Technology is not neutral. It is not impartial.
Who we reflect on what we build. When you navigate a physical space, you are following the plan of the architects and urbanists who designed it in the first place. Of course how you navigate the space is unique to you — like the way you walk or the order you decide to visit each area — but your overall path follows a larger plan envisioned by the creators of that space.
Same applies to digital channels.
Sure, as a user, you have your specific digital footprint, your specific behaviour.
A lot of designers seem to be talking about user experience (UX) these days. We’re supposed to delight our users, even provide them with magic, so that they love our websites, apps and start-ups. User experience is a very blurry concept. Consequently, many people use the term incorrectly. Furthermore, many designers seem to have a firm (and often unrealistic) belief in how they can craft the user experience of their product. However, UX depends not only on how something is designed but also other aspects. In this article, I will try to clarify why UX cannot be designed.
Heterogeneous Interpretations of UX
I recently visited the elegant website of a design agency. The website looked great, and the agency has been showcased several times. I am sure it delivers high-quality products. But when it presents its UX work, the agency talks about UX as if it were equal to information architecture (IA): sitemaps, wireframes and all that. This may not be fundamentally wrong, but it narrows UX to something less than what it really is.
The perception might not be representative of our industry, but it illustrates that UX is perceived in different ways and that it is sometimes used as a buzzword for usability (for more, see Hans-Christian Jetter and Jens Gerken’s article “A simplified model of user experience for practical application”). But UX is not only about human-computer interaction (HCI), usability or IA, albeit usability probably is the most important factor that shapes UX.
Some research indicates that perceptions of UX are different. Still, everyone tends to agree that UX takes a broader approach to communication between the computer and human than traditional HCI (see Effie Lai-Chong Law et al’s article “Understanding, scoping and defining user experience: a survey approach”). Whereas HCI is concerned with task solution, final goals and achievements, UX goes beyond these. UX takes other aspects into consideration as well, such as emotional, hedonic, aesthetic, affective and experiential variables. Usability, in general, can be measured, but many of the other variables integral to UX are not as easy to measure.
But your overall experience follows the plan envisioned by the designers of that app or service. The truth is: the values of the creators are deeply ingrained in everything you interact with. The feeds you scroll through. The buttons you click. The imagery you see.
- Someone decided the main Facebook experience was going to be based on an infinite feed, to keep you engaged as much as possible. No one at Facebook has created cards that show up every dozen posts reminding you to breathe, to go outside, or to call a friend.
- Someone decided on Tinder you would wipe away the people you don’t want to engage further with. Can you swipe away unwanted people in real life?
- Someone decided Alexa would take your orders without you having to say “please”, or “thanks”. Will that possibly affect the way you treat waiters (and other service providers) in a few years?
Choices, made by other people, can have a profound impact on how you experience a certain product.
That’s not to say one single designer at Facebook was responsible for that decision of creating its endless, addictive newsfeed. It was not part of an evil plan, created by evil people. But your environment’s fingerprints are also all over you. When companies reward employees who come up with ideas that will increase user engagement, they are setting the tone for what’s considered good vs. bad in their workplace. Features that increase the time users spend with the product will lead to recognition, salary increases, promotions.
As designers, we face those decisions several times over the course of our careers. The decision of adding an extra button to try to get higher conversion rates. The decision of softening a button label so users don’t feel like they are making a big commitment. The decision of auto-selecting a checkbox, reducing the size of the “unsubscribe” button, designing a pop-up. Our fingerprints are all over the screens we design, and the screens we design are our legacy in the world. Be mindful.