech money out of naive or desperate pockets. Six months ago, after having my head in the sand for the better part of a year, I belatedly noticed a big push to extol the virtues of UX Design (aka User eXperience Design), which currently seems to be the focus of a number of companies that service the technology industry.
What is UX Design, or UXD, or UX, or Design? Well, that’s a good question. The broad answer is that it’s the art and quasi-science of how users interact with whatever you’ve got, though these days it’s primarily discussed in terms of software. If you have a product, and it can be used — or even just experienced — then by definition there are design elements intrinsic to that relationship whether you have paid much attention to them or not. If you make your living based on the effectiveness of that relationship, then UX Design is critical to your lifeblood. Or so the argument goes.
If that also sounds like a bunch of conceptual hooey I wouldn’t disagree, but don’t take it from me. Here’s the ISO explaining what the user experience encompasses.
According to the ISO definition, user experience includes all the users’ emotions, beliefs, preferences, perceptions, physical and psychological responses, behaviors and accomplishments that occur before, during and after use.
As you can see, UX Design can cover just about anything you want it to cover, meaning it’s a wonderfully pliable concept if you’re trying to terrorize people into hiring you to solve all those UX problems they didn’t know they had. In that sense UXD is the new SEO because it can be used to instill fear, particularly in the hearts of people who don’t understand it. (And just in time, too, given that SEO seems to have run its cash-cow course.)
As a consumer, however, were you to ask me whether you should spend money on UX Design or something else, I would urge you to take a long look at your company and products before you jump on the UX bandwagon and start shelling out money. Because while everything under the infinitely broad umbrella of UX Design could be important to your success, there are aspects of business which clearly are important to your success, yet those aspects quite often get short shrift. If all you want to do is jam a sale down someone’s throat then yes, UXD probably should take precedence over things like a working product or customer service. On the other hand, if you want to remain in business for more than a few years, maybe you’d be better off focusing on meeting the day-to-day needs of the people who use your goods, including providing features and tools that they actually request.
I’ve seen some amazing examples of good interface design, and I’m sure that some people are better at UXD than others, but I think the great majority of UX problems can probably be nipped in the bud with a little common sense. For example, don’t re-invent the wheel. Not only don’t wheels need to be re-invented, but the people who buy and use wheels are happy with wheels as they are. While there will always be stylists who are compelled by the very nature of their DNA to do whatever everybody else is not doing — even if it literally makes no sense, and at times precisely because it makes no sense — there’s nothing wrong with making things brain-dead obvious or designing by cultural consensus.
Good UX Design can and should prevent problems that require customer service and support, but even great UXD won’t make up for bad customer service and support, let alone a bad product. From my perspective as a user I care a whole lot more about a working product and having help available when I need it than I do about someone anticipating, shaping or manipulating my emotional or psycho-kinetic needs. Yes, you can always attract a certain amount of short-term attention by emphasizing style over substance, but I don’t think there are a lot of sustainable business plans that hinge on the ability to attract momentary interest at the expense of functionality or reputation. In fact, that sounds more like the definition of a motor vehicle accident. Or the computer gaming industry.
— Mark Barrett