Usability? I don’t think we’re in Kansas
any more, Toto
For years many HCI professionals have had to contend themselves with interface design
usability issues. But now as many companies scramble to differentiate themselves through
their customer experience, new opportunities are opening up for HCI professionals.
In this article, Dr. Jackie Moyes and Iain Barker of Different describe the evolving field
of user experience design and reflect upon what the changing landscape means in terms
roles and responsibilities for HCI professionals.
The evolution of usability into user experience
Many companies’ perception of the role played by user research is changing. Sure, our
discussion lists and conferences are still largely concerned with usability research and
interface design challenges, but a new focus is emerging – that of “User Experience”. This
article gives an introduction to the changes that are occurring and discusses some of the
new challenges that HCI professionals will encounter.
A brief and simplified history of interface design
In the “dark old days”, interfaces were ‘designed’ by the same technical folk that created
the back-end code. Within the limited options offered by the green-screen environment
(and within their limited interface design skills) they created products that people bought
because there was no other choice.
Then along came GUIs. It was a major step for the popularity of computers. With GUIs
computers began to cross the divide between the technical/engineer/operator workplace
and in to the home environment.
Interfaces continued to be designed by the technical folk, but now they had engaging
interactive elements to conjure with. People continued to buy and use products largely
because they still had limited choice.
Jump to the mid-to-late 1990s and the range of products readily available to the general
public exploded. Internet, kiosks, handheld devices and other interactive products meant
that users had a choice as never before. In the stampede to be noticed, some companies
chose to differentiate themselves through their eye-catching interface designs, others read
books with a polar-bear 1 or a teapot 2 on the cover and started providing products that
people found easy to use.
But then the party stopped, with the sound of a crashing index. One of the repercussions
was that companies slashed web design budgets. As design agencies merged or went into
administration, usability professionals started to come to the fore. No longer did
companies have millions of dollars to spend on redesigns - companies instead wanted to
make their existing sites more effective. The result is that since 1999 we have seen more
and more usability professionals and a year-on-year improvement in the usability of
Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, Designing Large-Scale Web Sites, Louis Rosenfeld, Peter Morville,
The Design of Everyday Things, Donald Norman, Basic Books
That is not to say that everyone’s been converted or that everything in the garden is
rosy. Although the battle to justify the need and budget for usability is by no means over
for all of us, many HCI professionals are now thinking beyond interface design issues.
For those left behind there is a rich seam of guidelines, patterns and best practice to make
interface design as quick and painless as possible.
The dawning of user experience
As the usability of products continues to improve, companies are realising that having a
usable product isn’t enough. Companies are already thinking beyond usability and on to
the overall “user experience”. But what is user experience and what do HCI professionals
have to offer it?
What is user experience?
Many usability thought-leaders have already begun to walk this path, so rather than
recreate another interpretation of user experience we’ll reference a few that have already
The Nielsen Norman Group define user experience as:
‘…all aspects of the end-user's interaction with the company, its services, and its
products. The first requirement for an exemplary user experience is to meet the
exact needs of the customer, without fuss or bother. Next comes simplicity and
elegance that produce products that are a joy to own, a joy to use. True user
experience goes far beyond giving customers what they say they want, or
providing checklist features. In order to achieve high-quality user experience in a
company's offerings there must be a seamless merging of the services of multiple
disciplines, including engineering, marketing, graphical and industrial design,
and interface design. ‘ 3
IBM define user experience as:
‘User Experience Design fully encompasses traditional Hu man-Computer
Interaction (HCI) design and extends it by addressing all aspects of a product or
service as perceived by users. HCI design addresses the interaction between a
human and a computer. In addition, User Experience Design addresses the user's
initial awareness, discovery, ordering, fulfilment, installation, service, support,
upgrades, and end-of-life activities.’4
What is clear from both of these definitions is that user experience is a broadening of the
traditional usability role performed by many HCI professionals.
Peter Morville, one of the authors of the aforementioned book with the polar bear on the
cover, has created an information diagram to capture the facets of user experience. He
calls it the User Experience Honeycomb.
