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A Primer on User Experience

Posted by Becky Carroll on July 20, 2007

ants-maze.jpg I have heard the term User Experience many times, and recently I had the opportunity to tour Intuit’s Usability Lab.  This got me thinking about how user experience relates to marketing and customer experience.  David Armano shared a presentation he did earlier this year on Experience Design as it relates to the digital experience. 

I tapped Sean Van Tyne, a friend, expert in user experience, and CEO at Van Tyne Consulting, to help me learn more about the subject.  The wisdom shared below is a summary of a recent discussion with him.

User Experience Definition

According to Sean, User Experience (also known as UX) can be defined as follows:

“User experience is everything a user sees/hears/smells/tastes with respect to a product.”

Wikipedia defines it as “a term used to describe the overall experience and satisfaction a user has when using a product or system.”  Sean agrees that it has been used quite a bit in the past with respect to technology but that it now has potential beyond the tech world.  He says that UX is still a relatively new discipline which is evolving, hence some of the confusion and mystery around it!

Sean shared with me that, from a B2B perspective (ex: enterprise software), there are two distinctions in designing the user experience. 

  • The first is designing for a “customer”, who is often someone in operations.  This design experience validates that the workflow meets the business needs.  Sean calls this “customer experience”.  (Note: now I see why I have been confused!)
  • The second is designing for a “user”, who may be an internal or an external consumer.  This design experience evaluates that the tasks are easy to accomplish.  Sean calls this “user experience”.

The design of the user experience can be done at two different places in the product lifecycle: early in the process before business requirements are completed, and/or later in the lifecycle before heavy product development is started.

The Many Faces of User Experience

User experience is a broad field and covers a lot of disciplines.  It can be broken out into three pieces: research, design, and testing.  Sean described the many faces of user experience as a continuum:

  • Information Architect – focuses on labeling, correct terminology, hierarchy of terms
  • Visual Design – colors, fonts, graphics, icons
  • Interaction Design/Human Factors Engineering – studies how people interact with technology
  • Industrial Design – ergonomics, ease of use
  • Usability Engineer – Sean broke this out into two sub-types: ethnographers, who do research on how people do things, and evaluators, who run tests to see if the tasks are easy to complete

“Experience Design” is a subset of user experience in general.

How It’s Done

User experience is a bridge between marketing and technology, where user-centered design puts people, rather than technology, at the center of the process. 

  • Marketing kicks off this process by doing research on customer needs.
  • Marketing, product development, and user experience work together to design something which will meet those customer needs.  If the customer is an enterprise, an extra step is taken here to validate the business needs before moving to the end-user needs.
  • User experience tests the design with both experts as well as novice users.  Paper, foam, and wire-frame mock-ups are used to help test the design.
  • A usability evaluation then takes place to see how easy the tasks are to complete, how well the product/service meets the user’s way of working, etc.
  • The design may be iterated many times before it goes to production! 
  • Once a basic design is ready, it is time to start bringing in other parts of the design team, such as visual design and interaction design, to help make the products more useful, usable, and desirable.

For those of you wanting more details on the process, Sean has written a great article on defining the user and customer experience for enterprise software  (pdf format) which was recently published in The Pragmatic Marketer.

Sources for User Experience

I asked Sean where my readers might go for additional information on the field of user experience.  Here are his suggestions:

GoodExperience blog – Mark is one of the experts in the field

Don Norman’s site – Don is considered one of the founding fathers

IBM Ease of Use site – good information on User Engineering

Don’t Make Me Think, a book by Steve Krug on web usability.

Many thanks to Sean at Van Tyne Consulting for his time and expertise about user experience.  Sean, you rock!

Other Resources

I would add Logic+Emotion, David Armano’s blog on experience design (also in my blogroll!).  Many of you are also experts in user experience, experience design, and interactive design.  What other resources would you add to help a beginner learn more about user experience?

(Photo credit: kim_zhai)


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