What Is UX?

What Is UX?

UX. Two letters that, when added to a designer’s CV, increase their market value considerably in today’s design-conscious world. But what do they mean? The letters stand for “User Experience,” but that only touches on their significance. Digital UX is the natural convergence of two things: the evolution of ergonomics and the application of good design theory.

It’s using concrete research, testing and analysis to inform the design of the final experience. UX isn’t, strictly speaking, anything new. In recent years it has begun to believe its own hype, even becoming a bit of a buzzword, but it really isn’t anything groundbreaking.

What it does is make sure our shiny gadgets and websites are as taxing on the old gray matter as opening… a door.

The Fish Does Not Think about Water

Great UX means I can watch out for predators and food!

If your door requires us to push, we may swim elsewhere.

Consider doors. Really. This is an opportunity for a learning experience.

It shouldn’t be that tricky to open a door, from a usability point of view. It’s simply a bit of moving wall that, when moved correctly, grants you the ability to either enter or exit a room. Concepts like this are why architects drive Ferraris, folks.

But what happens when the user experience of a door is not considered in its design?

You potentially end up with a succession of frustrated people muttering under their breath because they’ve just tried to pull on a handle—attached to a door that should be pushed open. Then, the client meeting gets off to a bad start, there’s tension in the room that escalates quickly, contact is lost, the universe picks up the negative energy, the world spins off its axis, and Michael Bolton decides it’s about time for another album.

Except no one will wait that long for your badly designed website.
Get the door working first. No one waits this long on the Internet.

These near-Bolton experiences have been christened “Norman Doors” in honor of Don Norman, designer, author and all round usability wizard. His book, The Design of Everyday Things (1988), explored the phenomenon. In it he elaborates on the principles of a well-designed object, chief among which is discoverability: The ability to discover what operations one can do without the need for further instruction. For example, a “push” sign on a door with a handle.

The sign of good design, with considered discoverability, is that moment when you instinctively know how something should work without having to ask for further clarification. It’s the reason everyone under thirty knows how every new gadget works without needing to read the manual.

According to Norman, when you interact with something that has good discoverability, you shouldn’t be conscious of using it all.

This is the nirvana of UX, a place where fish need not think about the water.

UI and UX Are Not the Same

UI stands for “User Interface,” which includes everything designed into an information device with which a person may interact, such as display screens, keyboards, a mouse and the appearance of a desktop.

It’s easy to confuse UI with UX. They both contain the letter “U” and have something to do with design, so they are basically the same thing. Right?

Wrong. For the purposes of this article, it’s safe to summarize the differences like this: User interface design (UI) can be a primarily subjective discipline, while user experience design (UX) must have an objective foundation.

User interface design is—outside of the standard design considerations of being functionally fit—more concerned with making an interface visually attractive and engaging. Discoverability, and providing a pain-free environment for the individual to work in, are sometimes secondary to the final aesthetic.

This approach of not putting the human experience first can lead to frustrating experiences. Remember skeuomorphism? Yes, you do. It was the design trend, led by Apple, behind those screen icons that resembled analog dials and buttons, right down to shadows and textures. The thinking behind skeuomorphism was that if you recognize an object from the real world, you will know what it does in the digital world.

delicious beer

Even without being exactly sure what this app does, you want to give it a try.

This made sense in the early days of digital interface design, when we were lost in a strange new world and needed to see familiar objects. However, as digital interfaces have become ubiquitous, designers have taken the spotlight off familiarity—and focused it on discoverability.

Users no longer need a trash folder that looks like a wire garbage basket, as long as you make it painless for them to discover the new way to remove files from their computer. If they have to think about it at all, you may be making aesthetically focused choices rather than sticking to user-focused ones.

UI is still important. Good UX arguably can’t exist without a sound UI. Although Amazon gets close—why is their nice app trying to sell me stuff I’ve already purchased?

Why Should You Care?

In today’s digital world, user experience, not just the design of your app or your website, is everything. If a customer or client doesn’t have a good time using your product or service, they will tell their friends. Actually, they’ll probably tell anyone who will listen… on Twitter, Facebook, Yelp, and anywhere else that millions of people will listen, empathize, and walk away from your brand.

But that’s another topic, for another blog. For now, let’s just say that a target user of your app or website having poor experience will translate, to a greater or lesser degree, into lost revenue.

A study by the Rockefeller Corporation found that 68% of customers will leave if they believe you don’t care about them. Your initial contact with them, whether it’s your app or your website, is the point at which they form their opinion of your business. Make their experience as much fun as Brian Blessed on helium, and they’ll probably come back.

Upset them, frustrate them, make them do any mental contortion acts at all, and they’ll immediately begin venting on Twitter.

Why bother asking for the manager when you've got Twitter?

This makes me so mad that I’m even complaining on Instagram!

User experience isn’t a new concept. It’s been around for centuries in one form or another, so it’s not surprising studies have been done on the ROI of a good UX process.

In the book Cost-Justifying Usability, Clare-Marie Karat, formerly of IBM, referenced case studies: “$20,700 spent on usability resulted in a $47,700 return on the first day the improvements we implemented and $68,000 spent on usability on another system resulted in $6,800,000 return in the first year.”

With those kind numbers in play, it would be foolhardy to discount investment in making sure the experience of your end user is a happy one.

UX is a Living, Breathing Thing… Literally

Design is a movable feast. Wherever the prevailing trends take us, the foundations will always be there. User experience has always been a cornerstone.

That fact that it’s now in front of our noses for five hours a day has simply brought the conversation into the light.

As consumers in an increasingly hectic world, we’re lucky that our experience is being taken so much into consideration. It will make future interactions between human and machine ever more painless, even as they move into the most mundane corners of our lives.

As designers, the need for an awareness of the end user experience provides us with unending opportunities to do what we do best – solve problems. The chance to inform and delight people through our design is surely what it’s all about, right?