A Man of Wealth and Taste

The temptation to abuse user experience to the detriment of the user.

From UE to UX

We used to call ourselves “usability engineers,” but now we call ourselves “user experience specialists.” The change represented broadening of the field, an expansion of our influence at a time when the web was young, and corporations and other organizations desperately needed help using this new medium to conduct business. Usability concerns everything in the product that comes into contact with user. For a web site, this includes the selection, design, and testing of the content, information representation, controls (e.g., link appearance), feedback, visual design, layout, page organization, and so on. User experience, in contrast, concerns everything about the product that comes into contact with the user. This includes the usability of the product but also all other ways the corporation interfaces with its customers on the product: its purchasing, packaging, installation, customer and technical support, and branding. Having used our usability knowledge to secure a beach head in the business world by helping them make web sites with sensible information architecture and legible text, we used our new-found credibility to seize more corporate turf to declare our own. And it worked, with UX emerging as an indispensable business partner of the information age.

The transition from UE to UX also represented a shift in the center of gravity of the discipline. Usability concerns the learnability, efficiency, memorability, accuracy, and satisfaction of the user using the product. In a nutshell, UE seeks to optimize a product’s objective user performance. It’s because of this objectivity that it was called usability engineering: what mattered was bottom-line what-does-the-stopwatch-say reality. There were concessions to subjectivity, specifically user satisfaction, but this was sort of considered to be an indirect indication of actual performance: it was assumed that satisfaction was a way to tell if the product was meeting practical user needs. This focus made sense back in the 1970s at the dawn of usability engineering, when users were typically employees, not consumers. Businesses hired us to improve user performance because that meant saving money -less training cost, more worker productivity, and better data quality.

However, when we moved from UE to UX, user satisfaction became the central goal rather than an indicator of something else. UX seeks to optimize a product’s user experience. We are no longer engineers working to achieve objective real-world performance, but “specialists” or “practitioners” working to achieve subjective psychological states. Things like learnability, efficiency, memorability, and accuracy are only important because we assume they make users happier. We realized that usability was only one thing that contributed to satisfaction. Satisfaction also depended on the product being perceived as useful, accessible, and desirable, and so we expanded UX to include pursuing these. For example, we introduced emotional design, where we incorporate positive references into our products to increase users’ desire for them. The shift from performance to satisfaction corresponded to the explosion of the web, where most of our users were consumers, not employees. Businesses hired us because they believed a satisfied customer is a buying customer. It meant making money rather than saving money.

Businesses realized that customer satisfaction was not enough to make the sale. You had to convince your customers that you delivered satisfaction. You had to persuade customers that your product was usable, useful, desirable, and accessible. You had to make both the product and this persuasive message findable for the customer for them to be even aware of it. You had to be credible to your customers so that they will believe your persuasive message once they find it. You had to associate the brand with the message so users remember the message at the point of purchase. Who should businesses turn to in order to achieve these goals?

Having switched our allegiance to user experience rather than user performance, we were in perfect position to grab another stretch of business real estate. Worrying that merely making easy-to-use products would marginalize us in the corporate world, we challenged each other to expand our domain. Persuasion, product discovery, trust, and brand awareness are but other psychological states in addition to satisfaction. They are all experiences, and as user experience specialists we had the skills to create them. Thus, user experience expanded further to include the seven elements in Peter Morville’s honeycomb. We design for persuasion and trust. We’re assured that persuading and motivating the user makes a better user experience, but don’t say explicitly if or when this is necessarily the case.

Our goal isn’t necessarily to get the user through the task efficiently. Indeed, if we are too efficient, the user finishes the task before they get a chance to enjoy a meaningful experience with the product. Thus, we seek to  “engage” the user. We look to emulate companies like Harley-Davidson, where users not only use our products but are passionate about them.  This is another difference between classic UE and UX: The former is strictly concerned with informing the user –how do I do X in an application or web site? The latter places at least equal emphasis on motivating the user –why should I do X? The answers: because we’re credible, we can help you, we’re cool so you’ll be cool. Credible here means both “I know what I’m talking about,” and also “I have your best interest at heart.” You need both to be persuasive.

Achieving credibility, desirability, findability, branding, and expected usefulness and usability basically means sending messages to the user. This emphasis of UX on sending messages, in contrast to building interfaces, represents another shift in the center of gravity of the discipline: where UE emphasized user interaction, UX emphasizes user communication, especially communication to the user. The office productivity applications of the 1980s that UE cut its teeth on were highly interactive. Users weren’t just using computers to receive information. They were using computers to create information. Then they’d use computers to modify, convert, associate, destroy, and transmit the information. UX, on the other hand, is about achieving psychological states through sending the user overt or subliminal messages, thus the emphasis shifts to communicating to the  user.

Usability as mostly objective and interaction, and entirely information. User experience also including subjective, communication, and motivation.

This was an easy shift for the discipline to make because of the web explosion that shot UX to prominence: the early web in particular was a one-way communication medium, from business to consumer. This meant that user performance was essentially equivalent to successful information retrieval. More recently, web applications have shifted some emphasis back towards interaction (most notably, to serve as a purchasing medium), but communication still dominates. Web 2.0 brings in two-way communication -now consumers can use the web to send messages back to the corporations, and smart corporations listen to such messages. However, the volume of information going to each user dwarfs the amount received from each user. If you’re working in UX, chances are you’re attending mostly to getting messages to the user. You may find that the message is the product.

