The Meaning of User Experience
By Tuomas Nurminen on 04/06/2011
“What people seek is not the meaning of life but the experience of being alive.”
– Joseph Campbell
A few decades ago, selling experiences was only typical for theaters and theme parks, while still in many other industries the emphasis was on the products and product features. In the phrase by Joseph Campbell lies the whole meaning of using and buying products today: people do not buy products because of the features but because of the experience delivered, when the user is in contact with the product. Thus, products are seen just as “vehicles” to construct and deliver an experience for the user, making it one of the most important factors in the product success. The reason is that people want to experience things. They want the product to satisfy them, impact all their senses, and generate good feelings.
In the world of the Web, experiences become even more important than in other kinds of products, as websites and web applications are self-service type of products, where there are no customer service personnel or instruction manuals to help the user. In the beginning of the Web era, many businesses concentrated more on the speed than the quality when designing websites, as they thought being first in the market was a way to gain competitive advantage. Luckily, more and more businesses are starting to understand the importance of providing a quality experiences. After all, it is experience that creates a certain impression of company’s products for the customer, and therefore determines whether the customer will stay loyal to the company.
Even though the term UX has become a buzzword in the world of designing interactive products, there is still a lack of consensus about the meaning of it. People understand UX in many different ways. Some use it as a synonym for user-centered design while some think it means just a good-looking user interface, but most often it is confused with usability.
International Organization for Standardization defines usability as “the extent to which specified users can use a product to achieve goals with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in a specified context of use”, where effectiveness is the accuracy and completeness with which users can achieve goals. Efficiency refers to the resources expended in relation to the accuracy and completeness with which users achieve goals, and satisfaction is the freedom from discomfort, and positive attitudes towards the use of the product.
Even though UX is also concerned with satisfaction, usability is seen only as a part of UX, in which the satisfaction can arise from some other source than product’s good usability. Collectively, UX is about designing for pleasure rather than preventing usability problems.
One of the first to define UX was Lauralee Alben in 1996. She stated that “UX covers all the aspects of how people use an interactive product – the way it feels in their hands, how well they understand how it works, how they feel about it while they are using it, how well it serves their purposes, how well it fits into the context in which they are using it, and how well it contributes to the quality of their lives”.
Following Alben, many authors define UX through different aspects of the interaction between the user and the product or the system in the specific context, where the interaction takes place. For example, Forlizzi & Ford have defined components that influence UX in user-product interaction: User, product, context of use, and social and cultural factors (see figure below). The product influences UX through its form language, features, aesthetic qualities, and usefulness, whereas the user influences UX through her prior experiences, emotions and feelings, values and cognitive models for hearing, seeing, and touching.
According to Kankainen, UX is “the result of a motivated action in a certain context”. By context, Kankainen refers to people, place and things surrounding the user in the interaction. Motivation is understood as a need driving the user to the action. Action describes the means of the interaction, that is, “how the user is doing what he is doing”. Additionally, Kankainen emphasizes the significance of user’s previous experiences and expectations, which influence the present experience. Similarly, the present experience leads to more experiences and modified expectations (see figure below). It is not enough to satisfy the need to generate a positive UX, but the product also needs to match or exceed user’s expectations that formed by the previous experiences.
Hassenzahl & Tractinsky define UX as “a consequence of a user’s internal state, the characteristics of the designed system, and the context within which the interaction occurs”. They specify user’s internal state as predispositions, expectations, needs, motivation, mood, etc., and characteristics of the designed system as complexity, purpose, usability, functionality, etc. The context (or the environment) can be for example an organizational or social setting, meaningfulness of the activity, voluntariness of use, etc.
After describing the components influencing UX, it is essential to define the characteristics of UX itself. Forlizzi & Battarbee have identified five aspects relevant to UX: physical, sensual, cognitive, emotional, and aesthetic. Furthermore, UX is inherently personal, as it exists only in the mind of the user. Being personal and context-dependent means that UX is also unique and dynamic and thus, nearly impossible to repeat. Because of the above-mentioned characteristics, designing UX is not possible, but rather designing for UX.
The Big Picture of UX
To understand the big picture of UX, a single framework is created based on the existing theories (see figure below). The framework illustrates how the UX definitions by Alben, Forlizzi & Ford, Forlizzi & Battarbee, Hassenzahl & Tractinsky, Hole & Williams, and Kankainen are related to each other. That is, what UX means, how it is generated through the interaction between user and product, how characteristics of the user, product and context adapt UX, and how previous experiences and expectations affect the present UX, which then modifies those expectations and creates more experiences.
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