While attending CES, I had a minor epiphany regarding the intersection of design and technology; something new I’d not considered and which I thought might be of interest to others. However, in the course of attempting to distill my thoughts into something digestible, it occurred to me that misunderstandings might (probably would) arise from the various definitions and interpretations which accompany so many common design terms these days. How does one communicate an idea when the terms used to explain it have lost their meaning?

In hopes of improving communication in general, I decided to focus less on the fun stuff for now and instead slog through some design terminology in the hope that those who visit this blog might at least better understand what’s trying to be communicated, even if there is disagreement on how some terms are properly defined.

So, let’s get started.

Design Terminology: User Experience

Unlike another currently popular term, “User Experience” seems to have grown from a tiny weed into a jungle all on its own, without the head of a large design firm championing it or a journalist trumpeting it at every self-serving opportunity. Peter Merholz, co-founder of Adaptive Path, researched the term’s etymology and posted his findings- in 1998.

From Merholz’s post:

“the earliest reference I found was a 1995 CHI proceedings paper, wherein Don [Norman] and a couple colleagues write an organizational overview where theycover some of the critical aspects of human interface research and application at Apple or, as we prefer to call it, the “User Experience.”

Importantly, Merholz took the time to ask Norman why the term was even coined.

I invented the term because I thought Human Interface and usability were too narrow: I wanted to cover all aspects of the person’s experience with a system, including industrial design, graphics, the interface, the physical interaction, and the manual.

Norman’s response is important in that he specifically calls out the need for a term that is both narrow in its concern (“the person’s experience”) and wide in its application (“all aspects”). However, he goes on to lament:

Since then, the term has spread widely, so much so that it is starting to lose its meaning.

Again, this was in 1998, and already the term “User Experience” was in trouble according to its originator. Things don’t appear to have improved over time, based on the opening paragraph of the term’s original Wikipedia entry from 2006:

User Experience Design is a subset of the field of Experience Design which pertains to the creation of the architecture and interaction models which impact a user’s perception of a digital device or system.

The way I read this explanation, Norman’s original intent of “covering all aspects of a person’s experience” has been either misunderstood or forgotten, because what we have in the above entry is a fairly narrow definition as to which elements of a system – specifically, a digital one – might impact a user’s experience. While it appears there might be an out in calling “User Experience Design” a subset of “Experience Design”, the truth is that the superset is equally narrow.

The current Wikipedia entry for “Experience Design” lacks expert-level references, however, a quick search yields a book, conveniently titled Experience Design, with the following endorsement attached to it:

With Experience Design, Nathan Shedroff has designed and written a book for those in the digital and related design professions, especially those creating online and interactive media… [Link]

Amusingly enough, the original Wikipedia entry for “Experience Design” described something quite different:

Experience design is an approach to the design of products, services and environments based on a holistic consideration of the users’ experience. Experience design is therefore driven by consideration of the ‘moments’ of engagement between people and brands, and the memories these moments create. Also known as experiential marketing, customer experience design, experiential design, brand experience.

Here, the author indicates the activity is a commercial one; focused on brand and marketing concerns and an apparent desire to provide consumers with a sufficiently pleasant experience to turn them into repeat customers.

In 2007, Norman once again commented on the larger “experience” definition problem:

Yes, user experience, human centered design, usability; all those things, even affordances. They just sort of entered the vocabulary and no longer have any special meaning. People use them often without having any idea why, what the word means, its origin, history, or what it’s about. [Link]

As a designer who has worked on everything from complex digital security systems (with touchscreen interfaces) to simplistic, single-piece rotomolded furniture, I find it amazing that the world seems to have an extraordinarily difficult time thinking of User Experience Design, or Experience Design, as an activity which can extend to non-digital, non-electronic devices or systems lacking a touchscreen interface. It’s as if none of the people putting constraints on Norman’s original definition have ever had to use a cheap car jack on the broken asphalt of a busy highway during rush hour, or been unable to get the toilet paper roll to turn inside the necessary security containment device in an airport restroom as their plane is boarding.

The only thing I can imagine is that a significant number of people struggle to separate the general idea from the specific circumstances which led Norman to coin the term.

What do I mean?

Norman was working at Apple, and while for many people working in product development Norman’s impact on design is hugely influential, to those people specifically working within the computer industry who were highly focused on a user interface primarily comprised of a 2D CRT screen and 2D mouse, Norman’s new term related only to the kind of system on which he was working and which led him to coin the term. Hence the inexplicable need to limit the context to a “digital device” or an “IT system”. I can imagine someone thinking, “User Experience Design must be unique to digital devices and IT systems because the term was only coined after these things were invented. If UX was so important to other industries, then why didn’t the term exist prior to 1995?”

To answer that question, I’d propose that the reason the term “User Experience Design” wasn’t used significantly prior to 1995 is because for a large number of people designing non-electronic, non-computer-based systems, the term was redundant given that Industrial Designers, Graphic Designers, Interior Designers, Architects and others to some degree considering the user’s experience as integral to their design effort.

This leads us down an occupational description rabbit hole which is worth discussing at some other time, but for now I’d offer this:

While people inside the computer industry began using “User Experience” in a limited way, and designers specifically involved in web page design and screen-based application interfaces came to be labeled (especially by Human Resources placing job ads) as “User Experience Designers”, folks like me began feeling a little defensive. Our profession, Industrial Design, was essentially born of the manufacturing industry’s recognition that having an advocate representing people who would use their products was in their best interest; someone who could bring not only aesthetics and fashion to the table, but also practicality and usability. It’s worth mentioning that Henry Dreyfuss wrote Designing for People in 1955, and published his The Measure of Man ergonomic reference in 1960. Thus, to many non-styling focused industrial designers, the human experience with the manufactured product was our domain.

Today, when I see a person who has only ever designed a 2D interface claim to be a “user experience expert”, I’m doubtful. How can someone be a user experience expert if the worlds in which their solutions live are contained within a 2D frame oblivious to human 3D physicality? How many UX “experts” ask themselves what a product/process smell will be, or if a grip texture will provide psychological reinforcement? Does experience stop at the screen’s edge? Does the screen’s tint, anti-glare coating, use of high-contrast components, or type of technology (TFT, e-ink, etc.) not affect the user’s total experience? Recall Norman’s reason for coining the term, “I wanted to cover all aspects of the person’s experience with a system, including industrial design”.

So while Industrial Design as a profession grew from early manufacturing’s desire to address a person’s experience with their products, that those products have become more sophisticated – electronic or digital – is irrelevant. They’re still products of industry. I’ve never seen a computer screen that wasn’t a result of a manufacturing effort.

That said, I believe User Experience Design, or just Experience Design, extends beyond industry. While Industrial Design might be an appropriate umbrella for everyone else working on the products of industry, the profession doesn’t encapsulate architecture, interior design, service design, and other endeavors. Furthermore, as we enter a world in which people can customize a product (for better or worse) and have it delivered to their door, or download a digital file to be used in their personal fabber – a post-industrial design world – the human experience remains the most important consideration; even more so. It supersedes them all.

It’s a shame the term has been so badly compromised; however, going forward, when I use the term “User Experience”, I’ll try to honor Don Norman’s intent, whether or not you agree.

[Note: The quoted portion in the title for this blog entry is a quote from Marc Miquel’s UX Magazine article “Dark UX: The Elements of the Video Gambling Experience“, which I stumbled upon while looking for inspiration for an accompanying image. I found his example so appropriate and so compelling that I decided to model and render my own gambling machine for this entry. Also, I’d like to thank Mr. Norman for taking the time to read the final draft of this blog post and confirming I understood his intent. It was very much appreciated.]