How Did We Pull Off This Coup?

Emotional Design is Old School

As a witness of the shift from UE To UX over the past 15 years, part of my reaction is puzzlement. How did we succeed in acquiring responsibility for things like persuasion, trust, desirability, and branding? I can see how human factors engineering evolved into usability engineering 30 years ago because there was a vacuum that needed filling: computers in general and web sites in particular were complex and foreign to consumers in the 1980s to 1990s. Businesses had no one with the responsibility to make applications and web sites understandable to users -developers and IT professionals couldn’t do it, nor could marketing, accounting, finance, nor any of the other fields of business. They had to look outward to human factors engineers to fill the void.

Creating consumer experiences was different. Designing for persuasion, trust, usefulness, findability, desirability may have been new to usability engineers, but they sure weren’t new to business. “Emotional design” is not new.  Businesses have long had design departments responsible for creating “styles” that communicated references to users. There already was a business discipline dedicated to identifying what consumers find useful and valuable and communicating messages about products to the users. It was and is a component of marketing. Market research identifies what would be useful, valuable, and desirable to consumers. Marketing then creates the messages -the “value propositions” or “product positions” -that state how a product provides that value (in modern marketing, they are also involved in developing the products themselves). Marketing also includes findability, which they called “placement”; deciding and designing how to make products available to the consumers, and communicating to consumers how to acquire them. Marketing connects products with the users of the product, just like UX does.

Persuasion and trust is also traditionally the responsibility of marketing, particularly the sales and advertising components of marketing. The field of consumer psychology has been around for decades. Through the last half of the 20th century, contemporaneously with cognitive psychologists applying their knowledge to develop human factors engineering and later usability engineering, social psychologists applied their knowledge to develop consumer psychology, dedicated to understanding how to persuade consumers to buy products. Compliance, conformity, social cognition and self-perception, and attitudes are chapters straight out of an intro social psych text that bear directly on getting people to believe, feel, and ultimately do certain things. User experience comes down to creating perceptions in the customers, and that’s exactly what salespeople and advertisers do. I think it would be easier for a consumer psychologist to adapt to the web world than a usability engineer to adapt to the marketing world. A bunch of social psychologists have missed out on big bucks from the web. Where were they? Why didn’t they defend their turf?

If there is any difference between marketing and UX, it’s the degree of scale, with marketing concerned with more broad and abstract messages and consumer characteristics, while UX is concerned with click-by-click and pixel-by-pixel details. Yet, overall I would expect marketing to have as much of a skill base to move into user/customer experience as usability engineers did.

Techies versus Salespeople

While I’m puzzled that marketers and consumer psychologists didn’t annex user/consumer experience, I’m also puzzled that usability engineers chose to annex it. Coming from a technical background, it just doesn’t seem to be their style. Techies have a natural distaste of marketers, specifically those in sales and advertising, as satirized by the Stef Murky character in User Friendly. To engineers and other techies, the creation of messages and perceptions found in sales and advertising is about being false to various degrees. Techies think that marketers treat consumers believing something is true to be just as good as it being true.

That doesn’t cut it with engineers, for whom nature will have her way no matter what the people believe. People can be fooled, but reality cannot. Trained to handle objective facts, not human attitudes, techies see an absolute difference between true and false, and the difference between true and false is the difference between a success and failure. To an engineer, the term “failure” has harsh moral as well as personal overtones. It doesn’t mean you don’t get your end of year bonus because you didn’t make your sales target. It means things break. The engine grinds to a halt on a lonely road in winter, the electricity goes out on a hot August night, planes collide in the sky, bridges collapse, dams burst open, and reactors explode. Innocent people are inconvenience, injured, or even killed. Failure, and by extension falsehood, is not something to be taken lightly.

It seems unlikely usability engineering techies would venture into creating perceptions, something they associate with deception, yet apparently it happened. Maybe we thought, as engineers, we could create perceptions while remaining truthful. Maybe we didn’t think, not realizing we were becoming more like the marketing types we denigrated and distrusted.

(At this point I should emphasize that by “we,” I mean the usability engineering or user experience community in general. As someone who has worked for the government rather than corporations over the past 13 years, I’ve been an outside witness to these developments, rather than a direct participant whose career was at stake. I should also remind you, in the name of full disclosure of where my biases may lie, that I work in transportation human factors. In my work, a usability failure could mean planes literally colliding in the sky. I’m inclined to take reality seriously.)

The Next Generation

Another possibility is that the shift from usability engineering to user experience also corresponded with a shift in the background of the practitioners. The explosion of the web created a major job shortage for user interface designers. There weren’t nearly enough techies with a background in human factors or human-computer interaction. To fill the need, other professions were tapped. Maybe marketing didn’t abdicate user experience at all, but recognized early on that the web was their turf and moved in. When the web started, sites were often designed out of the marketing department (if not IT) because corporate had nowhere else to put it. The resulting “brochure-ware” sites common in those days suggest that marketing was actively entering this communications channel. Marketers just had to bone-up on usability engineering to make the sites work. UX seems to be influenced by gurus from marketing, like Joanna Peña-Bickley, Guy Kawasaki, and Seth Godin. We use concepts like “conversion” and “branding,” which have their origin in marketing, not usability engineering, suggesting some kind of cross-fertilization. On the other hand, there reportedly remains a wall between marketing and UX, and it would seem that UX specialists are just now discovering how much they overlap with marketing. A 2008 UXMatters survey suggests that very few specialists have a marketing education. Marketing may have sent its ideas, but not its people.

