Friday, December 9, 2011

User Experience is ...

Earlier this week I attended a meeting of people who all work in some way in the realm of user experience (UX). The word "realm" is so very appropriate. What is UX anyway? There are ongoing discussions on LinkedIn groups about what UX means, what is means to work in UX, what one needs to work in UX... Does one need to have a degree in HCI? In graphic arts? In Cognitive Science? Does one need to be able to program? Does one have to have a visual portfolio? etc.

Yes. No. It depends.

From what I could tell everyone at this meeting had a background and experience that ranged into the technical. Notice how I used another one of those broad words: "ranged". At least one person, I would call a "developer" - he talked a lot about the latest advances in HTML5 and the pros and cons of creating Native applications. Not so much about how users felt (affect) and what that means. There were several people with a graphic design background, who, I intuit, came out of the arts. They could probably create some very slick looking designs. There was a bit of eye glazing at that end of the table when CSS and HTML came up. There was someone who said that computer science and software engineering were the same thing (ouch); there were people who work in hardware-driven companies.

We were discussing the book "Mobile First" by Luke Wroblewski. Very nice little book (about 75 pages, I was able to read it in one sitting) that focuses on principles of design and their effect on the user experience in the world of mobile technology.  Wroblewski made some very good points about how useful it can be to pare down online features to those that are most important to the end user and lose the rest. At least that was my take on it. I am all about finding out what the user's needs and goals are and what is and isn't working for them (and why!).

In addition, when I talk in a broader sense about "users" I include the organization that creates the page or app. After all, there are end users and there are the people who have something in mind when they develop an online presence. If there isn't a bridge between both groups, however different their worlds may be, then no one will be productive or happy. From my point of view trying to bridge that gap, everyone who has a stake in the success of a digital experience is a user.

Around our table, depending upon who was talking, we agreed or disagreed with the premise of "Mobile First", and our supporting evidence came with very different foci. Was it all about what the latest HTML would let you do? Was it about graphics on itty bitty screens? Was it about research methodologies such as Heuristic Evaluation? Was the whole idea of bottom up (mobile and then laptop and desktop) analysis and design the way to go? Wait a minute...wasn't it first about the user? (that was me).

I think, had anyone asked, that everyone around the table would have agreed that "it" was ultimately all about the end user and their experience with an application or web site. Occasionally I felt like we were all over the place in our discussions - and in fact we were. At first unsettling, I then became really excited, because I was experiencing, in a new setting, the broad nature of this field! 

For example, in my own work I place a lot of focus on figuring out how to get at and experience a digital situation (web page, application, classroom situation) from the user's perspective - and backing that understanding up with rigorous research data. That reflects my background in cognitive science and educational research as well as in computer science. I am not likely to talk about HTML (5 or any other version) until after a lot of other leg work has been done.

Conversely, others in the room started from the technical constraints and worked up from there. If new technology permits new creative innovations, explore them. My geeky side appreciates this perspective. Sitting there, it was fascinating to be a bit schizophrenic by both taking part in the conversation and acting as a fly on the wall watching and listening to what everyone was saying and observing how it reflects their prior experience. No question about it, user experience work is not only an evolving discipline but one that has no fixed definition, no matter how much it might be nice to have one.

In fact I prefer a flexible definition of user experience. After all, the very words "user experience" tell you that the "experience" with a web app or software program is going to vary from user to user. There will be floating technical issues, front end and back end issues, psychological issues, sociological issues, software and hardware issues. People can be unpredictable and their interactions with technology can be revealing of so many things! The perspective viewed from each of these is different. That is what makes UX work so interesting. You have the opportunity to draw upon many different fields when you take on a UX project. And it is all about people - helping people.

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