Confused about concepts in new design terminology
May 23, 2012 10:57 PM   Subscribe

Help me make sense of the conflicting or incomplete information on the web regarding User Experience, UX, User Experience Design and its relationship to physical products not connected to the internet or having electronic parts.

A client has sent me a document (TOR) that outlines my tasks for an upcoming engagement and has used this terminology (UX). My roots are in hard core product design, industrial design and engineering and I have personally never used these terms in the context of my work. As I dig up stuff online and read it, I can see how and where these labels might make sense for what I'm going to be facilitating but my client has no software, UI or electronic component to their product nor is there any connection to the internet. Thus my confusion in my attempts to make sense of this accurately (for developing my plan of action etc).

These are two wikipedia links that I've found - User Experience and User experience design. You'll note in the second one, the design section only talks about outputs that are more relevant to virtual products rather than physical ones, yet the definition says:

User Experience Design (UXD or UED) is a broad term used to explain all aspects of a person’s experience with the system including the interface, graphics, industrial design, physical interaction, and the manual. [1] It is also referring to the application of user-centered design practices to generate cohesive, predictive and desirable designs based on holistic consideration of users’ experience.

So, am I misunderstanding this? Is it that its only applicable to modern products which have a physical component and a virtual one like user interfaces or screens or some such? Or is that the UX concept can also be holistically applied for regular old product design and services only existing in brick and mortar? And if so, how and where can I find some definitive explanations in order to understand these concepts so that I can use the words with some confidence?
posted by infini to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
UX is applicable to non-electronic products and services, a knife, a restaurant, pretty much anything. People (Users) interact with these products and services and have an experience of using them. Start with Don Norman's The Design of Everyday Objects, especially his "Gulf of Execution" and his "Gulf of Evaluation".

Another concept is "User Stories", aided by "Personas". You might write some stories for physical objects or services, say, a glass: Paul and Sheila are at a restaurant, Sheila wants an elegant glass, Paul wants a sturdy glass.
posted by at at 1:20 AM on May 24, 2012

What we now call UX has had several different names in the past. Many of these names are still used by those who entered the field during that ere. Thus:

Victorian era through to the 1950s: Time and Motion Studies - the emphasis was on studying the way that humans interact with devices as a means of increasing productivity.

Second World war onwards: Human Factors or (outside the USA more particularly) Ergonomics. This grew out of the need to design military equipment so that people who were the wrong size to use it properly did not get killed. Emphasis on physical aspects of design such as anthrapometry- but also covering psychological issues such as workload and perception. This is still the go-to profession if you are designing something with a complex control system such as a car, submarine, tank, etc.

1960s to 2000 mainly: Human Computer Interaction. This was an offshoot branch from Human Factors. Concentration on mice, keyboards, menus, etc.

1990s onwards: Usability - not really a research field in its own right - but the target of a number of design standards that started to emerge at this time. This is originally what the concept Donald Norman et al were trying to define in books like The Psychology of Everyday Things.

1980s onwards: Interaction Design. This had many of the goals mentioned in the above disciplines - but it was more driven by people who were industrial designers. The classic example of a company whose work was driven by this approach is IDEO. The classic example of a designer using this approach is (Sir!) Jonathan Ive.

User Experience is really the slightly more artsy version of Usability: it covers how people feel about using a product. Although the term was coined back in the 80s it seems to have become popular as a concept only when it spawned the abbreviation "UX" and started to be used by people interested in web usability. However there is no reason why it should be constrained to computer based systems; we have a user experience with our forks, socks, jewelry, books...
posted by rongorongo at 2:22 AM on May 24, 2012 [10 favorites]

Having worked in the field for awhile, I can say that rongorongo's answer is a good & accurate summary.

I'd just add that user experience is distinct from the previous disciplines, hence the need for a new name. The previous methods were mainly focused on the *tool* being studied, while user experience is concerned with the *user* first and foremost.

Also, for what it's worth, I'd be careful about getting too far into personas. It's one thing to make up a fictional story about how users *might* use a product... quite another to actually observe how they *do* use it.

Don't get lost in the weeds of competing methods and disciplines. (And be careful reading too many of the books that spend all their time "defining the discipline.")

