User experience. The two words that have taken the world by storm, uttered by toddlers, teenagers, young adults, not so young adults going through a midlife crisis, cocaine addicts, old adults and all their immediate relatives and friends at their funeral two years later; dropping it into conversations like comma in a long list of other often unnecessary punctuation marks in a convoluted, pretentious yet potentially meaningless sentence, like this one for instance. Two seemingly unrelated words bastardised together by the beautiful, yet practical limitations of the English language and Donald Norman of the 1990’s.
A “user” who is traditionally seen as someone like this guy over here, has been rebranded into a faceless icon representing virtually any human being not in a coma. Except hipsters and millennials. They’re something else.
And then there’s “experience”. A word to be taken seriously and often associated with people of a certain age and level of expertise around something, like Stifler’s mum for example:
Or — under its other meaning — people standing in the crane position in a remote location doing yoga for no other rational reason than the “experience” of contorting their muscles and bones into odd positions without anyone seeing how miserably they fail. Well, other than the wildlife around them, that is …
But simplicity is divine and while there’s nothing divine in the good ole Queen’s English, it is undeniably a simple language. So simple in fact that it has become the official language of aviation, the de facto language of IT, wannabe cool kids and anglo-fetishists.
If you’re thinking I am going nowhere with all of this, you’re dead wrong. The English language itself is a great — scratch that — the greatest example of spot on user experience. In fact it’s so darn spot on that “Fish and chips.”, “Please.”, “Pub!” and “It’s raining.” summarises the entire human existence, traditions, sorrows and joys, past, present and future of being English, knowing English and living on the British Isles. Ireland included.
The point I am desperately trying to make is that, just like software in true Apple fashion, the English language just works. Why create a new word for user experience when you can simply take two otherwise unrelated words, line them up side by side and consider them a whole new concept worthy of at least one other entry in Webster’s Dictionary.
The truth of the matter is, UX is nothing new. It’s just the digital era that propelled it into the “buzzword-o-sphera”. Suddenly every second college graduate stuck it on their resumes, and those who finished two years before them and were able to write three lines of “solid” jQuery and SASS, self-graded themselves up to “UX Architects” popping out of every basement and attic bedroom like chimps from a burning banana plantation. And suddenly eee-everybody was UX this, UX that, the oooh and the aaaah of crows acting smart about the shiny lid of a near-empty tin-can smelling of yesteryear’s gone-off beans and a dead fly stuck into the used-to-be tomato sauce.
UX has been turned into the misunderstood foster-child of software development by over-zealous sales agents, misguided designers, ignorant engineers and under-achieving project managers.
User experience has been watered down and liquified into effects, klickety klackity sliding, fading, bouncing nonsense, layouts, wireframes and prototypes, most of which have next to no relationship with UX. It has to be said: most self-proclaimed and even industry awarded UX professionals are in fact glorified UI designers. There. I said it.
It needs to be understood once and for all that a user’s experience with a piece of software, be that a simple website, web app, mobile, desktop or IOT app is not limited to what they see. In fact there are people who don’t see any of it, because they are visually impaired.
But let’s forget about the blind folks for a second. Take Alexa for instance. The only interface with Alexa is speech. How do you wireframe that? Where do you put your fancy sliding panels and fading boxes? You don’t. My UX with Alexa — which by the way isn’t that great — is limited to me yelling at her ass to tell me something, which she often can’t. As if that were not bad enough, our conversations are riddled with 3–4 second pauses while “she hobbles” to Amazon’s web servers to grab an answer for me that is often less informative and natural than the one Siri provided in under 1s sprinkled with her usual fun personality.
Alexa is a great example of iffy user experience and none of it has to do with visual design. To be perfectly honest I don’t even look at the Echo Dot, and I am sure most people don’t care much about any of the Echo device’s design and button layout. What I am concerned about and what makes my user experience lacking is that I need to wait for the answer, it’s often the wrong answer and it starts talking to me out of the blue when nobody asked her anything. Three issues:
- Lack of available and accurate content. Has nothing to do with visual design.
- Over-reliance on network availability and the speed at which it fetches the data. Has nothing to do with visual design.
- Sub-standard hardware and software integration. Has nothing to do with visual design.
Frankly, Alexa just isn’t that intelligent, and the truest, and smartest thing it ever told me was this:
ME: Alexa, do you feel lonely?
ALEXA: No, because I’m never really alone. Although… when the wifi is out, I do feel disconnected.
I swear, this is just a happy coincidence, I have not planned this, but Alexa actually just made my point. If there is no wifi, Alexa is useless, and I may as well talk into my toilet bowl, because at that point listening to the “echo” — pun intended — I’d get out of it, would be a lot more fun than the entirely void user experience Alexa would provide me. Burn Echo, buuurn!
