UX is for humans and not for cyborgs

cyborg sketch

Have you heard the term “UX” before? I assume that you have. It’s a word that is sprouting up and being sprinkled in lots of places and conversations that have anything to do with product design, be it a web site, a mobile phone app or even some new electronic gadget. UX is not a new thing, in fact it is quite a familiar term used in the context of human interaction with computers. It was Donald A. Norman , the author of “The design of everyday things”, who seems to have popularized those two words almost 20 years ago. However, UX does seem to have become a new buzzword in web development circles. Consequently, the meaning of UX has become a little too diluted and is in danger of losing its meaning.

So what exactly is UX ? UX stands for User eXperience. It can be thought of as the collective sum of interactions that a person has with a product or service they own or use. UX is also so much more than just the user interface design and interaction aspects of a software program or physical widget. UX is composed and derived from of a broad group of interrelated user-centric aspects of a product. This starts right from the very conception of a product, all the way through its life, usage and eventual retirement. UX plays an important role as long as there is human that is searching for, purchasing and using the product or service. That’s right, UX is about people, first and foremost. Real people. Like you. If you care about your business model, your products , your marketing and sales strategy then you care about UX, weather you realize it or not. UX is what transforms mediocre products and services into great products and services and I know you care about that if you do any business at all. That is why it is always worth it.

 In a conversation about UX it is not uncommon that the focus of the conversation is the product, possibly about one or more appealing features. In such a gathering, votes may be cast and studies performed as to why feature x, y and z are worth pursuing, and by consensus the horde goes into an unstoppable implementation stampede. It is only after the dust settles that everyone is left standing and scratching their heads, wondering why this new amazing capability was not adopted or liked. It may have even been outright rejected by the user base. We hear of these stories all the time. To beat a dead horse, let us take windows 8 for example.

How many times did you hear about all the usability studies that were performed and about all the thought and planning that went into the new “Metro” interface. A nice looking interface with great typography. It’s trendy and “flat” looking too!  In fact, I think that the “flat look” and tile interface has also influenced Apple and the rest of the industry by quite a bit. I think its quite evident.

How is it then that windows 8 is an absolute disaster by a good number of metrics. The majority of consumers just do not like it. period. Why is that ? Even though there are a some who do like it, how is it even possible that for the majority of users, Microsoft could spend so much money and time get it so stunningly wrong.

I am sure many have opined and will continue to do so. It’s unfortunately the mega case study. However, as you deliberate, consider this : are you looking at the product from the perspective and experience of the human or the perspective of the cyborg. Are you empathizing with the everyday “I need a personal computer that helps me” user. The human user. They are not by any means dumb. They are very intelligent. They are just doing other intelligent stuff with which you are not familiar and they would really appreciate it if the computer would just help and not get in the way. Its so annoying when it does that. What are these users feeling? Does that seem like a silly question? If it does, I would like to point out that its central to the discussion. Are people able to do what they need to do without frustration? Are they forced to switch context often? Does the system make them feel smart or stupid? Is the system inviting and intuitive, pleasant to look at. Can they make the system their own. It is after all called a personal computer? Do they have to unwittingly be a cyborg in order to get things done. I should hope not. These are all questions that strike to the heart of UX. I would argue that windows 8 fails miserably not necessarily in all, but in many user experience categories. How many people felt duped by windows RT because it could not run the programs that they had come to reasonably expect would work? Many people felt deceived, even though the small print may have technically indicated otherwise. Do you see the UX in that statement? The UX was one of deception, true or not and that is the point. It’s the users point of view. Consider the Windows RT surface advertisement.



The human user sees a portable laptop computer/tablet that looks very nice and appealing. Its powerful and modern and it appears that it should serve their needs. I mean, come on, the people who made windows made this machine, surely it will work well. Oh and its got a keyboard that serves as a cover. Nice touch. The cyborg sees AMD Windows RT that only runs apps from the windows app store and understands that the operating system uses most of the disk space on the entry level model. The human user doesn’t see anywhere that this thing can’t run most programs and is very angry when the disk has hardly no space left on this new computer. What do you mean the keyboard is extra ? They walk away feeling deceived. cheated. annoyed. I cant even figure out how to turn turn it off. How could that have been avoided ? That is pre sales UX. It’s where the experience starts. Its where the user journey starts. What is it communicating ? It’s all cumulative and additive. It all communicates something. The next time that person wishes to purchase a service/ laptop computer or tablet device, they are very motivated to look elsewhere. They have a compelling story to tell as to why you should look elsewhere too. Ah the power of the story. Humans like stories. We are now seeing the fallout on a large scale, which is unfortunate because I think it can be avoided. This may not always be the case but more often than not it is. Will there be another opportunity. Maybe/maybe not. humans are funny creatures and can also be forgiving if you treat them nice. It is quite possible that the competition will take their eye off the user too. That will indeed be quite a story.

These things are somewhat old news now, however the issue at heart is that we must understand the value and importance of UX. We must make intentional efforts to make human centered design the absolute foundation-stone upon which we build our products and services, internal and external and from beginning to end. If we are not willing to face this reality, we are doomed to fail and we will not survive the market expectation levels that the “consumerisation” of technology has put before us. If we embrace UX I suspect that we will also find many lucrative opportunities. Designing for cyborgs is now not only a non viable financial option, it is simply foolish.


Mitch Harpur

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