User Experience Design Blog

Commentary on strategy and design of interactive products.

What Is User Experience Design

October 10th, 2006 by Kimmy Paluch

User experience design can sometimes be a slippery term. With all the other often used terms that float around in its realm in the technology and web space: interaction design, information architecture, human computer interaction, human factors engineering, usability, and user interface design. People often end up asking “what is the difference between all these fields and which one do I need?” This article examines the term and field of user experience to plainly extrapolate its meaning and connect the dots with these other fields.

Formal Definition of User Experience

Before we begin to explore what the design of user experience is, it would help to first understand what the latter means:

User experience is a term used to describe the overall experience and satisfaction a user has when using a product or system. It most commonly refers to a combination of software and business topics, such as selling over the web, but it applies to any result of interaction design. Wikipedia definition

Based on this definition, then, user experience is the characterization of what a user feels while using any product, this can extend from a car to a mobile phone to a magazine or a child’s toy. Most commonly, however the specific term ‘user experience’ is applied to that of software, web applications and digital devices whereas the more general user-product experiences are referred to as ‘experience design.’

User Experience Design vs. Experience Design

User experience design is a subset of the broader field of experience design; the latter being defined as:

an approach to the design of products, services and environments based on a holistic consideration of the users’ experience. Experience design is therefore driven by consideration of the ‘moments’ of engagement between people and brands, and the memories these moments create. Also known as experiential marketing, customer experience design, experiential design, brand experience. Wikipedia definition

Based on this definition, experience design uses the interactions of customers with products, services and company branding to optimize the overall impressions left by these. User experience design takes a similar approach and applies it to a specific set of products– computer-related ones. For example, an experience designer may refine the customer service and ambience of a hotel, whereas a user experience designer will optimize the customer’s interaction when making a reservation online, interacting with the hotel website or will improve the staff’s systems for managing hotel operations. The key difference can be found in the examination of the word ‘user.’

We refer to a person as a user particularly in the case where he/she is operating a computer or similar device. Thus the ‘user experience’ refers to the overall impression, feelings, interactions that a person has while operating these systems. In the end this could break down to almost all electronic and mechanical products we own/use since they often rely on computers for their functioning; however, the term in practice has been specifically associated to the direct interactions with devices operated by specific peripherals and providing an interface for feedback via a screen. (It would be somewhat of a stretch to call a child playing with a toy a ‘user.’)

For the purposes of this article, we will focus on the user experience design as it relates to technology interactions, primarily with mobile device applications, desktop applications, and web sites and web applications.

User Experience Design vs. Interaction Design, Information Architecture, Human-Computer Interaction, Human Factors Engineering, Usability and User Interface Design

User experience design is a complex field that is not exactly discrete from all the others mentioned. In essence, user experience draws from each of these fields in order to address the various aspects of a user’s experience. If the user experience is meant to describe the user’s satisfaction with a product, there are a few key elements which need to be addressed. Some of these elements include:

  • The fluidity of interactions
    • The ability to easily input information
    • A quick response time from the system
    • An intuitive workflow
  • The comprehensibility of the information and features
  • A quick and easy progression to feeling comfortable with the system (short learning curve)
  • The accuracy of the information presented (correct computational output and proper conveyance)
  • The pleasing appearance of the interface

Each of these elements makes up a large part of the user experience. Each is made effective due to the design contributions from each of the following fields:

  1. Interaction design
  2. Information architecture
  3. Usability
  4. Human computer interaction
  5. Human factors engineering
  6. User interface design

User experience is the culmination of all of these parts into one field. Although, user experience design does not wholly contain these fields (that is to say, some research and practices in each of these fields falls outside the realm of the user experience) it does serve to unite many of the principles so as to improve each of the facets of the user experience.

Let us examine each of these fields in turn to see how they affect the user experience design:

Interaction Design

Interaction design is a sub-discipline of design which examines the role of embedded behaviors and intelligence in physical and virtual spaces as well as the convergence of physical and digital products. Sometimes referred to by the acronyms “IxD” or “iD” Wikipedia definition

As defined above, interaction design examines behaviors in physical and virtual spaces. Although in practice, this term is generally interchangeable with user experience design due to the great similarities in process and deliverables, the two are distinct.

Interaction design focuses on designing behaviors in which two entities are involved; these entities are not limited to human and computer pairs as is the case with user experience design. Furthermore, when interaction design involves humans and computers, the focus is on designing a set of tasks; and thus is a very task-oriented process. For user experience design, this designing of tasks and behaviors is one aspect of creating a full experience, but extends beyond it to incorporate other aspects, such as the effects of branding and more passive activities such as viewing a video clip or listening to a song.

The interaction design is crucial for a successful and overall satisfying experience; however, it does not account for the overall structural design, business marketing and some aspects of the presentation of information which affect the user’s experience with the system.

Facets covered
  • The fluidity of interactions
    • An intuitive workflow
  • The comprehensibility of the information and features
  • A quick and easy progression to feeling comfortable with the system (short learning curve)

Information Architecture

Information Architecture (IA) is the art and science of structuring knowledge (technically data), and defining user interactions. Wikipedia definition

Information architecture originated from library science where it is still employed. Many aspects of information architecture fall outside of the technology space where user experience resides; however, information architecture remains a key aspect in designing the user experience. Taxonomies and organization of data within the system improve the accessibility of data and thus enhance the overall usability, which in turn reflects positively on the user’s experience. Based on the definition, we see that information architecture is also intertwined with interaction design. A system will be more intuitive and pleasing to the user if the organization of information is logical and understandable.

