Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Why I'm UXCentric

Awhile back, as a contribution to a now-defunct book project, I wrote about how I had been captivated by user experience and how it had become the signature of my career. I stumbled across the essay today while looking for my "personal" definition of UX and thought I'd share it here. So why is UX so important?

To answer that, a little history. For most of the past two hundred years, scholars saw experience and emotion as dubious ways of understanding the world. That began to change in the second half of the 20th century, as people recognized that reason alone fails to address the existential questions of life. Neglected ways of "knowing" reemerged—myth, narrative, spirituality and, above all, personal experience.

This popular movement became so strong that experience invaded the marketplace. Joseph Pine and James Gilmore dubbed it "The Experience Economy," asserting in the Harvard Business Review that "leading edge companies—whether they sell to consumers or businesses—will find that the next competitive battleground lies in staging experiences." I'd go so far to say that experience will be the lingua franca of the 21st century.

That's why I'm so passionate about user experience.

A definition: User experience is the totality of an individual's interaction with and response to a business, product or service in any and every medium. It can be intensely sensual, like a stroll down Disneyland's Main Street U.S.A—an environment crafted to appeal to all five senses and evoke a particular response. It can be that tingle of cool when using your iPod. Or it can be a simple sense of satisfaction when making a purchase from an e-store. What does this tell us?

First, user experiences are intensely personal. Pine and Gilmore note that they exist "only in the mind of an individual who has been engaged on an emotional, physical, intellectual or even spiritual level."

Herein lies the challenge and the thrill of UXCentricity. User experience must begin and end from the perspective of the end-user. What are her needs? What does he want from our product, service or Web site? Is it enough to satisfy those needs or must we also meet intangible goals and aspirations?

One thing is certain: We can't answer these questions from the viewpoint of the executive suite. Experience design isn't another arrow in the marketing department's quiver. We have to get out of the corporate echo chamber! Techniques like contextual design, ethnographic research and focus groups help—but only when driven by a consuming absorption with our users.

User experience is greater than the sum of its parts. There are no heuristics for UX, no rules of thumb, bags of tricks or formulas for "Six Sure Ways to Guarantee a Great User Experience." It's not just a matter of assembling all the right elements in a certain way.

That's another reason I love UX: There are no answers. Sure, there are prerequisites (for example, your software had better work as expected), but there's an unexplainable mystery, an alchemy in a great UX. It emerges from an emulsion of user analysis, creativity, design skills, psychological insight and more—all doused with a big splash of humility. The fact that we don't have the answers is the answer. I love a good paradox.

A great user experience is captivating. The current UX buzzword is "engaging." That's too weak. A great UX does more than engage you. It captures, entraps, tempts and seduces. It grabs you by the lapels, sucks you in and won't let you go (not that you want to go). It raises your heart rate, deepens your respiration. It is everything you want it to be, does everything you want it to do—and a whole lot more. Remember your first time at Google?

User experience is everything you do. Say your company is redesigning its Web site. "I want a great user experience," says the CEO. So reinvent the company. Management firebrand Tom Peters calls this Re-Imagining—the willingness to reconsider common business wisdom and the courage to put into action whatever you discover.

UX will do this to you because it calls into question everything you do. It's not just your Web site. It's not just your retail stores. It's the way you answer the phone. It's the paper and ink of your business cards. It's the people you hire, the driving of your truckers, the working conditions of your overseas workers, your environmental practices.

If you're serious about providing outstanding user experiences—and today, that should be a given—fasten your seat belt. Few aspirations have more potential for turning the world upside-down. Imagine a UX-obsessed government. A retail giant fanatical about the life experience of its employees. An airline zealous about its passengers' flying experience. A Web site you look forward to visiting time and again. A call center that cheerfully solves your problems.

That's why I'm obsessed about user experience. And that's why I write UXCentric.

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