Perhaps more than marketers, there was an influx of artists, educated in graphic design or writing, to counterbalance the techies. The early web sites were composed of a relatively small number of static HTML pages of text and pictures, so it’s easy to see that graphic designers and technical communicators would feel right at home: the chief design challenges were writing clearly and choosing font, layout, color, and images. These are as much an issue of aesthetics as user performance. Usability challenges were primarily limited to getting good site structure, which is easy enough to learn for the modest sites of the time. Chances are a random artist (or writer) would have a better intuition of how an ordinary user categorizes content than the average developer that was doing it before they came along.

Truth and falsehood are less black-and-white to the average artist than to the average techie. They are trained to see truth as something personal, subjective, and therefore irrefutable. Truth is a vision an artist has: a message to be communicated to an audience by some medium. Two people can see different truths in a work of art, and both be equally right -even when one of them is the artist that created the work.

Artists are naturally more comfortable with the marketing world than techies. To techies, a product is something used to accomplish a practical task. Artists, in contrast, understand that products/works are messages from company/artist to consumer/audience. Products are statements about the company that sold them, about the consumers that use them, and about the designer that created them. Consumers want to be associated with products that convey good messages about themselves –that’s Old School marketing: by buying a product, consumers can present themselves as something better. For example, consumers don’t buy over-featured smart phones to use the features -they don’t know how. They buy them to support their self-perception as someone who knows how to get a good deal, or they buy them to impress their peers. Colleen Jones has thoughtfully provided a list of emotional needs you can appeal to in your messages. By building these messages metaphorically into your products or packaging you can create a need for your product. For example, if your new mobile app provides users’ constant access to their respective digital data, then you invoke container imagery to link that to feeling “inclusive,” thus increasing the desirability of the app.

Artists know how to make these messages. Decades before the web, and still today, most corporate artists work closely with marketing. I believe most people in business who have graduated with art degrees work in advertising, crafting messages for marketing. Those that aren’t in advertising are in design shops, working on product styling, carrying out their version of emotional design to craft messages into the form of the product.

Our Own Seduction

More cynically, perhaps the shift from UE to UX was simply because it pays well. Perhaps we seek to build seductive user interfaces today because yesterday we were drawn in by the seductive interface of the corporate world. Big money was when users are consumers not employees, so that is where we moved. Perhaps expanding UX to include persuasion and desirability, and co-opting concepts from marketing, was something we did to get credibility with the suits. Branding and conversions are business goals, not user goals; that got businesses to cut us the checks. Principles like commitment to absolute truth pale compared to steady employment. So today the UX literature is dominated by work in e-commerce. Eric Shaffer of HFI writes as if e-commerce is all there is to the web. An apparent newcomer to UX naively asks if usability is only necessary for product and service websites. It would seem most of our work is justified for selling things. We have become salespeople.

And why not? It takes talent and years of training to have the sensibility to know how to create appealing and effective messages that encourage consumers to buy. It’s a level of taste not everyone has. Why shouldn’t we be paid well for it? Why shouldn’t we strive to be UX specialists of wealth and taste?

For Good…?

However we managed to take responsibility for the entire user experience, we should recognize what a large responsibility it is. With the power to control user experiences comes the capacity to do good or evil. The techies’ negative stereotype of marketing is an exaggeration of what real marketing is, but nonetheless accurately represents how some practice marketing. At its soul, usability engineers and user experience specialists seek to make things better for the user -they are the lone advocate of the poor slob trying to come to terms with advanced technology. A positive user experience is an end in itself. To marketers, in contrast, customer satisfaction and other experiences are merely a means to an end: selling something.

In shifting UX into the domain of sales to gain the respect and support of the suits, we run the risk of selling our soul. We may find ourselves abandoning the user and becoming an advocate of the marketing agenda. Controlling the user experience can degenerate into using advertising tricks to put users in the state of mind to buy what we offer, rather than do what really gives them the most satisfaction. Amy Hoy warns us that “too much of usability ’science’ is about manipulating people, rather than helping them achieve what they want to do.” Peter Merholz is alarmed to see advertisers getting into “UX” because they “encourage people to behave against their own interests if that’s what serves the client.” As far as Cennydd Bowles is concerned, marketing-aligned persuasive design “prioritises business goals above those of the user, and its values are irreconcilable with empathy, the central value of UX.” To raise awareness of the ethical issues of UX, Harry Brignull has begun a collection of design techniques intended for fooling users into doing things they wouldn’t otherwise do, techniques he calls Dark Patterns (dark as in Sith, not dark as in beer).

You might think it’s easy enough to know when one is advocating for the business versus the user, and that it’s clear when a design favors the business’s immediate interests over the users. For example, it’s pretty apparent that the best amount and intensity of advertising for business is greater than the best amount and intensity for users. The optimal user experience has virtually no advertisement, perhaps limited to some relatively discreet cross-selling of products that have high statistical likelihood of being desired by the user, something that I personally have very rarely experienced. Proof that advertising subverts the user experience is the lengths users go to avoid advertisement, passively developing unnatural blindness to attention-catching elements, such as animation and bright colorful images, and actively scrolling and resizing windows or holding hands in front of ads to hide them.

