Do you sometimes pay attention to the real meaning of words? Often we are that accustomed to words, which we are using, we aren‘t really thinking about their actual meaning. Same goes with the term UX. UX is such a common used acronym in our creative world. UX is associated with Usability sometimes. As I asked once: „Why do you use the word UX[-Test] instead of Usability[-Test]?“ The simple answer was „UX is shorter.“ And yes, that is an absolutely understandable cause. Also, I think the sound and look of the term “UX” is fancier than “Usa-bi-li-ty” and that might be the cause, why it is easy used as a synonym. Probably I wouldn’t use UX with that attention, as I do, if I had not once analyzed its meaning compared to the meaning of Usability in a scientific paper in my study-time.
Back 2015, during writing that paper, I realized UX is much broader than Usability. If we use UX to cover only the meaning of Usability, we are actually playing the role of UX too low.
As you probably know, Usability is focusing on an efficient, effective and satisfactory usage of a design for fulfilling goals (see ISO-Norm DIN EN ISO 9241, 11).
Too abstract? How about: Usability concentrates exclusively on the tasks of the user during the current usage situation. Does the user want to buy an item and therefore go straight to checkout-process (compare Amazon’s “Buy Now”-interaction) or does the user want to see other items after laying an item to the shopping basket (compare Amazon’s “Add to Basket”-interaction)? A valuable Usability means, that the user should bear as little clicks, stress and uncertainty as possible during the execution of his tasks. Nothing must disturb the user to lead him off his intended path — so, be prepared giving users options (but not too many!).
Designers are in charge of Usability
We as designers are responsible for a valuable Usability. By creating a valuable Usability, designers must prevent the user from barriers. Well, simple design is not because of simple brain-work. In order to ensure the ease of use of a product, we must take the following five Usability attributes into account, invented by the well-known Usability Engineer Jakob Nielsen.
The user should easily understand the system without exploration. To give no space for misinterpretations take symbols and processes, which the user already knows from the physical world. For example, webicons are reduced symbols from the physical world, like “shopping cart”, “arrows”, “camera”, “envelop” and so on. Once learned the symbols and process steps and that the symbols and process-steps are always used the same (ok should be used the same), the user should find his way in other systems without learning anymore. Then your system has achieved the Holy Grail: Intuitive Usability.
With learning goes efficiency. The user should understand fast the intention of the buttons to solve a task. The user should be able to use the buttons efficiently for his needs. The goal is a high degree of productivity on the part of the user. He should not make extra ways. Draw a shopping-example: The user wants only one special product — let it be a special clock as a present for his friend. Amazon had pretty well recognized that need and implemented a “buy now”-function at the detailpage of a product. With this function the signed-in user has a straight way to buy the product, while leaving out the basket-view and the checkout-process.
The user should be able to memorize the functionality of the system. When he reuses the system after a long while of non-usage, he should be able to remember its handling by instance. Consequently, the user must not invest time in relearning the functions he already knew. For example, the user has once learned that the “shopping basket”-symbol holds a list of items, which you wants to buy. Due to the symbol and the position of the symbol (commonly up right) the user knows by instance, where to find all the items, he had put into the shopping basket, without being on the page before.
The system should be designed in a way, in which the user can hardly make mistakes during the usage. For example, he should not be able to delete a filled form by mistake (so, leave out the old-fashioned “reset”-button).
Let the user confirm twice a deletion. Make a “delete”-button not the primary button. However, if the user makes still a mistake, the system must be able to recover quickly from it. You can offer an “undo”-function. In addition to a low error rate, the system should not allow the user to make serious mistakes, like accepting “password” as a safe password.
The user should feel comfortable during using the system. The system has not absolutely to surprise the user, but to fulfill its use. The system should satisfy the user’s needs. Aesthetics and transformation play here a supportive role. My favorite example for a relieved satisfaction is seeing the confirmation page with the repetition of the delivery-date after a successful buying-process.
What does UX actually mean?
By contrast of Usability, UX takes a view beyond the usage situation. UX considers also the reasons for people to use a system before the actual usage and the effects on the people after using the system. UX does not replace the term Usability. UX extends it. UX focuses on people and embraces the subjective feeling of the experience. For UX the emotional characteristics are in the foreground. The use of the system should offer the user “joy” and “fun” as well as “attractiveness”, “beauty” and “challenge”. Needless to say: That is depending on the user himself. It is like: You cannot account for taste.
