A week ago, Jesse James Garret veritably bellowed the words “user experience designer” in his plenary address at this year’s IA Summit in Memphis, attempting to create some common ground between the information architects and interaction designers in the room and across the industry. In a strong and deeply-felt speech, he admonished the community (-ies?) for their factionalism, but in doing so may have helped stoke some controversy around the very term — user experience — he thought would help bring unity and focus.

I, for one, have called what I do “user experience design” for a decade. In 1999, working at Rare Medium before starting up Behavior, all of the visual designers, information architects, and HTML and Flash technologists were grouped in the UXD department, thanks, I suspect, to the vision of our creative director Gong Szeto. In 2003, I went to speak at my first IA Summit, serving on a panel entitled “User Experience and IA“, with no less than Peter Morville, Terry Swack, Jess McMullin, and moderated by… Jesse James Garret. The panel generated a lot of discussion, mostly about the meaning of “user experience” itself.

After this year’s summit, this conversation has sparked up yet again, most notably on the IxDA mailing list. I shared my own thoughts on Jesse’s argument there, and reproduce them here:

I found nothing whatsoever to disagree with in Jesse’s plenary. In fact, it all seemed obvious and non-controversial. Of course, it was neither. ๐Ÿ™

I hope that folks don’t see Jesse’s declaration as being synonymous with some kind of death of IA or IxD or whatever. He’s not asking anyone to change what they do, but merely to recognize that we are all involved in a broad but very special community of practice. “UX” describes it in a way that includes lots of people who should be working together more closely than it seems we are.

From day one at Behavior we’ve used the term “user experience” to describe everything we do รขโ‚ฌโ€ including visual design, sound design, and copywriting, for example. It’s enabled everyone on the team to feel like we share the responsibility for an important result: a compelling user experience.

On the other hand, we rarely actually use the word. It’s our ambient expertise, it’s the air we breathe. So ubiquitous and appropriate for describing the things it is that it’s almost not worth mentioning except when trying to distinguish it from something it is not.

Which is, of course, why humans have terminologies in the first place. We like the term UX because it doesn’t draw a line between IA and IxD and visual design and writing, but it does draw a line between all of those things and, say, database design, marketing, fashion design, and basket-weaving. Which we often have to do when, for example, we are pitching our services to clients who need to understand how we fit in to their needs.

It’s useful when discussing the strategies behind businesses making products, for whom executives need to distribute dollars between different areas รขโ‚ฌโ€ having a UX budget that’s distinct from a tech or marketing budget helps strategize how a product can succeed or fail.

And as said already, it’s useful when creating communities of practice: A UX conference, or a UX track at a conference, is a sensible way of organizing speakers and panels. Narrowing it down to IA or IxD (or writing or sound or video) might make sense if there are enough sessions narrowly focused on those areas, but I’ve found that most practitioners find it difficult to talk about any of these without talking about the others. It happens, and it’s a good thing that it happens, but it’s also a good thing that we blur the lines and wander across the borders.

In short: No need to throw down any walls here. Just open some gates.

Then, over this past weekend, I noticed David Gray from Xplane tossed his hat into the fray, this time on Twitter. An interesting Twitter-debate ensued (“askrom” is me):

davegray: #ux = hUman eXperience

billder: RT @davegray: #ux = hUman eXperience

askrom: @billder @davegray If we don’t say “user” then we’re not talking about interactivity. hUman eXperience would then include books, movies …

askrom: … It defeats the purpose of carving out an area of practice when it’s defined to include everything under the sun.

ggertz: @askrom @billder @davegray I define UX as an aesthetic not just an area of practice.So in tht sense it does involve everything under the sun

davegray: @askrom people don’t interact with books?

ggertz: @davegray << apolaine: @davegray People don’t interact with books in the sense of interactive media, no. They interact on a psychological level of course, but …

askrom: @davegray Sure. And people also interact with movies and sculptures. And to the extent that they do, we can certainly call them “users”.

askrom: @davegray I firmly beleive that interaction design has been with us for millenia, but it’s the concept/focus on “use” that’s especially new.

askrom: @davegray Only someone living in an era of pervasive machines — and their users — would consider a book something that can be “used”.

davegray: @askrom isn’t that the nature of design? Don’t all designers design interactions and human experiences? Why not just say “designer?”

askrom: @davegray I would agree, but realistically “design” includes perfectly valid but passive forms like wallpaper patterns and curtain fringes.

askrom: @davegray … and yet, at some level, even wallpaper has an experiential impact, too. Hmmmm…

mediajunkie: sorry, guys, but “human” is not any sexier (or, ironically, more humane) than “user.” human is a sci-fi nerd word in most ears

askrom: @mediajunkie Right. And some of the best UX designers (Temple Grandin) don’t design for humans at all!

