UX – It’s obvious, right?: Part 1

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I did a talk at the local conference Agila Sverige in June about things that I, as a UX professional, find obvious about UX, but that I have discovered that other professions might not. I actually felt really nervous giving the talk, because I feared that I had been mistaken and the things actually were obvious to everyone. I needn’t have worried…

UX != UI

The first thing I talked about was the thing I come across most often, i.e., that UX is just the veneer you put on your already designed and developed product to make it look good. A UX designer is no more than a graphical designer that also should be able to code front end. In fact, a lot of the job ads I see with UX in the title is basically for a front end developer with an interest in graphical design and some kind of basic knowledge about usability.

So if UX is not UI, what is it then? First, let us expand the acronyms to see what they actually represent:

UX actually stands for User Experience, which encompasses the entire experience a user has of a product or service. Where that starts and ends is regularly discussed within the UX community and ranges from the entire experience of adverts about it to the interaction with the product and the delivery of the service as well as interaction with other parts of the company such as support or finance when being invoiced. It does not only include if the product or service is usable, but also if it’s useful.

Now, let’s look at UI. UI stands for User Interface. Quite often that refers to a GUI, i.e., a graphical user interface on a screen, but it can also be the interface between the machine and the user of a physical thing, e.g., a lawn mower or microwave oven. What it is, is the part of the product or service the user interacts with. This is obviously a part of the user experience, but it is not the same thing.

After establishing that UI is a part of UX, it would be nice to be able to provide a short and catchy definition of what good UX is. However, this is something that the UX community has failed to agree on for years and it has resulted in an endless line of infographics trying to show what it is and what it is not. Personally, I’ve chosen to resort to the ISO definition of usability from 1998 when trying to explain what UX is:

“Usability: the extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in a specified context of use.”

Let’s break this down a bit. After specifying that there is a product, i.e., just one specific product and not all products a company handles or produces, the definition goes on to say that it should be used by specified users. In order to provide a good user experience, you need to figure out who those users are. There are very few products where the users are everyone in the world. Instead, they are subsets with specific characteristics. These can be age, how familiar they are with computers, interest, attitudes and many other things. Who the users are and what defines them must be taken into account when designing products and services.

Next, the definition talks about achieving specified goals. What the product or service is for is something specific. If you go deeper, each and every feature is there to fulfill a certain need or help the users reach a certain goal. What that need or goal is, is also dependent on who the product or service is for, i.e., the specified users.

Jumping ahead a bit to the very last part of the definition, i.e., in a specified context of use, and taking that into account, it has now zeroed in on the fact that good usability (or a good user experience) is not a general thing – it is highly dependent on the specific thing you are making. If you take these three things together: who the user is, what they are trying to achieve, and in which context this is done, you realize that a large part of good usability must be doing the research to answer these questions.  

Let’s take a look at the middle bit of the definition: effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction. These are basically fancy words for doing something right, fast and being happy about it. This is where design comes in. But not only graphical (or industrial) design. The flow of the process and the words used in the interface needs to work as well. Which is the logical order of doing things that makes it efficient, but also prevent mistakes from being made? And how do you make it so that the user would like to do it again (and again and again if the goal of your product is recurring use)? And how do you help the user get back on track if an error actually do occur? To do this, you need good interaction design and information architecture. And once a design is made, it needs to be verified by doing research that it actually works as intended (and modified if it doesn’t).

So to reiterate what we’ve learned: There is no clear and well agreed upon definition of what UX (User eXperience) is, but what IS clear is that UI (the user interface) is only a part of it. A way to understand what UX should be is to look at the ISO definition of usability which indicates that the concept of good UX should include design, but also research. I hope this has made things at least a little bit clearer.

If you are curious and want to learn more about how to get better UX in your products, check out our course Modern UX which will be held in September.

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