Done right, UX is 90% common sense. If you can observe people using a product "for real," and empathize with their experience, you're most of the way there. (Along those lines, here's my own user experience at a bank.)
posted by mark7570 at 6:18 AM on May 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

Another similar field is industrial engineering or industrial design. Make the path to completing the task the product is meant to accomplish as simple and intuitive as possible. Where do they start, where do they go next, how do they know when they are done. Everything else is just methods of accomplishing that.
posted by gjc at 6:34 AM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

You are all best answers but I want to give gjc a moment in the sun. My undergrad is in industrial engineering and my graduate studies in industrial design (as well human centered design planning in a different program). This comment just helped me take away my sense of unease about not "getting all this newfangled stuff" and approach it with confidence.

rongorongo, thank you for the excellent heritage summary, seeing familiar concepts and words in context of the current day is extremely helpful in understanding where this is going and what it is all about.

mark7570, thank you for adding the critical nuances that helped me understand and make sense within the context of my own experiences and understanding.
posted by infini at 6:44 AM on May 24, 2012

I am a "user experience designer" - a role that has a wide range of definitions, as you've no doubt discovered. I would suggest you also look into ergonomics, which examines more of the actual physical interactions that people have with objects. This article is a pretty good discussion of the evolution of user experience design.

While the term "user experience" is most often used in relation to web sites, apps, etc., I think it's important to remember that "experience" can be a holistic term - whatever your product is, what is the user's physical experience when they interact with it? Is it hard, soft, warm, cool? Does it have sharp angles or curved edges? I'd also suggest checking out Donald Norman's book The Design of Everyday Things, which is a fantastic introduction to experience design. Good luck - granted I'm a bit biased, but this field is fascinating and can be a lot of fun (check out this study about, among other things, how holding a heavier object affected user's perception of importance).
posted by DulcineaX at 9:03 AM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm finding a bit of a contradiction in Mark Baskinger's article you've linked to in your first paragraph. He says: (longer quote given for context)

In today's landscape, UX is becoming differentiated (or specialized) from established design practices of industrial design, communication design, and interaction design by its holistic viewpoint and strategic outlook. This positions the UX designer as the strategic/visionary driver and can marginalize traditional designers as tactical form-givers, pixel-pushers, and stylists. This is dangerous as it shifts the perception of traditional (ID, CD, IxD) designers to that of cake decorators who fashion only the visual appearance of artifacts in precision and beauty. All surface, no substance.

but goes on to say:

As UX and UXD migrate toward the strategic center of design practice, UX practitioners run the risk of becoming marginalized as specialists equipped to handle only the front end of the design development process. What is currently missing in much of UX practice is the delivery of a concrete tangible artifact—a synthesized outcome. Yes, proposals, system architecture, interaction schemas, profiles, and design criteria are all valued components of the design process, but to what end?

Can UX designers decorate the cakes that they bake? Or can they only write the instructions for baking a cake? Or can some continue to write the instructions without actually baking and decorating at all?

Which seems to imply that a) UXD were the software/internet industry's version of design planners and that b) they create the experience around someone else's original concept or idea.

I gather that this whole area of new and nascent fields emerged from the first internet boom adn that the founding practitioners of UX were from a variety of fields of study, not simply 'design' alone, as is the case in the more traditional disciplines. But ideation and concept generation are not the purview of the trained designer alone, as any inventor or maker will demonstrate to you.

Yet, when taken against his earlier paragraph where he mentions the visionary, holistic and strategic aspect of the role, how can it be that someone who grasps the whole is then unable to conceive of the concept that would fit within the design constraints or requirements i.e. emerge with the conceptual design to begin the process? Is this not a contradiction or is it a function of the far more fragmented roles of designers in that context and field? (for eg, in a large agency or some such)

So, what is he trying to say or is he actually managing to say something here?

(The history bits are good though, thank you for the article link. And while I appreciate the fact that Don's work is critical enough that nobody has simply said "nthing design of everyday things" and all have linked to it, I've read the book. However as he was the progenitor of much of this, it doesn't help put this in the context of understanding all the newfangled terminology involved if one has not designed for the virtual world).

posted by infini at 9:48 AM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just remember - UX is (or should be) about the *user*, not the *tool*. Hence the primary interest is about whether the EXPERIENCE is overall good, not whether a TASK can be completed on a TOOL. Subtle distinction but it shows why UX is vastly different from, say, industrial design.
posted by mark7570 at 10:02 AM on May 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

But wouldn't that be true for human centered industrial design that begins with understanding users? But since those programs were a rarity and only now more prevalent, that may account for the emphasis of the difference (i.e. stereotype of the traditional, mainstream ID as "form giving stylists")
posted by infini at 10:06 AM on May 24, 2012

mark7570, I wrote too hastily.
posted by infini at 10:07 AM on May 24, 2012

« Older I can't walk straight or hear over the ringing.   |   How do I handle the salary question when you're on... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.