What is this?
This is, basically, cheating.
I’ve been writing about UX for over a decade now (mostly in Hebrew), and most of my pieces, at least the better ones, have been inspired by non-UX events, which had struck some UX-related chord prompting me to write. The past year had been so busy that I’ve had no time to write. When I tried to get back in the saddle, I hit a serious writers block. So I’ve decided to find a source of inspiration that would last me a while and feed me a variety of subjects at regular intervals.
Enter Simchat Torah. This is a Jewish holiday, celebrated right now, at the last day of Sukkot, marking the beginning of the weekly reading of the Pentateuch (the Torah). Each week a portion of the Torah is read, until it’s completed just in time for the next Simchat Torah a year away, when we start it all over again. We’re talking 54 weekly installments of pretty varied material, covering all kinds of aspects of human behavior. Some even say it contains all you ever need to know. A God-given way around writer’s block (see what I did there?). So — this is planned to be a weekly column of pretty much random ramblings on the general subject of User Experience, inspired by the weekly Torah portion. Hence — “The Pentateux”. Cute, right? The originals are published in Hebrew, English adaptations are mine. We start at the very Beginning.
God creates the world
The field of User Experience is often perceived as a “young” profession. This is true in a number of ways — it’s not a very stable field set in its ways, but rather it’s fluid and dynamic — especially with regard to the distribution of responsibilities with adjacent fields, the job titles and descriptions, the tools, the methods and the education. However, the heart of the job hasn’t changed since the 1940s, when the Human Factors Engineering profession first came into being.
This happened during WWII in the United States Air Force, as someone realized that when dealing with an as expensive and as unforgiving a machine as a bomber is, it’s much wiser to build the machine in a way that’s tailored to its users and tries to prevent their mistakes, than to try adjusting the users to the machine through training. This is because the human cognition is limited so severely that no reasonable amount of training can make a real dent in it. Machines are much more pliable.
Human Factors Engineering deals in researching the environment of the product’s use, and designing the product in a way optimally suited to the context of use and to the user. User Experience design and research is the digital branch of Human Factors Engineering — both historically and academically. The term “User Experience” itself had been coined by Don Norman at Apple in 1993, and its original description can be taken straight from the horse’s mouth:
As years passed and the term became more widespread, its definition changed considerably — and while this was to the visible chagrin of the patriarch, there doesn’t seem to be much to be done about it.
Woman is man’s counterpart (Gen 2:18: I will make him an help meet for him.)
Ah, the two great counterparts, UX and UI. Two complementary parts of a greater whole. Do you need a UX/UI designer or is it best to hire two separate people? Are you a UX/UI designer yourself or an impostor? (Well, clearly you are the real McCoy, but some of those others, you know exactly who I’m talking about…). So many words have been spilled over this that I’m surprised there’s room left on the internet for anything else. But we can’t skip this altogether, so I’ll try to be brief. I believe there’s two main parts to this story.
A — Skills and abilities
I’m assuming you already know that UX and UI are two different things. There are many people out there who can do both things well. But the number of those who call themselves UX/UI designers for no apparent reason is many times greater. The absolute majority of UX/UI designers have been trained as graphic designers, simply because the talent for graphic design is revealed much earlier and much more naturally than a knack for UX design. Also, it’s much easier to “qualify” as a UX designer than a graphic designer, because UX has no real prerequisites — you can just wake up one morning and decide that you’re now a UX designer. No one will ask where you went to school or request to see a diploma. Also, you can just say that you’ve “also done UX” for any digital products you’ve designed so far. This is not the case with graphic design, where there are clear prerequisites for qualifying, there’s more to it than just updating your Linkedin profile.So graphic designers turned UX/UI designers are extremely common, while UX designers who’ve also gone and got themselves a graphic design education and experience are so rare that I personally haven’t met any. And this is the crux of the matter — graphic designers who’ve actually bothered and gone through an education and training process before adding the “UX” to their portfolio are likely to be much better at it than those who just felt that they “have great UX intuitions, worked with tons of UX designers and there’s nothing to it, and why the hell not” before doing so.
B — Decision making
During the work process, disagreements usually arise. Sometimes the graphic design doesn’t reflect the UX considerations well enough, sometimes the UX makes the graphic design impossible, and so forth. Two professionals are pulling the wagon in opposite directions and if they’re both respectful of the other’s domain, this struggle creates great, well-balanced products. When there’s a single UX/UI designer arguing for both sides, especially if she is not very experienced, this process will never be as authentic as when it’s two people. And due to her typical background and training in graphic design, the visual said will often gain the upper hand — because it is much more deeply rooted and it is what defines the primary, natural perspective of the designer. With experience, a better balance is often achieved by those who are aware of the problem and work hard to overcome it.
Adam and Eve Consume Nielsen’s Heuristics (Albrecht Dürer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
The original sin
The day that someone realized that adapting machines to the user is a smarter move than trying to adapt the users to the machines, we realized that we’re naked. We’ve been banished from an engineers’ paradise to the accursed world of the endless chase after users’ satisfaction and performance — but their abilities, needs, perceptions and preferences are so wildly varied that we are doomed not to be able to satisfy everyone. But we struggle to deliver products that everybody loves, and it is hard and sorrowful. “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children”
Cain and Abel make sacrifices to God, who prefers Abel’s over Cain’s. Cain becomes angry and wishes to harm Abel. God warns him not to, but Cain kills Abel despite the warning, and God curses him.
What we’ve got here is a classic case of a warning message that didn’t have the desired effect. One of the guiding principles of UX is the endeavor to prevent user errors. Sometimes we’ll achieve this by blocking the paths leading to the error — like disabling the Send button on a form that contains empty mandatory fields. But when the “error-prone” path might be a conscious and legitimate choice of the user, we must support it — and all we can do is make the user aware of the consequences of her actions, by displaying a very clear message. The warning that Cain was given said (Gen 4:7) “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door”. This is not what I’d call a very clear warning. At this point Cain, being the typical rough farmer type, says “Ah, screw it, it’s gonna be ok” (I’m reading between the lines here). If, however the message had specified exactly what’s going to befall him, there’s a good chance he would’ve reconsidered (Gen 4:12): When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.
Noah’s ark. God decides to destroy humanity and save Noah, who will be re-populating the world.
In our world ineffective interfaces die out one by one and rather less suddenly, but the result is quite similar — some voices are concerned about the disappearance of variety in UX, saying that all products within a category look pretty much the same, with superficial, mostly visual, differences. Personally I’m not overly worried about it. One reason is that technology does not stand still, and new solutions constantly become available. Much of the stuff we take for granted today, was a vague dream a few years ago. A second reason is that people become fed up with seeing the same stuff over and over — and at this saturation point a novel interface will stand out just due to being fresh and different, even without providing any real added value. We’ve seen both these factors in work countless times, especially during the wild days of Web 2.0.
What’s Noah’s favorite development methodology? How can birds be used in guerrilla research? What do Noah’s sons have to do with Command Line Interfaces? What destroyed the most ambitious project of World 2.0? All this and more — on next week’s episode. Follow to stay tuned!