Why the User Experience Can or Cannot be Designed

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This article was originally and in full length published on Usabilla.

It seems an endless discussion whether user experience can be designed or not. The difficulty of the discussion lies in the level of abstraction since everything is an experience and everyone is a user. There is no standard definition, nor consensus among the practitioners, of what experience design really is.

In this article I hope to shed some light on the issue. I will share my thoughts about the difficulties to design a user experience and give some practical tips to overcome these challenges.

The challenge behind User Experience

Let me start with a little story: I briefly worked as a student for a company which provides cable television, high speed Internet and telecom services. One day, they decided to plan in-person user testing sessions to find out how people use digital television. When testing started, they furnished the room with a big couch, some closets, frames, a nice carpet, lamps, the whole works. Making it as comfortable as possible by copying the home environment, they tried to avoid any external incentives that could influence the test.

User testing session

User testing session in the living room – Source picture: facit-digital.com


The thing is, if I come home from a long and warm day at work, I sometimes put on some comfortable running shorts, make a cold gin tonic and put on the TV. I wouldn’t consider doing this if I were to be participating in one of their user research tests. The real question of course is whether my running shorts have any influence on me using the remote control. But fact is, no matter how hard you try to recreate reality for a user research session, it will always remain an artificial setting to some extent.

While some products (like a home theater system) are used in a specific place, surfing the Internet or using mobile applications isn’t. Mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets are used almost anywhere. We can’t always control the context of a product, even if we did know where products are being used.

With traditional methods, such as observation, interviews and surveys we learn to understand people and how they experience the product. We can alter the product according the test results but does that mean we improved the experience for everyone?

The experience depends on so much more than aesthetics only. User Experience is about emotion, involvement, physical and social interaction, engagement, cognitive and perceptual psychology, … User experience is not only about the product, it’s also about the situation the product is being used and the person who is using it.

The context of use

Let’s take Mailchimp’s approach and why they implemented humor and informal copy into their system. By introducing Freddie, the chimp mascot, they gave the website a personality which makes an interface feel more human. Mailchimp found out that customers actually remembered their experiences with the mail services better.

Emotional Design by Mailchimp

Emotional Design by Mailchimp

Does this mean that formatting and sending emails with Mailchimp was easier and therefore experienced as being better? Or worse? We can never really predict that the application will be perceived as being fun because users have different standards. That is why Mailchimp integrated the Party Pooper Mode to switch it off.

The user

The context is volatile and thus not under our control, as I previously explained. Neither can we design the person who is using it. People have different expectations, goals, opinions, perceptions, abilities and need a different stimulation to use the product. Ask 10 people what they thought about this article and you’ll get 5 different answers.

So can we design User Experience or not?

A good description comes from Helge Fredheim, a front-end developer who wrote his thesis about User Experience patterns, telling us that we can’t design UX but that we can design for UX. As he further explains: “The difference between designing UX and designing for UX is subtle but important. It can help us understand and remind us of our limitations. It can help us think of how we want the UX to be.”

“We can’t design UX, but we can design for UX.”
Helge Fredheim

Personally I believe, with current knowledge of different scientific fields, we can manipulate people in using the product in a certain manner. We could even try to guide them in perceiving it the way we would like them to. But the real question still stands: we have an idea of what the perfect experience should be like but will it be valued the same way by all our users? Isn’t that simply making decisions with the aim of achieving a certain experiential outcome?

Designing for UX: The solution

Designing the ultimate and perfect UX is kind of an utopia but there are a few things you could do to come close to the impossible.

For the full article, please visit the original publication on Usabilla.

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Paul Olyslager

Paul is the creator, editor and most regular writer of paulolyslager.com. He's also working as UX Lead for Home24, a leading online shop for furniture and home accessories, based in Berlin, Germany. Read all about Paul or find him on Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook.

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No responses yet to “Why the User Experience Can or Cannot be Designed”

  1. Steve says

    I would say this is a problem with any experiment. You try to eliminate as many confounding variables as possible. Typically, the possible confounds for the experiment would be listed in the discussion portion of the paper on a scientific experiment if I remember correctly. When compiling a test report it would probably be good to write it up as you would a scientific paper listing the possible confounds in order to better understand what has not been accounted for in the study. I believe that’s what we did in human factors experiments back in school, but it’s been a while.

  2. @Steve: Thanks for the great tip Steve. I used to mention this in the definition of the test itself but it really makes sense to add the different confounds to a separate list.

  3. subashchandra says

    thanks for ur valuable information shared.I think user experience cant be designed but can be designed for user.
    this is because when some designs some product the users experience the design.so,i would like to say that ux can be designed for user.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

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