The Memorable Experience is the Product
As I completed my last article, Confessions of a UX Designer, I realized I was just on the edge of something that has become problematic in, not just UX, but the business world at large. That problem is where our focus lies as we build products, gravitating towards that ever-looming release date while failing to understand what the true product really is. In terms of UX, the prime culprit I am alluding to is our ceaseless obsession with the UI.
It has been written that UX is not UI (or UI is not UX). If this is true, then why is it most teams spend the majority of their time developing the UI? Full disclosure: I don’t have any hard science behind this claim. This comes, primarily, from my own experience and my conversations with colleagues over more than a decade. However, there is secondary evidence to strongly support the observation that UX is more UI than anything else.
Consider your average interview for a UX position at any level. I have sat on both sides of the interview table many times over the past decade. It’s a routine request in these situations to submit wireframes. I have had my teams turn down candidates when they do not submit wireframes (or submit what is considered below average wireframes). It’s routine for me to hear, when looking at a potential candidate, “We need to see their wireframes.” And, I can’t cite a single interview where I wasn’t requested to submit or show screens — many interviews, of which, focused primarily on the UI and not the UX.
Take a quick survey of any UX designer’s portfolio and what you’ll find in most is the prevalence of user interfaces being showcased. Behance and Dribble almost exclusively focus on the UI. You may find some affinity diagrams, journey maps or a research summary. But, the focal point in most of these portfolios is the UI. Perhaps this is because that is the deliverable with the greatest potential for showcasing and viewing.
UX tools, the software created for our profession, largely focus on the UI or the creation of the UI. There are not nearly as many solutions for researching or actually designing the user experience. A quick survey of job descriptions will yield a plethora of positions citing required experience with Axure, Sketch, Figma etc. Rarely is there a position requiring software experience with a tool beyond creating wireframes or user interfaces.
On the topic of job descriptions, “UX Designer” as a position title, still largely refers to a UI designer. It may be we are arguing semantics here. After all, a UI designer can also design the experience and vice versa. However, these descriptions rarely focus on the experience design portion of our profession and tend to list a number deliverables central to the development of an interface or software platform.
If this isn’t enough to convince us that UX really is UI in a large percentage of positions, then I would ask this: What is most likely to get left out of the UX process in an organization? I’ll give you a hint: It is absolutely not the UI. Your team might not conduct the research or map a journey or test an interface or even talk to a user. But, they will absolutely produce a UI. When we say UX, what we really mean is UI in most cases. But as the title above notes: It shouldn’t be that way.
This problem is, for the most part, one that is organizationally-driven. That is, it is an organizational behavior problem. The organization drives commerce through the release of products. In short, organizations derive their revenue from the release of products. Those release dates become our primary focus in organizations.
Prior to the widespread adoption of UX in organizations across the country and world, the UI was largely scrapped together by developers. It was often an afterthought (as apparent in early designs of software platforms from the nineties). Only large companies like Microsoft or Apple could truly afford to have a person on staff who specialized in the development of the UI. With the advent of the Internet and personal computers invading homes and offices across the globe, companies began producing more software and the need for our services in UX became a reality.
The production of software became a major commodity for organizations in the mid-nineties. Prior to that time period, the true potential of computers had not yet been actuated. For example, I worked in the hearing aid industry where until the nineties, hearing instruments were essentially adjusted with a screwdriver-like tool. There was no software to adjust the computer chip in the hearing instrument because there was no computer chip in the instrument. I currently work with Walgreens whose pharmacy system was first released in the early nineties. Until then, all pharmacy operations were largely paper-based.
The software boom resulted in huge revenue for organizations. If they weren’t selling the software they produced, they were using it to automate processes and cut labor costs. Regardless, this all resulted in higher profits. And, higher profits are what business is most concerned with. Those profits are often tied to release cycles as I note above. Organizations make money by releasing products. It’s as simple as that.
The problem with this is the focus on the product and its corresponding release cycle. The UI is now part of the product and that same release cycle. Development in any organization will gladly spend days on hold because they are waiting for the UIs to be completed.