davegray: @askrom Utility, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. defined by the context not the designer. I am losing your point.

askrom: @davegray Heh, I lost my point, too. I’m articulating both sides now. My core point, still, is that thinking about “users” has unleashed a..

askrom: @davegray … new way of designing things and a new way of thinking about design. Real utility is, indeed, a new kind of beauty.

davegray: @askrom if #ux designers only design things that can be used in a mechanistic sense, that seems needlessly limiting

askrom: @davegray Hmm. Can you clarify a “use” that is not mechanistic? Trying to wrap my head around that one.

davegray: @askrom nice. “utility has unleashed a new kind of beauty” I like that thought. I feel that way about clarity.

akacolleen: @davegray “I feel that way about clarity.” Now, I like *that* thought. #editorsforclarity

cchastain: @davegray @askrom How about: an exp that has a “user” must also have a function that requires interaction?

cchastain: Use, therefore, is not limited to pure utility….and it could include museum spaces, conferences, and, yes books.

askrom: @cchastain “requires” or merely “invites” interaction?

cchastain: @askrom Ah…invites, I think. That sounds much better. ๐Ÿ™‚

davegray: @askrom LOL just reading thru some of these tweets. I like the sound of “Wallpaper Experience Designer” ๐Ÿ™‚

zakiwarfel: @askrom but do we really need to worry about being confused with someone who designs wallpapers? Really?

The conversation continued later in the day and into the night, and was similarly transcribed by Steve “Doc” Baty. Continue the thread there


5 responses to “Experience Design User”

  1. I have to say that this little twitter “conversation” made my day. It was completely unplanned and emerged somewhat spontaneously (on a weekend morning I believe). It’s the kind of magical serendipitous experience that can’t really be planned for or designed — you can only design the interfaces, functions, technologies, etc. that create the opportunity for these things to emerge.

    At the same time you are creating opportunities for all kinds of other things to emerge: noise friction spam and crap, for example.

    I think this is why so many people have trouble understanding Twitter. They see the noise but don’t take the time to explore and find — or create — the beauty.

    On the Internet you reap what you sow.

  2. I feel the same way, Dave. It was a fun and fruitful weekend on Twitter, and in fact turned my souring view of Twitter 180 degrees around.

    Good job, by the way, of framing this conversation as an example of how some experiences can only be enabled but not directly created by the designer. As you note, the same design artifact (Twitter) can (and sometimes does) also achieve the exact opposite, creating a venue for humiliation, abuse, and pain.

    This often surprising inability for design to generate a specific desired experience was, for me, most convincingly argued by Alain the Botton in his fantastic and inspiring “The Architecture of Happiness” when he notes that the Nazis worked in and even built fabulous buildings lined with great works of art, monuments to the greatest achievements and noblest aspirations of the human spirit. They walked these halls every day for a decade, and yet managed to achieve the exact opposite of everything the architecture intended: evil, devastation, and even the humiliation of their own people.

    I guess the answer to the question of whether design can create experience is, as always, “it depends.”

  3. Chris / David –

    First off, it’s amazing the depth of the conversation & debate that took place over Twitter. Perhaps another indication the constraints might shape a more efficient conversation. Talk about “user experience design”.

    In your note above, there’s one explicit point that caught my attention, and I felt it worth commenting here:

    “some experiences can only be enabled but not directly created by the designer.”

    I would argue that all experience are enabled and not explicitly designed. As designers (however one would define the term) we can only provide the user with tools by which to engage, and through that interaction, come experiences.

    So reflecting on one of the volley’s via Twitter, Wallpaper can absolutely contribute to an experience just as viewing a work of art is an experience. Gallery & Museum Curators “Design” how artwork is presented in a space for effect & experience. Right?

    I think Designers do no different.

  4. “I would argue that all experience are enabled and not explicitly designed.”

    I’d say it’s both. Designers *can* control users. We *can* manipulate people. Whether it’s appropriate to do so is another question, but it is possible.

    Without getting too ugly, if I want someone to experience a certain kind of pain, for example, I can pretty much make that happen. Physical experiences are easy to design and faithfully reproduce fairly reliably.

    As for emotional and intellectual experiences, it’s a little harder to do but some aspects of experience can be controlled and designed. Hollywood directors and the interrogators at Gitmo both know how to manipulate people’s emotions very intensely. And in both cases, the results, while certainly not completely reliable, do end up in generally the right ballpark: elation, terror, sadness, joy, surprise, hope… all are create-able experiences. It’s just a matter of degree, IMHO.

    This is not to disagree with the spirit of your comment, however: Designers should, in most cases, ask “what if?” the end user were to decide to do something else. What kinds of experiences can be enabled outside of the bounds of the experiences you explicitly intended to (re)create?

  5. I prefer the term “Customer Experience.”