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Misconceptions about user experience design

Whitney Hess wrote what I consider a very good article to help people understand the term "user experience": 10 Most Common Misconceptions About User Experience Design. I have seen others call it "brilliant" and other wonderful things. Great job, Whitney! The framing of what UXD is not is obviously one of the appealing aspects of the article.

I do have a few quibbles with her article:

  • #2. I would have said "it is part of the process" to stress that user experience methods should be woven into other business processes (like product visioning, requirements analysis and customer service) instead of replacing them.
  • #3. I would have said "it is not only about the technology". Her examples are good to stress that people come first, technology enables. Still, as technology becomes more pervasive in our lives, it will become more and more important to the total user experience.
  • #5. I would have positioned this more as "it is not just about the customer". A company, non-profit organization, university, government agency, or other institution has many different stakeholders, many different groups it has to serve. Customers are definitely a very important one, but there are also employees, shareholders, business partners, students, citizens, the public, reporters, and so on. I know there is a lot of baggage with the word "user" but at this point in time, it helps merge these groups together. It helps us focus on what their goals are and what they are trying to accomplish. Her focus on user goals + business goals is good, but I think it is actually bigger than this: UXD applies outside the business world, too.
  • And in the title of the article: I might have dropped the word "design". This is a tough call. For people who get that "design" itself is holistic, then this is a good term to include after "user experience". Unfortunately, some people still equate "design" with graphic design (or fashion design, or interior design, or any number of things), so then you have to explain that pre-conception away. The word "design" does not seem to be getting in the way of a useful discussion in this case, which is good to see.

Again, Whitney wrote a very good article. These are minor adjustments I would have made, and some people will think they make the article worse. Take them or leave them.

In the interest of full disclosure, I responded to Whitney's call for participation for her article. She did not include my stuff, which is fine. This blog posting is not sour grapes. It is really a "great job, Whitney" with a few points that might further the conversation (and hopefully will not derail the great conversation she has started).

And if people are interested, below is what I gave to Whitney on the topic. I think it overlaps with several of her misconceptions, so I can see why she did not use it: she divided her article up differently, she had more content than space, etc.

There are so many misconceptions that it is hard to pick the one or two to mention here.

I guess I would have to say the most significant misconception is that you can form a single "user experience design" team (usually made up of information architects, visual designers and user researchers) and expect that alone to make things better. That is only one of the first (and perhaps the easiest) step to actually creating better experiences for your customers / citizens / users.

Other important steps include:

* Getting user experience to be the focus much earlier than any "design" step in your organization. When the budgets are determined, when the projects are defined, when the requirements are determined: the people involved in those decisions need to be aware of UX considerations or else the design team will only be able to put a semi- workable user interface on a system that has UX flaws from the start.

* Establishing a collaborative culture where many parts of the organization are working together on the same UX goals. No one team can own the entire user experience, so the UX teams that are really making progress spend more time working with other groups (promoting the UX vision, explaining UX challenges, planning project interlocks) than drawing wireframes or designing novel interaction styles. Taking care of some of the details of the experience is still important, working closely with the front-end developers is still crucial, and so on, but without the collaborative culture, the core UX design team's work will not have a large impact on the total user experience.

* Building a really strong UX design team because it is really difficult to juggle many projects across the organization that all touch the user experience, keep up with an efficient Agile development team, keep tabs on the latest UX trends, and everything else the team is asked to do once the organization sees how valuable the team is. You need several senior people, with the right mix of skills and personalities, who are always in sync with the state of the company's UX, and who are also active in the UX community as a whole. A UX design team that feels overwhelmed with work tends to break into smaller pieces and do their work in silos, which will lead to a fractured experience. It takes a strong manager, too, of course.

There are other steps, and even these 3 have a lot more depth and subtleties into them. For example, how to do any of these steps is highly dependent on the politics of the organization: a Fortune 500 is totally different from a start-up which is totally different than a government agency.

So I guess in conclusion, the most important misconception I see is that you can form a "user experience design" team alone and make a difference. You need these other steps (and more) mapped out and executed on.

