User Experience is Unavoidable

Palmolive released a series of TV commercials in 1981 featuring Madge, a spry and chatty manicurist. Each commercial’s concept was simple: a housewife would visit a nail salon, inexplicably stick her hand into a small saucer full of green goo, then be told by Madge that the green goo was Palmolive dishwashing detergent. Surprise! By today’s standards, the commercials were certainly gender-biased, if not borderline sociopathic, as Madge seemed to take great pleasure in telling unsuspecting housewives her trademark phrase: “You’re soaking in it!” Coined by the advertising firm Ted Bates Company, the TV campaign reached legendary status by running continuously for nearly three decades. The campaign showed the power of a catchphrase and demonstrated a fundamental truth: we often do not realize our current circumstance until someone points it out to us.

The green goo we are soaking in today is user experience (UX), though you may not yet realize it. You feel it when you use products or services. You hear it in debates about features and functionality. You see its result when a project succeeds or fails. Like the unsuspecting housewife, you may not know what the green goo is; however, you still have your hand deep in the saucer. You cannot avoid UX – you may do it well or do it poorly, but either way, you are soaking in it.

You cannot avoid UX – you may do it well or do it poorly, but either way, you are soaking in it.

UX results from using any product or service. If you accept this premise, you will soon recognize the benefits of doing UX intentionally. Intentional user experience, or more precisely, user experience research and design, illuminates the needs of your audiences and creates compelling products and services. Conversely, unintentional user experience, or to put it more succinctly, an accident, foreshadows why audiences abandon and why products fail.

What is user experience?

The topic of user experience can bewilder people. The term user experience is itself somewhat confusing. It sounds simultaneously hippie and corporate, like a Grateful Dead poster affixed to the wall of an office cubicle.

The word “user” is the nominal form of “to use,” which originates from the Old Latin verb “oeti,” meaning “to employ, exercise, perform.” The word “experience” originates from the Latin noun “experientia,” meaning, “knowledge gained from repeated trials.” Putting this all together, we arrive at the rough description of user experience to mean, “knowledge gained by doing something.”

Don Norman, cofounder and principal at the Nielsen Norman Group coined the term “user experience” decades ago. The term is remarkably hardy, despite its occasional misinterpretation.

The umbrella term “user experience” covers several broad activities as the UX field continues to evolve. The field already includes aspects of cultural anthropology, human-computer interaction, engineering, journalism, psychology, and graphic design (many of which are terms not generally well understood by the public, either). These activities typically fall into one of two camps: the first is user experience design (UXD); the second is user experience research (UXR).

User experience design involves the design of a thing. That thing may be a product or service, or just a part of a product or service. For example, someone might design a web application to manage a nail salon, or design an iPhone app to file complaints about wayward manicurists.

User experience research includes primary research (i.e., discovery of original data), such as interviewing nail salon customers. In addition, it encompasses secondary, third-party research (i.e., reviews of previously discovered data), such as reading reports about customer behavior within the health and beauty sector.

Much of what a UX professional does during her or his workday is dependent upon the mix of UXD and UXR required. Some firms have dedicated design and research roles, although many positions are often a combination of the two.

The role of UX

Looking back over my years spent working within advertising and product design, I recall several times when a new colleague would walk into my office, sit in a chair, smile and say, “So, what is it that you UX people do… exactly?” The question was often followed by a laugh, a deadeye stare, and the statement: “Really, I have no idea.” Truly, many people have no idea what UX offers them.

The term “user experience” is not yet in the public’s lexicon. Compounding the unfamiliarity are the many paths one might take to practicing user experience. Someone with a UX role may have a library sciences education, an engineering degree, formal training in psychology, or come from any number of other backgrounds. The variation complicates descriptions of UX roles outside the practice, as well as within it.

The focus on users

Because the field of user experience is broad, it is difficult to make many generalizations about UX roles. The commonality among all user experience roles is a focus on users. After all, user is in the name. Users, for lack of a better description, are people who use a product or service. You might think, “Well, my role considers such people. Why are UX roles even necessary?” I am glad you asked.

Various members of a project team set unique goals to reach. Account executives wish to reach client goals; managers, budgetary goals; strategists, strategic goals; visual designers, aesthetic goals; developers, technology goals. We rightly value these pursuits. Each is vital, as none is more or less important. However, we often forget why we perform these roles at all. We work for many reasons, but we ultimately work for the people who use what we create — we work for the users.

A UX practitioner aligns, refines and reconciles business goals with what a user needs. Where business goals and user needs converge should be the sole determiner of functionality. Build where they meet. Too often, project teams create features that address only business requirements, thereby neglecting user needs. Likewise, an application that provides only benefits to users erodes the underlying viability of the business that created it. After all, the motivation to produce an application is rarely altruistic. Even a charity wants its users to do something. So, the crucial question becomes “How can we create experiences that address both user and business needs at the same time?” Let’s consider the following example:

Business goals:

  • A high-end online beauty supply business wants customers to buy more products per visit.
  • Being high-end, the business dislikes overt discounts and conspicuous promotions.
  • The business wants to keep its current technology platform. The website’s checkout process is awkward, but the current technology platform prohibits substantial modifications.

User needs:

  • A user needs a competitive price to buy a particular product.
  • The user also needs an efficient and easy-to-use way to make repeat purchases of the product in the future.

At first glance, we can see two issues requiring reconciliation. Increasing the number of purchases without providing discounts or promotions can be tough to achieve. Meanwhile, users need to find value in their purchases. Moreover, the checkout process is awkward, but we can’t change it substantially. How do we then address these goals and needs?

One solution would be to offer a subscription service, charging the full retail price but providing convenient, free shipping. The business thereby increases the number of items purchased through the subscription plan while avoiding conspicuous, off-brand discounts by absorbing the shipping cost instead. The user receives value by saving on shipping costs, as well benefiting from the added convenience of home delivery. Both the business and its users benefit from the subscription service reducing the number of awkward online checkouts. Everybody wins. What results is a meaningful experience.

Meaningful experiences transform a digital creation into a manicured result for both users and businesses. Users engage. Businesses grow. You spend less time and money achieving these results, as effective UX design and research shows us both what we should create and what we should not. If you try to avoid UX, you may find yourself grasping at unobtainable goals, clawing through unforeseen obstacles, and flailing amid undeniable failures. On the other hand, if you embrace UX, you will likely find the greatest successes are well within your reach.