From the Nielsen Norman Group website. http://www.nngroup.com/about/userexperience.html
From the IBM website. http://www-306.ibm.com/ibm/easy/eou_ext.nsf/publish/10
Figure 1: Peter Morville’s User Experience Honeycomb
As is to be expected from people within our profession, there has been much heated
discussion around the semantics of the terms and descriptions used. Rather than getting
bogged down in the semantics of the discussion we would like to focus on two clear
messages coming out of all these attempts to define user experience.
1. Usability is merely one of a number of facets, that combined, form the user
2. Although most experienced HCI professionals are likely to be familiar with many
of the terms used in these definitions, desirability is likely to be alien or new to
many of us.
According to Morville to understand desirability we must ‘appreciate the power and value
of image, identity, brand, and other elements of emotional design’. Previously this has
been the domain of visual designers and marketeers. The first step towards understanding
desirability for many HCI professionals will be to turn to ‘the father of usability’ Don
Norman’s new book Emotional Design 5 .
Don Norman’s book provides an excellent introduction to the power and influence of
desirability, but what he fails to do is provide concrete examples relating to interactive
products. Norman himself declares that he wants to move into product design. But where
does this leave us? Does desirability actually have a role to play in interactive products
such as websites?
Personally we believe that desirability will have an increasingly significant effect on the
work we do. This will happen in two ways.
As interactive products become ever more pervasive there will be an increased blurring
between the traditional roles of interface design and product design. Bespoke handheld
devices will force us to consider not only the computer interface but the product’s
interaction methods. So like Don Norman, many of us are likely to naturally gravitate
towards product design and thus become exposed to desirability issues.
Also as companies focus more and more on the holistic customer experience they offer,
it will no longer be acceptable for project teams to create interactive products in a
Emotional Design: Why we love (or hate) everyday things, Donald Norman, Basic Books, 2004
vacuum. Companies are already starting to demand that each product is considered in the
context of how it affects customers’ perception of the parent brand. As this happens we
will find that an increasingly senior and diverse range of individuals are interested in the
insights we can provide. We will increasingly find ourselves influencing business strategy
rather than advising on interface design.
To meet this challenge we need to evolve our research, analytical and communication
skills so that we are able to capture, understand and communicate to a far wider audience
about a broader range of subjects. For example, we will need to be sensitive to issues such
as desirability, cross-channel strategies and be able to advise companies on their complete
end-to-end customer experience.
Many of the same research techniques will still apply, but we need to attune our radars to
be sensitive to a whole new range of user comments and concerns.
But what impact will these changes have on the roles and responsibilities of those around
Re-defining roles in the age of user experience design
Amidst the era of mud slinging
Before the concept of “Experience Design” began doing the rounds, we all sat
comfortably in our discrete, specialist roles (usability engineers, information architects,
visual designers, web developers, brand strategists, etc) focusing on delivering an optimal
Even then there were debates as to which discipline was more critical to the success of a
product. Usability engineers could argue that usability is the foundation of design, while
designers believed in a symbiotic relationship where design was required for usability to
exist. There was also tension between marketing teams who focused on encouraging
potential customers to buy products they didn’t know they needed, with usability
specialists and information architects whose focus was on navigating people more
efficiently to products they purposely searched for.
However, with a maturing industry and the realisation that interactive media needs not
only to be functional but to provide a good experience, new lines are being drawn. Many
of you will have no doubted noticed the thread of discussions in numerous newsgroups
forums trying to wrestle with the idea of what is user experience and how does it relates to
user centred design. Does this represent a significant shift, and if so, should we be
redefining their work practices and roles, and on what basis?
Who is responsible for ensuring a good experience?
The key question to ask is whether user experience design is as IBM would suggest
something which encompasses and extends traditional Human-Computer Interaction. If it
is, should the usability specialist take responsibility in defining the experience?
