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UX: secrets of the dark art revealed

Author info: HighWire Press
Post date: 27.05.2015
Post type: Article
Subject: User experience

User Experience (UX) is an increasingly significant discipline within the mix of skillsets that goes into building publisher platforms. However it can seem like a dark art. Even those who get it sometimes wonder whether they fully understand what it is (or should be).

For instance, what would you say is the job of a UX designer? To design a user experience, surely? Wrong.

To control user behaviour then? Double wrong.

And yet, to many people in our industry, these would appear reasonable assumptions. Since it seemed to me that this apparent disconnect might be part of the reason why people often misunderstand UX, I grabbed some time with Andrea Fallas, a UX architect and part of the busy UX team at HighWire, to explore these questions further.

Turns out that both the experience of users, and their behavior, are key considerations in the UX designer’s work. But UX doesn’t relate to either in the way some people imagine.

An age of discovery

To start with, it is important to recognize that the field of UX is changing very quickly at the moment, and in exciting ways.

Imagine you are a cartographer at the beginning of the 15th Century, the age of Vasco da Gama, Magellan and Columbus. Great discoveries are being made. New trade routes are opening up. There is increasing demand for your services … However, the nature and scope of your job keeps on transforming itself, as each new discovery brings a further paradigm shift in people’s mental picture of the world; resetting expectations of what is possible and indeed necessary within the practice of cartography.

That (I imagine) is what it must feel like to be a UX designer at the moment, except that here at the beginning of the 21st Century, what is being mapped is not the globe but the brain.

These are heady times for the study of cognitive neuroscience, a fact evidenced by the conference-speech openers we hear all the time along the lines of, ‘we have learned more about the thinking brain in the last 10-15 years than in all of previous human history’.

Recent headlines reveal that researchers have taught a computer to recognise cats, that scientists can now decode dreams using brain scans, and that direct brain-to-brain communication will soon make language unnecessary. (Possibly.)

The field of UX design is benefiting a great deal from all this new knowledge, and is set to do so even more as brain science progresses. In fact it is difficult not to feel that the changes happening in this field are, in their own way, as profound as what happened when navigators stopped relying on the sun and the stars to find their way around.

The skinny on user research: users lie

Historically, the tools we have relied on to measure how users interact with websites have been of two sorts. Firstly and most obviously you could just ask them about their experience on a given site – deploying user surveys, interviews, user logs, focus groups and the like. Secondly, you could observe their behavior; looking over their shoulders to see what they did.

It is this second type of information that has become more plentiful and much richer with the growth of techniques such as eye-tracking and the availability of better analytics. These tools and inputs have become much cheaper and easier to access in recent times, and what we find is that data from the second source often wildly contradict that from the first.

To put it simply, users will tell you one thing then go off and do something completely different.

Cognitive bias

It’s not that human beings are inherently mendacious: the truth is, we are all very bad at reporting our subjective experience (at least, in a way that can be used to form solid design judgments) so information of the first type is heavily refracted by the sheer difficulty of reporting what goes on between our ears.

Interviewers, too, are subject to a similar type of refraction, unconsciously distorting what users tell them as a result of their own cognitive biases. The job of a good UX designer is constantly to challenge these biases, wherever they show up; a task in which UX is greatly helped by having more and better data of the second type.

Though the inputs UX can draw on are improving all the time, the information gathered is still partial, and to a degree fragmentary. We can’t be inside the user’s head, and even if we could subject every single user to an MRI scan, we would still lack a fully developed account of how the brain works from science that might allow us to interpret what we would see.

However, by combining information of both the first and second types – partially reliable accounts of experience together with inferences drawn from behavior – and by looking through multiple lenses at the problem, so to speak, we can tell a great deal.

A lot of UX design is common sense. But the field is large and fast expanding. Not only experience, but a pinch of professional intuition is often necessary to understand what is gathered from the increasing range of inputs available. Therefore the role of the experienced UX professional is a vital one.

Unknowns are becoming known

Thanks to cognitive neuroscience, better sensory detection technology and the vast expansion in user data that comes with an increasingly digital environment, we have more knowledge than ever before about what users do and feel. A lot of what were once ‘unknowns’ are becoming knowable.

And further advances in brain science seem to hold out a promise that there could be a way of reporting on a user’s experience of a website that did not rely on the user’s powers of description … or propensity to tell you what you wanted to hear, or desire to come across as a discriminating person, or mood on the day they took your survey, etc.

However, there is a danger that these advances produce an atmosphere of hype that provokes the wrong kind of expectations for UX; a danger that people think it will shortly be able to do things that in reality it just can’t, and never will – no matter how good the data available.

Experience, behaviour, and the dark arts of user experience design

So here, for the sake of clearer understanding, are the two main things Andrea is adamant UX doesn’t do – and the reasons why not.

1. Design the user’s experience

In the world of visitor attractions, one name stands pre-eminent around the world. When it comes to creating customer experiences – brand experiences – they wrote the book. Disney. But even Disney can’t totally control the experience of visiting Disneyland.

In any given family group you might have one or more kids who are having the time of their lives – but in that same group there also may be a pre-schooler who is completely freaked out by the sight of a seven-foot Goofy – a parent who had read Baudrillard and feels she is drowning in ‘hyperreality’ – and a grandparent who is wondering how a 45-minute queue and a 15 minute ride can be made to square with a 30 minute bladder capacity …

The point I’m making is that is that we all come to experiences with a huge amount of individual baggage – whether it is a theme park we are visiting or a publisher website. Even within a closely defined ‘target market’, users will exhibit differences of sex, life stage, state of health, religious and ideological beliefs, educational attainment, social class, income bracket, attention span, etc. etc.

… And that’s just the more or less stable, background stuff. Few things cause universal delight on the internet, but even those that do – kittens and laughing babies, for instance – are not safe from the mutability of human moods. If you just got a bad IVF test that morning, or your cat died, you will look at those videos in a whole different light.

Hence Andrea’s first big caveat. Any UX designer who told a client they could completely create the user experience would be hubristic – if not plain delusional – because of what the user brings to each web session.

2. Control user behaviour

If it’s difficult to control experience, it’s equally futile trying to control user behaviour.

Users come to websites with specific things they want to do, and UX is at least partly about helping them to do those things efficiently and without fuss. UX people will sometimes talk about how the website has to ‘get out of the way’ and let users get on with what they want to accomplish.

Which is not to say that a website shouldn’t offer them things to do they hadn’t previously thought of, or further the commercial and marketing aims of the company in general. The UX designer comes to a project with a variety of stakeholders, and attempts to find alignment of aims and win/wins – but users have to be top of that stakeholder list. True, if the client isn’t happy, the UX designer doesn’t get paid – but if the user isn’t happy, ultimately there is nothing to pay anyone with. The main job of UX is to be there for the user; just as playwrights and ride designers are there for the audience.

UX can design a system that has an end in mind: UX can provide a sequence of delights and satisfactions that take people naturally and easily from one activity to the next, and can channel user desires towards a goal which is rewarding both for them and for the company.

But when it comes to ‘controlling’ user behaviour – well, with a thousand more usable sites just a click away that might let you get what you want more easily, and without feeling pushed around, it’s always as well to remember that you can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.


So here was my take-away, for forming a better idea of what UX does and doesn’t do.

  • UX can provide experiences, but not create the user’s experience
  • UX learns from the behaviour of customers and works to facilitate the type of user behaviour that results in win-wins – but it doesn’t control user behaviour

For a further explanation of what UX professionals actually do all day, why not get in touch: [email protected]

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