Back to her very good article (tired of me saying that I liked it?). One other piece that is missing is the "executive version" - something you can scribble on the executive washroom wall so that the top dogs in your organization can read it during one of the rare times when they are not distracted by other things. Here is my version of a recap:

  1. User experience design is not merely user interface design. The user interface is just one piece of the total user experience.
  2. User experience design is not a single step in the process. It is about focusing on the user experience at all stages of the product/service lifecycle.
  3. User experience design is not only about technology. People come first, the technology helps enable a good experience.
  4. User experience design is not just about usability. Emotional aspects are important, not just efficiency.
  5. User experience design is not just about the customer. It is about all of your stakeholder goals (including business goals).
  6. User experience design is not expensive. There are many techniques available, depending on budgets and other constraints.
  7. User experience design is not easy. It is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that you know what users want and need.
  8. User experience design is not the role of one person or department. Responsibility for the total user experience belongs to everyone.
  9. User experience design is not a single discipline. Specialists can address one aspect of the experience, but the design happens as a team.
  10. User experience design is not a choice. It is a core part of what your organization needs to do in order to survive.

This is too long to write on a stall wall - and I would never tell you to vandalize anyway. But I think some sort of simplification to her wonderful article ("stop brown nosing already!") adds value.


Thanks so much for adding your in-depth response to my article. I greatly appreciate your interpretation and think there's a lot of value to it. I especially enjoyed the recap -- I think you hit the nail on the head. Perhaps UXnet should make a one-sheet that we can give out at conferences and events for practitioners to share with their organizations.

After reading both articles I had the following thoughts:

I'm surprised that articles (or content) like the one from W. Hess is printed again and again - especially when I read all the quotes from these experienced UX-folks. Aren't they tired of saying things like "Interface is a component of user experience, but there’s much more" or "User experience design isn’t a checkbox"? I guess most IT-people still needs to hear this kind of oversimplified stuff, because noone has managed to show them or maybe even because their experience dosn't show them (which is even more scary and likely). I think its worth considering when you one chooses projects, to try to avoid projects, where you have to spend too much time, talking like that...

I fully agree with K. Instone's comments, simply because ones fingers itch to add some more depth to the discussion. More and more I think of the audience for this kind of presentations divided in two. The one that understand the value, process, methods and need for serious, professional full-fledged UX-work (or something remotely close to this) - and all the rest. Lots of organisations and IT-people, know the term "user-friendliness", but wonders why is necessary to have usability-strategies, UI-teams or whatever. They need the "UX is not pixels" speech, but the rest of us needs all the rest. So Mr Instone, I think we are talking about two different groups of people here. Or, at least, I feel feel less interested in the NOT part of UX, because it also shows a lack of success in telling what it is :-)

Which made me think of the introductionary note Paul Sherman did at UPA-China (I wasn't there, I read the slides). He points out, that UX-people have a (maybe even involuntary) role as change agents and strategic usability planners/advocates - I my ears, he's thereby also pointing out that, as UX-people we have to be able to do both: Talk in general terms about what UX is (its not pixels!), but also be able to qualify strategic work with UX (like in the post above) - to put it into greater context.

The difference might be, that one thing is "what", while to other is "how"- if you can follow me.

None the less, thanks for some interesting reading time (both of you).

Ole - thanks for the comment. We could have an interesting discussion about why Whitney's article is popular and what it says about the UX industry at this point in time. Maybe later.

I think a more important point you make is about UX as force for change. I blabber about change every once in a while myself, so I would have to agree.

Thanks for the mention of Paul Sherman's talk, I missed that. His closing remarks are worth repeating:

  • Align with the business; learn their revenue, profitability and user experience goals.
  • Plan the user experience of the product(s) you support. Socialize the plan, sell the plan.
  • Measure the user experience to know how to improve it.

This is a great response! In order for people to understand the importance of UX/UED, people first need to understand what UX/UED is, and what it's not. I also think that products and communications should be held to a standard of simplicity and that as designers and developers, we need to raise the bar from usability to simplicity. Because in the end, if people don't get "it," people won't use "it."
Best regards, Eric
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