How to Design a User Experience

Exactly what IS a “user experience”? It seems obvious, but it recently seems as if the expression “user experience” (or UX) has gone from being a helpful goal for designers and programmers to little more than a buzz word thrown around during client meetings. It has, essentially, become a parody of itself.

But the actual concept–a defining of optimal ways for humans to interact with computers–still has merit: indeed, it may be more relevant now than ever before. The idea has evolved with the flow of technology, the need to expand across multiple platforms, and–in the case of eCommerce–the ever-changing requirements of new technologies like bitcoin. The unfortunate side-effect of this, however, is a term that is ill-defined and heavily dependent on context: the answer you get when asking what UX really is depends entirely on who you ask.

In use since the late 80s, the term “user experience” is a bit of a mash-up between “usability” and “interface” (or sometimes “human interface”) that was designed to convey all aspects of a user’s experience when computer and human meet. Binary was fine when only programmers interacted with computers, but as machines became more common, there was heavy incentive to make them easier for the masses to use and understand.

At the start, user experience largely meant just that: what the user experienced in front of the keyboard. Even that, however, tends to reflect logical, binary (yes/no) thinking, when in reality, the user experience differs from person to person. Programmers can design protocols and images and what they feel are intuitive routes of progress, but after that they can only hope people react as intended.

The real issue here is that people’s reactions to something are based on their individual experiences up to that point. For example, Adobe InDesign (nee Aldus PageMaker) was originally designed to mimic, as much as possible, the manual actions involved in page layout. In the beginning, the interface was somewhat limited, plus it had a harder time interacting with output devices than, say, Quark Xpress. But someone at Aldus was smart enough to know that, for mass adoption purposes, Xpress’ interface was too foreign; PageMaker was designed to feature an on-screen experience that designers–not programmers–could relate to.

Not only did it work, it helped set a standard, of sorts: a software’s best chance for success was to relate to the existing experience of the target market.

Following this theory to its logical conclusion, however, shows that trying to shoe-horn UX into a specific definition makes no sense. It’s like trying to use the sense of smell to evoke nostalgia: it only works if you know WHAT particular smells a person experienced in the past … and that can be good or bad, common or rare, or completely situational: the smell of pulp factories, for example, is noxious … but if one grew up on the Georgia coast, that odor could evoke happy memories of childhood.

Almost by definition, user experience is ultimately defined by the USER. At the same time, there are still aspects that, while not applying to everyone, can likely be at least recognized by the majority. To return to our olfactory analogy, not everyone growing up in the 80s had, played with, or loved a Cabbage Patch Doll … yet show a picture of one to a person of that era, and in the majority of the cases, he or she will know what it is.

More importantly, that image has the power to transport people back to what they were experiencing when those toys were popular … even if that experience had nothing to do with Cabbage Patch Dolls. Some references are simply part of the culture, at this point; why else would we “hang up” a phone by pushing a button or “CC” emails when no carbon paper is involved?

The point is, many singular experiences result in an accumulated experience. Take this simple phrase, for example:

“I went to bed at 9:00 last night.”

It’s easy to tell what went on because of our accumulated experience: we all have gone to bed. But the accumulated experience is actually made up of dozens of singular experiences that are implied but never mentioned: I also brushed my teeth, took the dog out, climbed into bed, adjusted the covers, set my alarm, turned out the light … you get the idea.

But I don’t have to tell you any of that, because again, we’ve all done this before. The specifics may differ–for instance, I can adjust my ceiling fan by remote control; many if not most of you don’t–but the overall cumulative experience is relatable.

This all can apply, in my opinion, to designing a UX: to relate to as many as possible, the user experience should be aimed at the accumulative experiences of the target market BUT cannot be wholly dependent on any singular aspect.

Here at Spilled Milkshake, we build all the knowledge gained from years in the industry to create websites that optimize the user experience. Contact us if you’d like to know more.