I’ve even worked for teams where if you don’t have screens to show, there is a misguided perception no work is being completed. This is severely misguided as the UI is literally like the tip of an iceberg where the bulk of the mass sits below the surface of the water. The bulk of the work in UX to build out a cohesive UI occurs before the first pixel is ever placed on the screen. But, that work is largely unseen or spotlighted. At the very least, the work leading up to the UI has a lesser tangibility.
An even greater problem with the focus on products and release cycles is the lack of attention given to integration with ancillary products in the user’s technology ecosystem. For example, a diabetic patient must contend with an electronic health record from their health network, a glucose meter, a calorie-tracking application, a pharmacy health record and sometimes a second electronic health record from their primary or ancillary providers. There is very little integration between these platforms to help the patient track their glucose trends. It is also difficult to share this information beyond the respective platforms. As a result, the experience becomes fragmented for the user as they hop from platform to platform.
Stating that UX is not UI is correct. But, our actions in organizations are not representative of that statement. The only fault to be found in UX as a profession is our willingness to be driven by the organizational release cycle where we spend countless hours on the UI versus very few on truly designing the experience. Of course, we all need jobs and are often at the mercy of higher powers in organizations.
The truly successful organizations of the future will not focus on the product and its subsequent release. Products, software and the user interface will not be the commodities per se. The new commodity will be the experience itself. The experience will be the headline grabbing readers’ attention.
It’s unlikely UX will drive this change (though, I think some of us can and will). It is more likely the change will primarily be driven by innovative organizations who will take UX along for the ride. UX, as a profession, will have to adapt to a new market where the experience becomes the product and what is delivered. Release cycles may still exist, but they will not trump the quality or value of the experience for these organizations.
This may seem an idealistic stance to some. But, the idea of commoditizing the experience is not new and, in fact, is twenty years old. In a 1998 Harvard Business Review article titled “Welcome to the Experience Economy,” B. Joesph Pine II and James H Gilmore state:
“An experience occurs when a company intentionally uses services as the stage, and goods as props, to engage individual customers in a way that creates a memorable event. Commodities are fungible, goods tangible, services intangible, and experiences memorable.”
In other words, the memory of an experience is the product. Pine and Gilmore argued the commodities, goods and services organizations provide are merely the means to a greater end — the experience. This involves understanding the customer, evaluating touch points and designing a holistic experience intertwined within an ecosystem.
What this means for UX is we will still design the interfaces, test them and push them off to development. But, the focus will (or should) change. The mundane conversations about mobile design, atomic design, when to choose one control over the other and pixel perfection will become marginalized in favor of conversations concerning design ecosystems and creating a cohesive experience around more than simply a suite of products. We’ll begin creating experiences beyond the products we design for and integration will become a demand from the market — a cry so loud, we’ll be unable to tune it out.
If UX is to survive and thrive as a profession, we’ll have to be an integral component in turning away from technology as a solution or commodity. The technology, the interface or software, is not the product. We’ll need to turn towards the experience as the product.
I believe there are teams and organizations moving in this direction today. Unfortunately, it has been rare for me to work with one of them. My career has largely involved giving new systems a facelift, adding new functionality, moving towards mobile (truly a cliche at this point) and expecting all of this to equate to a higher level of user experience.
Once, and if, this shift occurs, we’ll experience the same phenomena we’re experiencing now. Organizations will race to shift their design and business models, following suit with those organizations leading the effort. I can only hope UX will not be along for the ride and, rather, leading the effort as well — at least at some point.
UX, as a profession, has not necessarily lost its way. We are still rooted in the user experience. We have the right ideas and visions, in many cases. But, we’ve been caught in the gears of a large machine — the American Corporate Machine. This machine feeds on release cycles, short-term gains and satisfying stockholders over satisfying customers.
I’ve written it before: The business of business is to serve the customer, not to serve the business. That service businesses provide is ever-evolving and has very little to do with the UI, a release date or the greatest new product no one needs or will use. To coin and slightly modify a phrase from James Carville: “It’s the experience, stupid.” We’d do well to remember this in UX.