The optimal business practice, in contrast, is to cast a wide and strong advertising net, filling a page’s margins with bold blinking ads for cross-selling, up-selling, and largely-irrelevant-selling. For the business’s interest, a web page should have enough ads to make a barely tolerable user experience. This is pretty much what we have on the web now. With users adapting to avoid advertisements in order to improve their own experience, advertisers are continuously seeking new ways to force ads on them. Users scrolling past banner ads? Try pop-ups. User activate pop-up blockers? Use lightbox-inspired hovering ads. The result is an arms race between media users and advertisers fought to the inevitable stalemate. Users are constantly having to adapt to these new advertising tricks with no net benefit for themselves.

Similarly, you’d think we can easily recognize other design practices that benefit the business rather than the user, such as adding a step to a wizard to promote the product with reviewers, but only wasting the users’ time. Likewise, it should be clear that you shouldn’t violate usability standards or best practices strictly to create brand differentiation. That only helps the business, not the user experience. Nor should you make it difficult to avoid up-selling or spamming opt-ins by using confusing wording or de-emphasizing the opt-out controls. Nor should you do anything without informed user consent. Nor should it be made deliberately difficult for anyone to escape the experiences you impose.

Reality or Perception?

While some designs clearly favor the business over the user, in the realm of experiences, others are ambiguous, and we can fool ourselves into believing we’re doing what’s best for the user. By creating experiences, we blur the boundaries of perception and reality, including what the real user benefits are. By shifting our field into turf traditionally controlled by marketing we expose ourselves to the ethical dangers that lurk there.

As an example of the ambiguity, in classical usability engineering it’s clear that users should finish the task in the shortest time possible -that’s objectively the greatest efficiency. For instance, your office productivity UI should encourage users to select text blocks with the mouse rather than the keyboard because the stopwatch says that’s faster, even when including time to switch the hand from the keyboard to the mouse. But for the purpose of creating a positive user experience, isn’t it more important for users to experience the task as being faster? Won’t that make a more satisfied user? While selecting is faster with the mouse, users think they’re faster with the keyboard. Maybe the UI should encourage keyboard selection more. Is faster task completion really better, anyway? What if we design for user engagement so users make better decisions? What if we make the task an enjoyable experience? What if we import some game-like elements? Won’t users then be happier if the experience lasts longer?

Or consider arbitrarily redesigning a product, perhaps to use the latest fashion in technology or to add questionable features few have any use for. This requires users to relearn the product or work through a more complex UI, detracting from the user experience, but it also makes the product seem new, improved, fresh, or cool -attributes that reflect back on the user. Maybe a little relearning or a little more complicated UI is worth the boost in the user’s self-image.

Among the things that some UX proponents say we can learn from Harley-Davidson is to create artificial scarcity so our products appear more valuable. From a classic usability engineering perspective, that’s a horrific idea. Artificial scarcity makes things objectively worse for the users -more users are deprived of a useful product that makes life better. On the other hand, if users perceive a product to be more valuable, won’t they enjoy owning it all the more when they eventually acquire it? Won’t they experience pride in ownership, a sense of being exclusive or cool? Maybe artificial scarcity creates a better total user experience. Users likewise see greater value and perceive better performance in things that cost more. We thus should take more money from our users to make them happier.

Does Reality Matter?

Our goal is a happy user. Happiness comes from having the right perceptions -the right experiences. Does it matter if those perceptions have any basis in reality? Won’t the user be just as happy whether they are true or false? In such a context, it can be easy to convince yourself that deceptive designs are in fact authentic. After all, from the artistic vision standpoint, by creating perceptions, you’re creating reality, so deception is logically impossible. Some might argue that users may feel cheated and unhappy once they realize reality doesn’t match their perceptions, but that’s just a problem of inadequate control of the user experience -as long as users perceive their perceptions as real, then they’ll remain happy. James Gilmore and Joseph Pine, visionaries of the experience economy, show us how: in their definition, authenticity is only a matter of perception. Thus all you need to be authentic is to be consistent with your messages -internally consistent, and consistent with consumer expectations and self-images. Do that and consumers will believe you’re authentic, which means you are authentic. Consistency with objective reality? If there is such a thing, it is irrelevant.

Gilmore and Pine have a point when you are talking about the messages of products rather than their performance. The messages are what the product stands for, what they symbolize. Symbols are as real and powerful as anything a stopwatch can tell you, but they only exist in the mind. If everyone believes a red octagon means stop, then it does, even though there is nothing objective in a octagon that says that must be so.

Likewise, if a corporation manages to persuade everyone that a product has a certain message, then it does. If everyone believes your smart phone makes the user cool and sexy, then it does. This turns the engineering perspective of falsehood on its head: it’s not that falsehood implies failure, but rather failure implies falsehood. You are true as long as you don’t fail in creating your experiences.

It could also be argued that this concern with reality underestimates the sophistication of today’s consumers. Consumers expect a certain level of falsehood from the messages corporations send them, and corporations know that. A false message isn’t lying when the receiving party knows it’s false and the sending party knows the receiving party knows it’s false. It’s merely a fiction, a good story. And consumers are more than willing to play along, to be a character in the story. They’ll do it just because it’s fun to pretend, like the willful suspension of disbelief when one watches a movie. Consumers understand that the quality of the experience depends on just believing it. Additionally, they may do it because, while they know it’s false, their friends or boss or date may believe it’s true. Consumers use corporate marketing messages to market themselves. The corporation is not exploiting the consumer; it’s a partnership.

…or for Evil?