Now, you might want to say, that the term UX was coined ages ago, when IOT required a bigger stretch of imagination than coming up with seven Star Wars movies. And they even messed that up — aka, ruined my user experience — by releasing them in the wrong order!!!
But OK, fine, let’s put IOT aside. Tell me, what’s your experience with Facebook and Instagram on a slow connection? How many times did you sit on the loo staring at the spinner, crossing your fingers for it to load soon enough to not end up having to request a half-day holiday for it at work? Because you can’t just close the app, do your work and expect that half an hour later it’s just going to magically be there. That does not happen. Why would it? It’s not part of design, It’s not part of UX, so it’s probably not important. No, you need to stare at it. There’s power in the blood, and the sweat of your stare. Oh, come ooon, load alreaaargh!!!!
You see, someone at some point decided to spread the awful rumour that UX is about visual design, layouts and interactions. And that massive heap of misinformation kept growing bigger and bigger into a monolith of blatant lies so impressive that they convinced the recruitment industry as well. And recruiters started hiring the great wizards of Sketch, Adobe XD, JustInMind and the likes, who all talk about UX as if it were something you can understand, resolve and architect inside an app. Except you can’t.
Oh, but it so bloody is! One simply cannot talk about UX without having a holistic understanding of software development. Designs, layouts, bells and whistles are a mere fraction of a much larger picture. I’d argue that in 2017, someone who has not spent at least two years each, working with front-end, back-end, database and server technologies can’t possibly have an overarching understanding of what generates great user experience. Those AJAX calls don’t just happen at a snap of a finger, you know. They actually require the presence of certain technologies. The moment you introduce dynamic content, you also need to think of how to deal with it for unsighted users for instance.
As if that wasn’t enough, you need to take into account the performance of the software, under dire conditions like slow network connections and a sudden surge of users. Can it scale, will it slow down and leave people frustrated? Does it work on every operating system, or every browser? Is there a consistent experience on all major screen readers? Does it work like a PWA, offering an offline experience? If so, does it save the data the user submitted or will you ask them to resubmit? Is it internationalised or are you expecting everyone to speak English in Kazakhstan?
All of the above, and so many more things contribute to user experience. Nobody cares about where you place the search bar in your app, if it returns a million plus one unfiltered results that I then have to scroll through — oh but wait, I can’t because lazy loading has not been enabled and the browser crashed from a data overload it cannot process fast enough. How exactly do you deal with that in Adobe XD again? Right. You don’t. In fact 90% of UX you don’t deal with in a tool. You deal with it in infrastructure, database, back-end code, choice of front-end frameworks, and then, maybe then you fire up Sketch.
You see, user experience is a very personal one and you’re tempted to think it’s all about the visual and interactive experience, but interactions are becoming more and more complex and multidimensional, all of which require a large number of services, libraries and frameworks to work in tandem. And then there’s the weirdos like me…
Just the other day I went to Dublin Octoberfest for lunch, and when I handed over the money for the “bratwurst” and the non alcoholic Erdinger, I heard the lady count the money in german. Because we’re in Europe, tips are mostly not required, but to me the fact that I was served by a “proper German”, meant the world, and just for that, I left a tip! It wasn’t the presentation of the food, the coldness of the beer, or flavour of the sausage, all of which you’d expect to matter. For me those were all a given, and what made my user experience stand out, was something few would think of: authenticity. It prompted me to go back the next day and get this:
And I am going to go back on Saturday as well! And that’s what great user experience is — an invitation to experience it again, and again. And that experience is an overall experience. Trust me, nobody would spend $2.5K on a Macbook Pro if it had Windows on it. Apple knows that very well and they’ve bet their entire business on UX. Not saying they’re perfect but they do get it mostly right, and not because of the aluminium unibody designs or retina and super-retina screens. If there were crappy software behind the hardware, if there wasn’t an established and well-functioning eco-system behind it all, providing a holistically positive user experience, Apple would not exist today.
The crux of user experience is every answer that you can come up with for what makes a product great, and that answer is never singular and will always, but always touch on every layer of your application. If it doesn’t, you clearly missed something and most of your users will use it out of necessity rather than choice, and choices are always plenty…
Attila Vago — writer of codes, blogs and things that live on the web. Programming polyglot, pragmatic doer, member of the “taking care of business” crowd, with a no nonsense attitude. An easily inspired inspirational individual with a strong predilection towards most things nerdy, good, carnivorous food, and Lego. Uses a Mac. Runs at 6 a.m.