Treadmill thinking that passes for UX

I wonder. Why would a human centered designer title an article ‘The UX of Data’? I don’t even know what it would mean. Would you?

Scott Jenson’s recent article in UX magazine – both in title and in content – would indicate he believes that experience is a noun. So, presumably who ever edits at UX Magazine must agree with him, given the top billing this issue. Yet a quick lookup, at a garden variety dictionary, reminds us yep, that experience is still a verb:

Definition of experience (verb) forms: experienced; experienced; experiencing   

to try; to live through; to feel; to endure

Words that function as both noun and verb are common. I can fill out a form (noun). Or, I can help to form a line (verb). Which may explain why we don’t raise an eyebrow when one usage is conflated with the other. It is like we are unable to look up from our treadmill, because we need to keep the hamster cage spinning.

But experience is plainly a verb. User is plainly a noun. Even when the noun modifies the verb, the phrase describes the possessive nature of a verb. N’est ce pas?

Yet Scott explains – and hundreds maybe thousands of others who agree with him – that UX-as-a-noun is an imaginary layer that lives somewhere in between ‘the graphic design’ and ‘the industrial design’ of a product. Huh? If that doesn’t seem weird to you, then step away from the treadmill for a minute and take another look.

I can think of four reasons, to challenge this orthodoxy.

Conflating means with ends

We are witnessing and participating in a shift toward interface objects that are glowing, touchable, rectangles. This paradigm is weaning us from ‘the keyboard + mouse’ or any other indirect means of control. OK. Good. At least, in some cases.

But the ‘touch screen’ is only one means of affording a user with buttons, and handles, on the same ‘layer’ as live-media (and data about the mode of a system we are using). When we close our imaginations to other means, we suppress the discovery of the new.

Consider the experience of enjoying movies or TV shows in a living room with others.

Tablets and smartphones can make movies, TV shows and home videos surprisingly portable and enjoyable ‘to experience’ on the road – for an individual. But is a 50” glowing, touchable, rectangle a better design concept for your living room than what you have now? Considering the distance from sofa to screen… unlikely.

More to the point: is a touchable surface of a would-be-television-concept, a ‘user experience’? Please. I hope not.

Not so cross-disciplinary.

When we cleave apart the ways that people experience a product – by design discipline and business function – we instill separate interpretations of how one brand should ‘design for human experience’. 

These divisions beget contempt-among-design-partners, not integrated-design-thinking. This is when product definition and design production wobbles and falls apart. And more dangerously, when larger ecologies fail to form – or create value.

Listen to Carol Bartz diagnosis of Yahoo!  (from  John Battele) “the company… was a compilation of fundamentally disconnected vertical silos, each with its own P&L, codebase, infrastructure, and culture. It was nearly impossible to roll out products that cut across…because each instance required custom integration and coding. Yahoo was literally broken underneath, even as it looked consistent at the UI layer.”

Whoa. Did she just say that word again? Layer? 

Product first. System later.

Perceiving the UX as a noun, narrows the perspective of use of a system to one type of actor. The consumer as user alone.

Not the third party developer, nor the network operator, nor the media publisher, nor the content producer, to name a few. And that is the reason why, products designed without a system in mind, are the easiest to copy.

And if you love your user, pause for a second because these products are the least interesting ones to experience.

Treadmill thinking.

When ‘interfaces’ are nouns they are designed without service to actual behavioral patterns of people. And as their UX designers we are guilty of contradiction. When we adopt stock phrases like ‘the UX of data’, [or any ‘the noun of noun’ combo you like] we let someone else think for us.

We are no longer talking about user experience. We are talking about what it is like to operate a device – devoid of human understanding. (perhaps  this more accurately called the system experience). This distinction is not a small one. It was what inspired human centered design in the first place. Treadmill thinking betrays a truth that no user was ever studied in the design process – before the design team has made up their mind.

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