Here’s the problem with all these approaches to improve the user experience by creating perceptions: by creating positive experiences out of nothing but symbol manipulation you are also creating negative experiences. You can take more time or more money from users, and if you do it right, they may even mark your design more positively than the alternative on a user satisfaction survey. However, users are left with less time and money to spend for other positive experiences. A few more seconds using your app means a few less seconds spent with loved ones. It may come as a shock, but maybe there are things users rather do with their time and money than spend it on your product, however amazing it may be.

Designing to make a fun and engaging product is fine, but fun depends on users having a choice to participate or not. Engagement that is forced on the users is entrapment, not fun and not necessarily beneficial. Most things are not worth being engaged on. Yes, theoretically, if users were more engaged in using a product, they may make better decisions on how to best use it, but that comes at a cost of time and effort. For some users the cost may outweigh the benefit.

Leveraging information scent to draw users into a web site may make business sense, but it doesn’t always benefit the user. Many users will have negative experiences with it, feeling they’re forced to continue the task. Yes, users will keep clicking away, going well beyond the “magic” three-click limit as long as they think they’re making progress, but after a certain point this is due to the user’s increasingly high investment in using the site; the user sees it as a greater “loss” to abandon the interaction and move to another site, a negative experience. However, from a business standpoint there’s no difference between consumer loyalty and imprisonment.

You can create messages so users feel inclusive or connected or cool or secure with your product, but such messages also mean users feel dispersed, disconnected, mundane, or unsafe without your product. You are necessarily creating a negative user experience in order to sell the positive experiences. For example:

  • By posting friend counts on your social site like Facebook does, you’re sending the message that the more the better. That’s great for a business that relies on broad social networks to be profitable, but it also creates negative experiences for anyone with low friend counts, making them feel inadequate or unpopular. If such users attempt to rectify this by friending anyone they can, they are left with a social network of people they -more negative experiences.
  • Linked-In displays a metric of  the amount of information users supply on their profiles as “profile completeness,” encouraging users to submit more. For a business based on selling user data, that’s a good thing, but in the meantime it creates anxiety in the users: they’re wondering if they are hurting their chances of getting a job by being “incomplete.” Inputting more information relieves the anxiety, but I wonder if the feelings of satisfaction -and the chances of getting desirable job offer -are actually no different than if there were no metric displayed and users put in exactly as much information as they felt they should.
  • Andy Rutledge relates his experience in buying shampoo, something that, like most products for most consumers, really doesn’t matter to him. Nonetheless, he was paralyzed when confronted with so many choices and features in the shampoo aisle -each shampoo’s packaging had successfully communicated the message that it had Important Differences and he feared making a Wrong Choice, which of course would be dreadful. So powerful was the emotional message that Rutledge evidently forgot that if shampoo doesn’t matter to him, then it doesn’t matter to him. Picking a random bottle is good enough. Picking a cheap one is even better. Not buying any and using bar soap is best. But no: instead his experience included anxiety, time, and effort wasted trying to understand shampoos, which he really didn’t want to understand.

Consumers who are savvy to the ways of marketing messages aren’t much better off. Yes, their self-perceptions are unaffected by having low friend counts or the wrong shampoo, but they’ll worry about what others will think -the friends, bosses, and dates -who they can’t count on being immune to the messages. This has practical impact on the users because how these people think of them affects their life experiences. It’s not so much that they are colluding with marketers as compelled to play a game they don’t believe in.

In summary, there is conservation of experience in these systems. To build up positive experiences out of nothing, you have to dig a hole of  negative experiences.

Re-commitment to Reality

To actually produce a net improvement in experience, something has to be brought into the system from outside -you have to do something that actually improves reality for the users. This is the way to avoid the ethical ambiguities of emotional design: to return to the notion that emotions such as satisfaction depend ultimately on what actually happens, on what the product does for the user, not the messages we create. Reality matters.

Do not design the product to be a communication between the users and the designer or corporation. The point of design is to make something that works, not to have a conversation between designer and user. Users don’t want to communicate with corporations through their products. They want to have their real-life needs fulfilled by using their products.

Do not assume that satisfaction as expressed by the user (e.g., on a survey) is a direct measure of true satisfaction. Perceiving oneself to be happier with Design A rather than Design B in a test doesn’t necessarily mean one will be happier with Design A rather than Design B. The UX specialist needs to consider other measures, like time to completion and accuracy, to judge the true experience.

At the same time, I’m not sounding a retreat back into usability engineering, leaving the broader field of user experience to marketing or any other discipline. Reality includes more than efficiency, learnability, memorability, and accuracy. It also includes enjoying an attractive design or a fun activity. By re-committing ourselves to reality,  I don’t mean we ignore the subjective experience. I mean we avoid artificial experiences. This means two things which often play off each other:

  • Real motives, not artificial motives. Real user motives are naturally pre-existing needs and wants your users have. Artificial motives are needs or wants you create through your messages. Here I’m using the term “artificial” to mean “manufactured rather than naturally occurring.”
  • Real fulfillment, not artificial fulfillment. Real fulfillment means your product actually fulfills the real need and wants your users have. Artificial fulfillment means you only appear to fulfill the need or want. Here I’m using “artificial” to mean “having the appearance of, but not the substance.”

Recognizing Artificiality

The archetype of an artificial experience would be the “Hello Kitty” phenomenon, a manufactured entity that fulfills no need except the need for itself. Certainly consumers were attracted to cute characters before Hello Kitty -that’s a real want. However, a desire specifically for Hello Kitty because its Hello Kitty -where nothing else will do -is an artificial want.