Facets covered
  • The comprehensibility of the information and features
  • A quick and easy progression to feeling comfortable with the system (short learning curve)
  • The accuracy of the information presented

Usability

Usability is the measure of the ease with which particular people can employ a particular tool or other human-made object in order to achieve a particular goal. Usability can also refer to the methods of measuring usability and the study of the principles that may predict whether an object is found usable in practice. Wikipedia definition

Usability is also a subset of the user experience but is not wholly contained by it either. As defined above, usability relates to all tools made by humans, and can thus extend to a fork, hammer or other non-digital device. The section of usability that intersects with user experience design is that which speaks to the human’s ability to use a system or application. Usability has a great impact in creating a positive user experience; however, it should be noted that a system can be usable, but create a poor user experience.

Facets covered
  • The fluidity of interactions
    • The ability to easily input information
    • An intuitive workflow
  • The comprehensibility of the information and features
  • A quick and easy progression to feeling comfortable with the system (short learning curve)

Accessibility

Accessibility is a general term used to describe how easy it is for people to get to, use, and understand things. It is not to be confused with usability which is used to describe how easily a thing can be used by any type of user. One meaning of accessibility specifically focuses on people with disabilities, but there are other meanings… Wikipedia definition

Although not a field of its own, it is important to note that accessibility also contributes to the overall user experience, to increase the likelihood of a wide-spread satisfactory user-experience. Accessibility is wholly contained by usability and is important at all levels of product design.

Facets covered
  • The fluidity of interactions
    • The ability to easily input information
  • The comprehensibility of the information and features
  • A quick and easy progression to feeling comfortable with the system (short learning curve)

Human-Computer Interaction

Human-computer interaction (HCI) is the study of interaction between people (users) and computers. It is an interdisciplinary subject, relating computer science with many other fields of study and research. Wikipedia definition

Human-computer interaction is a great contributor to user experience design by providing key research findings which can inform the improvement of systems for people. HCI extends to incorporate more integrated interactions between humans and computers which are generally not covered in the practice of user experience, such as interactions with physical devices.

Facets covered
  • The fluidity of interactions
    • The ability to easily input information
    • A quick response time from the system
  • A quick and easy progression to feeling comfortable with the system (short learning curve)
  • The accuracy of the information presented

Human Factors Engineering

Human factors engineering, also referred to as Ergonomics is the study of optimizing the interface between human beings, and the designed objects and environments they interact with. Wikipedia definition

Human factors engineering affect user experience design in a similar fashion as human-computer interaction: providing insights into other aspects of devices and input designs which can affect the user’s interaction and overall experience. User experience designers and human factors engineers often collaborate to combine expertise to create a full-fledged system on the physical and virtual levels.

Facets covered
  • The fluidity of interactions
    • The ability to easily input information
    • An intuitive workflow
  • A quick and easy progression to feeling comfortable with the system (short learning curve)

User Interface Design

User interface design is the overall process of designing the interaction between a human (user) and a machine (computer). It includes graphic design, information design and a wide variety of usability methods. Wikipedia definition

User interface design falls in the center of all of these fields. This is the ultimate goal for all: create an optimized mechanism for interfacing between the user and the system.

Facets covered
  • The fluidity of interactions
    • An intuitive workflow
  • The comprehensibility of the information and features
  • The pleasing appearance of the interface

Assembling the Puzzle

The diagram below presents the correlation of the fields examined above:

User Experience Design Explained

User Experience Design as a Form of Design

Now that we have an understanding of user experience and how its design relates to the various fields surrounding it, let us look at the process and how this field is a form of design.
Based on a single or series of interactions and first-hand impressions with a product, or system, users create a rich experience that can be satisfactory, engaging, enjoyable, etc. When we begin to speak about the design of this experience, we are referring to the planning and construction of the various parts that will affect the experience. The design consists of a strong framework with visual elements and cues for added clarity and richness.

There are many factors which need to be taken into account when designing the user experience. We have examined some of the aspects from the perspective of the user above; however ther are others that must be examined as well, and from various perspectives. The design elements outlined by Jesse James Garrett are summarized as:

  1. User’s needs and site (business) objectives
  2. Content requirements and functional specifications
  3. Information architecture and interaction design
  4. Interface, navigation and information design
  5. Visual design

Due to the wide spectrum of elements that need to be considered when designing a user experience, the field encompasses many disciplines ranging from marketing and business to aspects of graphic design to ethnography, linguistics and psychology to computer science and much more.

Examining the design process through the 5 elements:

By investigating how the user’s needs align with that of the business objectives and vice versa, user experience designers can refine the foundation of the design: what exactly are we making and why? In order to answer this question, designers must first discover who these users are which results in the definition of user personas. With user personas and system goals in hand, step 1 is complete.

Once the goals of the system have been solidified, the next phase is to formulate the system design: what features will this system have, how should they work and how should they be organized? This step encompasses the content requirements, navigation, structural interface design, interaction design and functional specifications. In order to fully design the experience, these basic blueprints are put in place and signify the skeletal foundation of the system. Steps 2, 3 and 4 are now complete producing a skeleton which includes functional specifications documents, content matrices, wireframes, sitemaps and task flows. With the skeleton of the user experience in place all that remains is skinning or the visual design, which further enhances the overall experience.

For another perspective on user experience design, read “How to Quantify the User Experience”. There are many articles which deconstruct this principle, but they all revolve around the idea of user experience design as a multi-faceted approach aimed at making products more pleasing for people to use.

As articulated above, the field of user experience design takes a broad approach to the enhancement of products, combining elements from various fields to create an optimal and well-rounded experience. This holistic methodology is often more adept at helping to reach a set of goals that encompass passive and active user interactions–goals determined both by users and the business or organization.



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