User Experience Is a Feeling

October 6, 2014

Many people seem to think of user experience as a controllable outcome of a design process—as though it were something at which you can throw minds, designers, and builders with the goal of understanding and manipulating a person’s experience of a product or service. In fact, user experience is often thought of as defining and managing a person’s experience of a product.

But your product doesn’t define a user’s experience. That person’s own behavior, attitudes, and emotions do. Thus, user experience is a feeling. In reality, it’s even more than that, but if you start with the idea that user experience is a feeling, you’ve already made progress toward really understanding user experience.

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A person’s experience when using a product is something that every business should be concerned about. A user can have a great experience or a horrible one. While you cannot directly design a person’s experience of a product, you can take steps to ensure that their experience is a positive one by employing a user-centered design process.

Benefits of user-centered design that you should sell up the chain to get buy-in from all the stakeholders for a project include the following:

  • Acquire more customers quickly.
  • Retain existing customers.
  • Build advocacy for your organization.
  • Sell more products in the long run.
  • Lower peripheral product costs like user support.
  • Reduce intangible costs like wasting time.
  • Compete more effectively.

For your organization—whether a startup or an enterprise behemoth—to realize all of these benefits, the people on your product team need to:

  • Understand the difference between great design and great experiences.
  • Think like a product user, not a product owner.
  • Involve users of your product throughout the product planning, design, and development process.

Great Design Is Not Enough

Many people think of user experience as how a product works and looks. In other words, it’s all too easy to think of a user’s interactions with a product as the sole component of user experience. For example, they might focus on questions like these: Is it easy to navigate the product’s user interface? Is the most important content visually prioritized? Does the product look great?

If a resounding “Yes!” is the answer to such questions, it’s easy to believe that you’ve really nailed your product’s user experience. In many ways, you’re probably doing far better than most of your competitors. Yet, a user’s experience of your product encompasses much more than, say, opening an application in a Web browser or on a mobile device.

Let’s look at one example of a question that you might ask: What do users expect of your product before they use it for the first time? Perhaps they have heard the opinions of other users who either love or hate your product. If so, that would be an important part of their overall experience with your product. It would certainly affect their usage of your product, their feelings toward both the product and your company, and a host of other important things that we’ll consider next.

Pixels, Screens, Pages, and Experiences

The concerns of user-centered design include both what happens within a product user interface and user interactions that happen outside the interface. These include, but are not limited to the following:

  • your product’s marketing and packaging
  • the process of buying, opening, and using the product for the first time
  • the process of upgrading to new versions
  • onboarding—that is, learning what the product’s capabilities are, how to use it, and how to proceed when things go wrong
  • telling others about the product and explaining its benefits and appeal
  • the process of obtaining support if something goes wrong or you need a deeper understanding of the product’s capabilities

This list really just scratches the surface, but it gives you a sense of how many things actually affect each person’s experience of using your product.

If you’ve ever needed technical support from your phone or cable company, you understand how that experience has affected the way you feel about their products and services. While you may get great cable channels or clear phone reception, if dealing with support or other representatives of the company was an unpleasant experience, you might still have a negative opinion of the service. A person’s previous interactions with and opinions about your company is part of their user experience.

Thinking Like a Great UX Designer

Throughout the rest of this article, I’d like to provide some insights that you can share with your product team to help everyone think like a great UX designer. To build a product that people enjoy, your whole product team—not just the UX team—needs to focus on the user. Having a user focus will help you to deliver some of those profitability, competitiveness, and growth benefits that I described earlier.

The Attitudes That Lead to Great Experiences

Thinking like a great UX designer means adopting some ways of thinking that are really more like attitudes than specific thought processes or rules for doing things.

Having Empathy

When you’re dealing with the thousands of decisions that move you from ideation to prototype to launch, it’s easy to get trapped inside the product team’s viewpoint. The sheer complexity and difficulty of what you’re doing—along with your insider insights into the product’s purpose, design, and function—make it all too easy to self-justify any decisions that you make. What’s missing from such a closed, self-justifying decision loop is empathy for outsiders—in this case, your users.

The real reason that talking to your users is such a good idea is not just that it yields valuable information that you can use during product design. Over time, talking to your users helps you to develop empathy for them. You’ll learn to see the world through their eyes.