When Facebook shows friend counts to motivate users to do things for the business rather than for themselves, they’re creating an artificial experience. No one “needed” a large number of “friends” on Facebook until they started it. You can use metrics to motivate user behavior but the metrics should be tied to real needs and wants. For example Linked-in suggests their “profile completeness” metric helps users increase their job opportunities (although I don’t know if I believe them).

Designing for short perceived task completion is an artificial experience. It does not fulfill the users’ real desire for more free time to do other things. We seek to improve experiences whether our users know it or not. This isn’t a license to become arrogant dictator-designers that ignore the wishes of the people -we still must answer to the data collected from our users, but the data should be used to determine real needs and wants, and their fulfillment.

Designing for minimized real task completion time rather the perceived task completion time does not preclude other means of improving the subjective experience. If your product interaction is slow and dull (e.g., a slow installation procedure), and you can’t make it faster, then you can make it more entertaining so users aren’t bored. Or perhaps better, you can make it easier for users to perform other tasks or seek other entertainment while using your product (e.g., by lumping all installation interaction together and providing accurate feedback on time remaining for the system to complete installation). However, reducing boredom  is fulfilling a different need than maximizing free time.

Artificial scarcity is creating an artificial experience of value: the “need” for something “rare” is manufactured by making the product scarce. The real experience of value comes from satisfying real needs. Trapping a user with sunk costs likewise is manufacturing a need to avoid a lost investment.  Adding useless features to a product in order to have more bullets on the packaging is creating an artificial want for the user -the user didn’t want these features until you listed them on the package. Adding excessively complicating features is artificial fulfillment of the user’s needs and wants. The additional complication reduces usability so that users can’t use the features; the product is promising capability that it cannot deliver. Similarly, changing a product just to be new or “fresh” is artificial fulfillment, exploiting the user expectation that “new” implies improved (i.e., more needs fulfilled, or needs fulfilled better) while not in fact improving anything real for the user.

Total Public Experience

One test you can do to see if you’re designing artificial experiences is to ask yourself if you’re designing to sell or designing to use. A commitment to real experiences means that we should design products to be used, not design them to be sold. We need to recognize that what produces a positive result at the point of sale is not necessarily what produces a positive result in daily use. Apple, for example, makes its iPods and iPhones smooth, rounded, shiny, which makes them visually attractive so they sell in stores. However, it also makes them slippery and shiny surfaces show scratches easily. Users adapt by purchasing aftermarket plastic cases to protect the finish of their iPods and iPhones and to make them easier to hold on to. However, by hiding them in ugly cases, they’ve defeated the pleasure of them being smooth and shiny for daily use. Touchscreens, likewise seem like the cat’s pajamas for everything when the user takes a test spin before buying. Only after regular use do they discover that accumulated finger prints can counteract their advantages. Windows Vista, I’m convinced, deviated from the more orderly and effective design standards of Windows XP in order to look more attractive in demos.

Designing to sell means focusing on the conversion, branding, and trust, not the user getting real user wants and needs. Anytime these are used as an index of user experience you need to stop and consider that maybe the user doesn’t want to be converted, doesn’t need to know the brand, and maybe shouldn’t be trusting it. You can get more people to click by labeling a link “Click Here,” but that strong call to action doesn’t mean all users really want what they get after clicking there. You can increase conversions by reducing all distractions on the page to increase focus on the call to action, but maybe those “distractions” were really helping the user decide if they should act as called. Do not equate experience with branding. There is much more to experiencing a product than associating it with a particular maker, and indeed a user can have a positive real experience without any branding at all.

If not enough users are using your site, maybe you should first focus on providing a better real experience for users using your site, not superficially jazzing up the visual design to appear to deliver a better experience. If you need better differentiation of your product’s brand, then you better differentiate your products not the appearance of the website for the products. Make a page look or act different just to be different hurts usability and delivers artificial differentiation. To give your users real different and better experience, give them content they can’t read in Wikipedia; give them merchandise they can’t purchase on Amazon. Failing that, give them better service. Or better usability.

We need to think less about features and more about capability and task fulfillment. Designing to include a list of features is designing to sell, attempting to make the product look good on the package by having plenty of bullet points. For regular use, however, the question is what goals the user can accomplish and how well can they accomplish them.

Don’t let them tell you usability is done once users successfully complete the task, such as making it to the end of Check Out. That may be all the business cares about, since it’s not the business’s time that’s being wasted with a slow and awkward check out UI. However, users care about speed, tolerance (low frustration), and accuracy (did they actually get what they wanted).

More than expanding our concern from the point of sale to the lifecycle of use, we should also consider the experience beyond merely using the product. This means we seek to improve the total public experience. We commit ourselves to the principle that the purpose of design is the make the world a net better place for everyone. We consider not only the experience of those that have the product but also those that do not. Of course we design different products that benefit different people because individuals have different interests and taste. However we don’t design messages that divide people into popular and ostracized, cool and square, or good and bad. We consider the experience of people affected by production, advertising, distribution, acquisition, and disposal of the product, as well as its use.

Emotional Design Remains Important

In the context of fulfilling real users needs and wants, emotional design serves two important purposes:

  • Providing an attractive product. Users have an inherent desire for beautiful things. Part of a real user experience is a beautiful experience. It’s okay to change a product purely to make it look, sound, or feel better. The main trick to avoiding artificiality is to achieve lasting timeless beauty and avoid fashions.
  • Accurately communicate real performance of the product. By indicating through design how the product performs, users can anticipate what needs and desires it fulfills.

