This time, I’ll start with the thesis: experiences are not products. Yes, I am intentionally trying to be provocative, but it’s because the design of a user experience is comprised of so much more than just what’s contained by the “box” of your product. And it’s critical that companies really start thinking about what’s “outside the box” if they have any hope of making substantive improvements to the growth of their businesses.
The “UX is not UI” Maxim
A common scenario that you often hear about as a designer is how a company CEO cares deeply about the design of their products, but is utterly uninterested in things like user research and usability testing. Certainly, someone caring about design is not inherently a problem (it’s good that people care), but to not consider research and testing as integral to design, it relegates designers to primarily playing the role of a stylist.
Let’s not knock stylists either. Some people really like that aspect of design. I’ve worked with plenty of designers who don’t really want to think about broader problems and just want to focus their energy on selecting the perfect typeface and color palette for a product. Great for them! But then lets not kid ourselves. Those kinds of roles are not user experience or interaction design roles.
Too often people come into the design field looking to solve problems, but only by focusing on what’s in the box. And any improvements to the design of a product are just about optimizing the shape and form of that box. As I’ve already stated, making a nicer looking box is fine. Small, minor optimizations are sometimes all you have time for, and it can maybe help you squeeze out a few more dollars per month. But if that’s *all* you do or if you’re a CEO and that’s *all* you allow your designers to do, then be prepared to be out-gunned by other products.
So, to prevent that from happening, let’s talk about what experiences are about.
Before and After
Experiences are not products. People’s experiences start before they touch your product, and end long after they stop using it. So when you sit down to design something, you really need to understand what’s happening before and after someone uses the thing you’re designing. This establishes context for the product, and helps you understand the Why, which is the most important part of a design.
Currently, I work on in-car experiences, to help develop the next generation of interactions that people will have with their automobiles. It is of course very easy to get wrapped up in a discussion that focuses only on how to improve the in-car navigation system (for example). But more importantly, to really understand how to improve on the in-car experience, it is far more useful to have a discussion of what someone was doing before even getting in the car, and what they hope to do after getting out of the car, so that we can design an in-car system that better suits the situation.
A more conventional way to think of it is like this:
People always like to toss around the “Design is problem solving” mantra. And I do agree that your product should probably solve a problem for a particular market segment, but too often I see product teams focus solely on the solution (a.k.a. solutioneering) while ignoring the rest of the whole scenario.
Instead of just trying to think of solutions to things, consider why something is a problem in the first place so that you can frame the problem in the right context. Think about the goal that someone has before even touching your product. Then try to understand after they stop using your product, how quickly and efficiently do they get direct value from using your solution to solve their problem. Only by understanding the full scenario in this way, do you hope to have any chance of effectively solving someone’s problems.
Solutions need not be an interface!
Lastly, I want to close on this point. We discussed this topic on the podcast, but if you have not listened to that show, you should most definitely read this book by Golden Krishna. To summarize, in order to design a proper solution, it is usually best to design something that interferes as little as possible with their overall experience. What do I mean by interfere? In this case, it involves forcing people through all kinds of interfaces before they get to accomplish something.
In his book, Golden Krishna describes all kinds of products that do this (many of them are no longer available on the market) along with describing scenarios where apps and interfaces actually get in the way of people going about their day. The “No UI” solution to many things is to create technology that supports or enhances our everyday experiences. Referring to my earlier diagrams, if we take the time to consider the entirety of someone’s experience when we design technology products, we may just yet have a chance to accomplish that!