As mentioned in the previous article, Morville indicates that usability is only one of a
number of honeycombs that define user experience. Norman in his book “Emotional
Design” perceives “desirability” as something entirely distinct from behavioural, usability
design where "Appearance really doesn't matter: performance does."
Consequently it could be argued just as easily that designing for desirability is a traditional
stronghold of brand strategists and the visual design discipline, so they can stake their
claim to play as critical a role in experience design. Content strategists may similarly
claim that content style is as important to the brand and to the experience as the visual
What is clear therefore is that deriving an optimal user experience is not the task of a
single discipline, but is the consequence of forming effective teams of people from a wide
variety of disciplines and getting them focussing on common goals.
Understanding the goals
But how do we know what these goals are? As practitioners of user-centred design
techniques, we all know that by having greater insight in to true user requirements we are
more likely to create something that meets target user needs, and wants, and possibly also
Therefore it would make sense that a multi-disciplinary team can create a more satisfying
user experience if they involve the target-users in the design process.
What is clear is that the user-centred design techniques traditionally used, need to be
modified to be able to capture feedback on all aspects of the product or service, as
perceived by users.
But by widening the scope of research to capture more reflective requirements are we
then treading on the toes of more traditional market research agencies?
Market research specialists and brand strategists have had the longest experience in
methods to collate user wants and needs and translate these in to successfully emotive
designs or “lovemarks” - a term recently applied by Saatchi & Saatchi CEO Kevin
Roberts to describe a brand that “has a deep, constant, emotional connection with
people” and that is “owned” by its loyal customers.
If this is the case, then in the developing area of experience design, is the role of the user-
centred design specialists to be restricted to someone who simply does user research to
determine the functional requirements of a product, while the marketeer is responsible for
gathering requirements to ensure that a great experience is fulfilled?
Understanding the virtues of a user-centred design specialist
As specialists of user-centred design, we would argue no. At Different we offer ‘user
experience design’ services incorporating user research techniques that capture
requirements across all touch points the audience may have with the product or service.
We work with large corporate clients, and work with the marketing teams to develop
their understanding of what a great user experience for a product or service should be.
Why do they employ our services, when obviously they have the skill to conduct research
themselves? When asked this question the feedback was relatively straight forward.
They have the ability to collect the data, but the issue is in knowing how the data should
be interpreted. They lack the ability to translate what end users tell them in to design
Visual designers, information architects and content strategists do have portions of the
skill to translate these requirements. The role the user-centred design specialist plays is
that we have the specialist skills to gather the right data and interpret it in to meaningful
ways for designers to utilise.
An important lesson we have found in providing such as service is that to deliver a
successful experience the multi-disciplinary team structure does need to be redefined.
While the various design disciplines work together to create the detailed design it is
advantageous for the person gathering user requirements to keep a big picture view, and
that’s only achievable by playing more of an overarching role. This role may overlap
greatly with that of someone from within the marketing, branding, or the business team
and indeed communication between these roles is critical. The key differentiator being
that this person retains the independent “voice of the user” keeping in mind the target
users’ wants needs and desires.
This requirement may propose that the user-centred design specialist cannot play the
traditional role of researcher AND designer. Logic suggests that you cannot spend the
time and focus on the detail of the product while retaining the unbiased perspective of the
Conventionally the person responsible for the ‘final vision’ in large interactive agencies
has been the Creative Director. This person typically comes from the visual design
discipline, but in the age of user experience, perhaps this role can be more effectively held
by someone who has first hand knowledge of how the target audience actually ticks. Is
there then a role for an “Experience Director”? Without such a role, can teams work
together effectively to derive a final vision, and will they know with any confidence as to
whether they are successful in designing a good experience?
We would argue that it is critical that user-centred activities do more than just gather
usability requirements and the person who gathers these requirements, becoming the
“voice of the user”, should be the mesh that binds the each of the specialist design
disciplines together, enhancing the likelihood of delivering a successful, great user
Iain Barker and Jackie Moyes are Experience Architects at Different. Email
email@example.com & Jackie.firstname.lastname@example.org.