For the second bullet, emotional design should serve functional design. Marketing in general and advertising in particular are good as long as they are done honestly. The primary purpose of a product should not be for the business to communicate with the customer -that is not the primary need customers have. However, it is desirable for the business to accurately communicate what a product can do for the customer. This allows the consumer to acquire the correct products for themselves and use the products correctly, maximizing the product’s utility and total public experience. You cannot assume that you don’t need marketing because your product is so good it’ll sell itself. In a world where consumers are saturated with information, you need to deliberately open channels of communication for potential customers to be even vaguely aware of your product. Indeed, if your product is truly so good, that’s the responsible thing to do. You should do good emotional product design, which means the emotional messages should be consistent with the product’s real performance. For example, accurate information presented by the product should look accurate; unreliable information should look unreliable.

As another example, consider the touchscreen on Apple’s iPhone, which, fingerprints to the contrary, represents a pretty effective design solution to providing a good web-browsing experience on a pocket-sized device. Having arrived at a usable solution, Apple used its emotional design and marketing mastery to promote the touchscreen as The Thing to have -so successfully that it created a fashion that others would follow. That’s what you want to do: don’t use emotional design to follow a fashion; create the best real experience you can and use emotional design to communicate its desirability.

This is in effect what IDEO did on a smaller scale with its redesign of the UI of Bloomberg terminals for securities traders. The UI was primitive and difficult to use, but this was a status symbol -users took pride in mastering the UI because this was associated with being among elite top traders. It was important to traders for others to see the distinct UI glowing on their desks. This presented a dilemma for IDEO: if they improved the usability, users wouldn’t accept the loss in status; if they deliberately crippled the usability, then they would be creating an artificial experience. IDEO solution to the dilemma was to maximize usability, but also provide a display of the users’ current level of expertise with the system. Users got improved performance while retaining a status symbol.

I would have also recommended rolling out the new UI with a highly publicized head-to-head showdown against the old UI to dramatically demonstrate the new UI’s superior performance and thus communicating that serious traders -those that aren’t just out to impress others -should want to switch to the new. Call it a marketing gimmick if you like, but it’s an honest gimmick with a truthful message. This is different from an artificial experience, where a business wants the user to perceive that their product performs like an X when it actually doesn’t, so the business uses emotional design to associate the product with X. Instead we should make a product that in fact does perform like an X, then use emotional design to communicate that.

“Persuasive” design is acceptable as long as it is fully truthful, which means it’s not so much persuasive design as educational design. If your message is that your product improves the user’s sex appeal, then it better improve the user’s sex appeal, and not just because you’ve been advertising heavily to convince everyone it improves sex appeal. Your emotional design should be equally clear about when the product is not right for the user as when it is.

Limited Stops on the Clue Train

There are those who believe that fulfilling real needs with real solutions is simply good business sense. A squad of business and tech journalists argue that the web has leveled the playing field between consumer and business. With information so easy to broadcast and so easy to access, businesses have lost the capacity to manipulate consumers with artificial perceptions. From now on, successful businesses will only communicate honestly with consumers. This resonates with UX specialists (including me) whose business justification comes down to treating customers right so that they buy more. We take it as a matter of faith.

There is agreement on this coming from a surprising corner of the business world: marketing. Back in the 1980s, well before the web, there was a small revolution in marketing, characterized by a shift away from “pushing” existing products onto consumers by sticking the right messages on the products, to letting customers “pull” products from the business, in which marketing determines consumers’ real needs through research and then develops innovative products to fulfill them. In this approach, the marketer is the “customer advocate,” the one voice arguing for the needs of the customer against other business interests like pleasing shareholders. This has evolved more recently into the concept of a “customer-centered” company, where all employees are involved in determining and creating the means to fulfill consumer needs.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It would seem that while usability engineering grew into user experience, there was a parallel development in marketing, with both converging on the notion that a corporation exists to make its customers happy. I have to believe there is something to the idea.

At the same time, part of me remains skeptical. If there’s one thing I learned from the field of UX it’s that, in the affairs of humanity, it depends. The most effective course of action always depends. There is never one design, one pattern, one strategy that works for everything. I can believe that being real with customers is best for many businesses, and I can believe that it’s best for more business now than it used to be, but I doubt it’s best for all business for all products and all markets.

This isn’t a problem with marketing, so thinking that you don’t “do marketing” is not going to make you immune. You’ll do ethically better if you acknowledge your overlap with marketing and use their own ethical standards as a guide. The sins of marketers is just a reflection of the fundamental conflict between consumer and business –that each wants to get the most from the other for the least cost. Businesses, by their sheer wealth and organization are more powerful than a dispersed field of consumers, even if they are connected by the web. It’s part of capitalism, and capitalism, to appropriate from Winston Churchill, is the worse form of economy, except for everything else we’ve tried.

We’re told that “design thinking” is the next competitive advantage, that the capacity to leap to the next innovation will keep consumers pulling ever more products from the corporation. But looking across technological history, I see that innovation for a particular technology occurs in streaks and pauses. Over-the-counter drugs for headaches, for example, have not substantially changed over the past 30 years. Even on the web, less than 20 years after it went mainstream, we are seeing commoditization of e-commerce. It makes little difference where I buy things on the web. One site is as good (or as bad) as the other. We’ve all settled on a conservative mediocre e-commerce web site design, much like all of Detroit settled on a conservative mediocre car design through the 1960s and 1970s.