With empathy, you’ll be able to evaluate your design and business decisions in the way your users would. And you’ll be more likely to create something that they’ll find valuable, usable, and delightful.

Accepting That Every Opinion Is Valid

The next attitude of great user-centered designers is often a difficult one to embrace. Repeat after me: “Every opinion is valid. Every opinion is valid.” Even if an opinion isn’t logical. Even if an opinion runs contrary to good design principles. Even if an opinion is based on emotions that don’t make any sense to you.

If using your product is optional for your users—and it usually is—their opinions actually do matter! But it can still be difficult to find the meaning in highly emotional or illogical user feedback. However, that kind of feedback can point to larger or deeper patterns of user sentiment that have a very real effect on users’ interactions with your company and your product. Accepting user feedback with the attitude that every opinion is valid will help you to discover these meaningful patterns.

If you’re receiving feedback that doesn’t make sense to you, it’s helpful to pause and reflect on what it means. Ask:

  • How many other silent users might have the same opinion?
  • Why do they want a specific feature?
  • Why don’t they understand the way a user flow works?
  • Why do they feel this way?

Taking a step back, having conversations with your users, and considering even their crazy ideas will usually give you new perspectives on the problems you’re trying to solve for them.

Realizing That Context and History Matter

While the purpose of your project may be to create something entirely new, your product will launch to people who have both a specific history of using technology and specific contexts in which they use it. That history and that context are deeply important in influencing how people interact with your product.

For example, I’m always fascinated when I’m shopping and see an old green-text-on-black-screen, keyboard-based, point-of-sale terminal still in use. In fact, I often see this kind of user interface (UI) in use in otherwise modern, successful retail businesses.

Such a user interface may seem outdated and inefficient to use, but when you consider the context, a different picture emerges:

  • Retail workers at a store have developed accumulated muscle memory that is unique to their experience from years of using the same, unchanging user interface to complete every sale they make.
  • Their muscle memory allows them to move through large parts of the user interface without focusing on the screen. This lets employees make periodic eye contact with customers, creating a better experience for them.
  • That muscle memory takes a while to build up. There is a somewhat slower learning curve for employees, but once it’s there, it allows speed and efficiency advantages that employees would be reluctant to give up—even for a user interface with a faster initial learning curve.

If you ignore such historical and contextual considerations, the green-screen POS terminal seems like a terrible user experience. But when you take those considerations into account, you get a completely different understanding of the user experience that  they deliver.

When you look beyond the user interface to the larger considerations of great UX design, you’ll gain insights into factors that make a real difference in how users experience your product.

Having Emotional Intelligence

If you doubt the importance of your users’ feelings about your product, think back to Facebook’s recent rollout of a significant change to their user interface and remember the outrage that large swaths of their users expressed.

The most powerful emotions—love, hatred, enjoyment, and loyalty—build up over time. Your company’s new product will inherit some of these emotions from sources that are outside your control—such as how users feel about the platform your app runs on or the app-discovery experience inside an app store.

But other feelings that they’ll have about your product will develop in tiny increments over time. Think about the long-term impact of a repeated annoyance in signing in, a particularly enjoyable navigation path through a common workflow, a well-considered approach to error handling, or consistently poor customer service.

Thinking like a UX designer involves having an awareness of the emotional relationship that users have with your product.

Applying the Attitudes of a Great UX Designer

I’d like to leave you with one, simple, concrete way in which you can start to think more like a great UX designer: Pay attention to how people interact with things in their daily lives. Their behavior will teach you so much about how you could begin to develop a product that would make their lives easier and more enjoyable and would better meet their expectations. 

President & Experience Design Director at Say Yeah!

Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Matt RintoulLong recognized as a leading user interface designer in Toronto, Matt is particularly adept at finding those key insights that move a product from concept to a great user experience. Over the past 15 years, his design work has run the gamut from financial services to sports, publishing to productivity. Matt has worked for clients large and small, across devices of all shapes and sizes, and particularly enjoys bringing new products to market. Highlights of his design career include theScore, Virgin Mobile, Microsoft, and too many great startups to mention.  Read More

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