User Experience: What? So What? What Now?

“User Experience” is a phrase that seems to be catching on in many places. I have been in contact with the directors of user experience at several major corporations, and I see the term included on business cards with increasing frequency. However, what exactly does this particular corporation, or that institution, mean by the term? Ask two people and you’ll get at least three answers, the third being the definition that one or the other person thinks definitely is incorrect, absurd, or detri-mental to the profession.

At the Designing the User Experience (DUX) 2005 conference in November in San Francisco (which was the last activity of World Usability Day), I looked in vain for a definitive explanation, description, or prescription. True, many articulate professionals talked around the term, and much activity was taking place with passion and dedication.

User experience seems to include all the usual key stakeholders: design, marketing, engineering, business, and yes, users, however they are called—users, customers, audiences, markets, or just plain people. User experience seems to include most of the traditional software, user-interface, or other complex system development tasks: plan (strategize), research, analyze, design, document, implement, evaluate, train, and maintain. User experience seems to mean working with metaphors, mental models, and navigation (called by some “information architecture”), interaction, and appearance.

Key objectives always seem to focus on the big three: usability, usefulness, and appeal (or desire, delight, or other approved words of emotional rapport). Key concerns revolve around including all possible stakeholders; merging design with business and marketing, not just engi-neering; showing return-on-investment (ROI) value; valuing storytelling and story “selling”; and looking for very innovative or radically creative or disruptive (in the good sense) solutions.

Somehow, I have heard all of this before. So what’s new? Well, the context of artifacts seems to be expanding to be much broader than desktop productivity software, document websites, or web-based community-building applications. People are think-ing about many new contexts (environments encountered while mobile), new platforms (clothing, jewelry, body implants), and new audiences (third world, the disabled, seniors).

Perhaps what we are witnessing is one of the inevitable cycles in a profession that produces churning: new, younger profes-sionals are trying to establish a set of issues, a set of personalities (new gurus), and a lexicon of jargon terms that try to distinguish the “wired” from the “tired,” as Wired magazine enjoys proclaiming. Well, we’ve seen these phenomena before, and we shall see them again. Keep in mind that the personal computer revolution of the early 1980s introduced new players, like Apple, Microsoft, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates, which dethroned IBM as a leader of new technology. In the 1990s, the Internet finally went “public,” leaving behind the geek-elite that had been using it for two decades.

Perhaps we are in the throes of a new revolution, the revolution of the “naughty-oughties.”

I call it this tongue in cheek because strong forces are at work trying to engage, control, or stimulate the user’s emotional experience. Are there any ethical issues hiding here? Hmm. You bet, because what is appealing to some is unappealing, or even “naughty,” to others. What ought we to do? I hope that we have anthropologists, rhetoricians, and ethicists who can help us determine which paths to take.

It is not surprising that interactive games development, with its deeply emotional underpinnings, has overtaken cinema in worldwide financial value, that more films now base themselves on games and comic books, that comic book publishers like Marvel now seek to develop alternative media content in games and cinema, and that a workshop on sex and interaction design has been proposed for CHI 2006. (Japanese researchers had claimed success with computer-telecommunication-mediated sexual experiences sometime in the 1980s.)

Perhaps future UPA, CHI, HFES, and other organizational conferences will take on more of the sessions and content that per-meates anthropology, game, cinema, and entertainment. But which experiences will we be discussing? Which users will we have in mind? Perhaps super organizations like Uxnet, which seeks to coordinate and track the events, publications, and terminology of this new world, will assist us in navigating the sea change.

The professions are bubbling with innovation, sometimes less coherently or articulately than one might wish, but that is what it’s like to be in the middle of constructing a new reality. Fortunately, User Experience is poised to sail these new seas, to help as a compass, if not as a captain.

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