Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Process and Story

I'm fond of quoting a motivational plaque I saw early in my career: "Process is the reward"—that is, that there are intrinsic payoffs in the application of a sound process that enhance the end result. Put more simply, how you go about doing something is at least as important as the final product. So I long sought the "ideal" process for whatever I was doing in my career, from polishing floors all the way to Web user experience.

The problem is that process is cruel and fickle. Oh, it's great in objective realms. The way you polish a floor, for example, absolutely determines its degree of sparkle. Science, technology and industry are wholly dependent on proven processes that are prerequisites to the desired results.

But when you turn to subjective arenas, watch out! No sooner than a process seems to prove itself, it can turn on you. That's especially true in a discipline like UX, where we deal with intangibles and the inner world—not to mention variations in budgets, timelines and resources. Even so, there's no question that how you go about creating a user experience does have a significant impact on its excellence. That's why I've developed (and teach) my own process—one that has enjoyed success.

And therein lies the danger of process. Because a process can be effective, we're tempted to institutionalize it, formalize it, make it sacrosanct. In so doing, we hinder the skepticism, free thinking and creativity from which the effective process sprung—and we defy reality, for no single process can adequately encompass the variables we encounter as UXCentrists. One size does not fit all.

To avoid the process temptation, I've been thinking about my projects as stories, stories shaped around the quest for the Holy Grail an excellent UX. Like classic human narratives, the stories have common movements but differ in setting, characterization, theme and specific details. This approach helps me see my process as a broad framework rather than a stultifying formula that limits imagination. I'm free to flex and bend, expand and contract in the service of the tale. And because story is so ingrained in the human psyche, I suspect this pays subtle dividends in the resulting UX. For what is UX if it is not the story of a user's adventure with our product or Web site?


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