Thus, we designers can only provide a valuable Usability of a system paired with an outstanding design, both appropriate for the target group as a whole and for some situations. And we all know, this still is much of a challenge. But we cannot control by the design the way, which one individual user feels while experiencing the system before, while and after the usage. Have you ever read about the “illusion of control”? If you don’t believe me until know, maybe this in relation to the claim “designing UX” can change your mind. Because, if we take UX by word, then it is a life event. And outsiders can maybe influence, but not design life events of other persons. How should they, if even the individual user is hardly able to control his life events.
Who then is designing UX?
You provide the design for the system. You guarantee the valuable Usability. But you are not designing the UX for an individual user. Not because you don’t want (oh boy, you want), but because you simply can’t. You can indeed give options for a quick buy, but you should not force all users to buy a product by instance and not to store it in the shopping basket before. One single user has different intentions and feelings (f.e. certainty vs. uncertainty) while using your system. However, he may be part of your target group.
The one and only, who is able to design UX, is the user himself together with his context. Only the user can create his own special personal User Experience in one special moment. The User Experience depends on what the user has experienced so far, what the user associates with the system, which personality he has, what he wants and how he is feeling before, at and after the usage-situation. A bad UX can originate, because the user associates for example an exhausting experience with the system. Let it be a “To Do List”-app, at which the user lists so many uncomfortable tasks, which lay ahead of him. While in contrast the same user is later on recognizing the app as a second memory and the simplifying of tasks, when he sees only tasks, which he is fond of to do. Don’t blame yourself for that one. But be ALWAYS in charge of a valuable Usability for a group of users with different intentions and changing situations. For that reason Usability-Testing on a regular basis is the only way to survive longtime.
Learning: You can create the most perfect system with the most valuable Usability for the one target group, but that does not guarantee a good UX for one individual user of that target group.
What about context?
Designers also cannot design the context. Yet designers should take it always into account while creating the design. So, designers have to consider:
– Is the user using the system in bright surroundings?
– Are there low internet-connections while using the system?
– Does the user use the system at a plane with airplane-mode?
– Is the user using your video-app in a noisy district?
– Is the context unfocusing the user from his tasks?
– Does the user watch TV and is distracted, while using your system?
And so on.
Ask yourself why, when, where and how long is the user using your system. Prevent the user from barriers (also too much functions or texts might be a barrier), that the context might provide.
Do I call myself a “UX Designer”?
After these long-listed thoughts in my head since 2015, I still feel antipathy in using the term “UX”. Especially, when I know its usage is wrong, but still a common used acronym. Would I use another more appropriate word, maybe people would not understand me. Especially here I am thinking at the discipline called “UX-Designer”. As you might already recognize it: Yes, I stay at the term “UX Designer”. Imagine a UX-Designer is called a „(hedonic) Usability-Designer“. Everybody would search for the differences between a Usability- and a UX-Designer of other companies. I also saw the term “Usability Engineer” for almost the same discipline, which seems quite technical to me and does it really contain seeing user needs first? In the past I have used “conceptioner”, but even my auto-correct does not know this term 😉 And do these terms really contain to consider people before, during and after the usage and their context?
I think that this job-term covers not exactly the work, we are doing. But like Goethe said: “Names are sound and smoke.” So, thinking about words can be interesting and revealing, but words are not determining our thoughts and actions. Yes, we should keep the term UX Designer, because it is established. As long as we keep into mind, we are designing less than UX, but more than Usability and still so much more beyond a user’s imagination. Think: Will the user recognize, that such a discipline like UX-Designer (no matter the term) has worked on the system, which he is using? Probably not and that might be not important. But — hell on you — if you run a project without including a UX-Designer, and yes I’ve seen such systems, then the user will recognize it. Maybe he is not able to put his finger on the reason, why he explicitly dislikes the usage of the system, but trust me, he will use it with disgust or even search for a competitive one… if the leaving-costs are not too high (and keeping the leaving-costs high as the 2-year-contract of a bad internet service provider is no option in that case).
So yeah, I call myself a UX-Designer, even I am convinced, I am not designing UX, but the user does. Yet I do Usability by logical thinking paired with creating hedonic ideas for special users in their special contexts.