Design is touted as a way to differentiate, and it’s not like we can’t improve the average e-commerce site. Functionally superior design like one with better usability might give a competitive edge, but how does a user know one site will be more usable than another? If I knew (or could remember) beforehand which sites use a consistent color for links and which allow spaces in my credit card number, I’d go to them first, but little things like that are not apparent from the home page.

In any case, despite successful establishment of user experience in the corporate world, I don’t see a lot of business interest in usability. Maybe the problem isn’t that no further innovation is possible, but rather that businesses see better return from other means to capture the market, maybe by using emotional design to create artificial needs and fulfillment. It may make more business sense to shift from communicating to users what the site has (let alone making it easy to get to it) to convincing users that they want whatever the site has (e.g., the users of this site are so cool). Persuasive design, for example, can convince consumers they still need the latest thing, and that can only mean more features. Failing that, emotional design can push fashion. Emotional design is superficial: consumers can see it in the first glance of the web page or the package. True functional innovation is harder for users to notice.

One proven method to making a butt-load of money is to screw your customers just enough so they don’t notice, or at least don’t resent it too much. In other words, you just have to avoid creating the experience of being screwed. Sounds like a job for a UX specialist, huh? Sometimes usability is bad for business. Success as measured by market share doesn’t necessarily correlate with providing the best product to the consumer. The web might help level the playing field, but if you’re clever enough, you can use the web to amplify deceitful sales practices. Is Facebook the best social app technically possible today? Or just good enough to be tolerable?

All this is a long way of saying that you may personally find yourself unable to truthfully argue that creating real experiences for your users is necessarily the best business strategy in your situation. You may already feel pressures in your professional life to create artificial experiences. I fear that such pressures are but a bite from a red mosquito to what’s coming up. There are fads in the business world too, strategies that come in and go out of vogue, like cost-cutting, out-sourcing, re-engineering, and TQM. Each may have some merit to a certain degree or for certain circumstances, but they each go through a cycle of being indiscriminately over-hyped then forgotten.

We may be in a rare period when new marketing and UX are in vogue and more businesses are pursuing more honest relations with their customers than is necessarily the most profitable. I suspect the clue businesses are learning is not that the web means they must make products that truly fulfill needs. Instead they may conclude that they have to learn new ways to manipulate customers.

For instance, they’ll need to figure out how to create buzz -how to get the key bloggers, the Facebookers, the Twits, and the customer-raters to favorably evaluate their products. Businesses already do their best to manipulate professional product reviewer/journalists in magazines now. A bunch of amateurs can’t be too hard. The clue train runs largely on word-of-mouth, where the sound of countless of voices are aggregated by the web. The members of the crowd behind the word-of-mouth are concerned about their self-presentation. If and how someone comments on a product depends on how cool they think it would make them appear. Being unpaid, there is little else to motivate commenting. This in theory makes them susceptible to manipulation. You only have to send the right messages so that the right comments appear cooler. The actual experiences the crowd member has are irrelevant.

The bottomline is we need to be prepared. The suits are invading. We will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.

An Ethical Imperative

Or maybe resistance isn’t futile. I believe we UX specialists can avoid the Dark Side if we proactively establish what we stand for and what we’re obligated to do. If we can’t have faith that what’s good for the user (or for the public) is good for the company, then we better understand what’s good for the users, and not let ourselves get swept into a role that only answers to the needs of business.

First of all, we should reject hit man ethics that just because our employers pay us, we are only responsible to our employers (or their shareholders). It should be self-evident that ethical behavior applies to all people we affect, whether they are providing us direct deposit or not. We are not responsible for keeping a company in business if it doesn’t actually improve life for its customers. As I’ve said before, if a business can’t remain in business by creating real positive experiences for its customers, then it shouldn’t be in business. Let someone else with less scruples design for them.

Of course we have some ethical obligations to our employers -we are obligated to give them our best attempts at creating positive user experiences. We’re also obligated to be honest with our employers just as we are honest with our users. That includes not promising businesses results that UX cannot provide. We should not be attempting to persuade that good UX is always good for business any more than we should attempt to persuade that all users would benefit from the business’s products. Unless we have reasons to believe a particular real experience in a particular context contributes to higher profits, we shouldn’t make the claim.

Professional ethics are not yet another experience to give our users. It’s something real. It’s not a product of design. It’s something we do when we design. Professional integrity may seem a weak counter to the lure of riches from creating artificial experiences, but it’s all we’ve got.

Summary Checklist

Problem: Maintaining professional ethics and not losing the soul of user experience to corporate pressures.

Potential Solutions:

  • Declare that:
    • The purpose of design is to make a better world.
    • UX is dedicated to producing the best net total public experience, not just the best sales experience.
    • A company only deserves to exist if actually improves things.
  • Acknowledge that moving from usability to user experience puts us at risk of advocating businesses’ interests over the users’.
  • Recognize that sometimes a positive user experience isn’t always the same as a positive business experience, but it is still the right thing to do.
  • Design to provide real fulfillment of real needs and wants, not artificial fulfillment of artificial needs and wants.
    • Design products to be used, not to be sold.
    • Use emotional design to:
      • Satisfy real emotional needs, such as aesthetic needs.
      • Communicate the real benefits and limitations of our designs.

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