Friday, July 20, 2012

The Delicate Subject of User Experience

When talking about any technology product, user experience usually comes up as a key factor. All too often I hear that this particular product has a poor user experience while another product offers an awesome experience. Yet what is user experience? It can’t be measured in bits, bytes, or seconds. Comparing technology is usually easy, a 256-bit encryption is stronger than a 128-bit. 4 GB of memory is more than 2 GB. 8 ms access speed is faster than 12 ms. But user experience? Is it an art or a science?

I believe that it is a bit of both. For sure, there is an indirect relationship between user experience and complexity. People appreciate simplicity. Complex user interface may look cool to someone who appreciates the richness of capabilities but it intimidates most people and hinders adoption. Think of the cockpit of a space shuttle (you know, from back when the US government had a space program) - cool but complex! Or think of Photoshop. There is a reason why more people use Instagram than Photoshop. It’s called simplicity.
AutoCAD has many features and is thus fairly complex
But of course simplicity is hard to achieve when the product is rich on features and options. That’s the reason why professional photographers and artists use Photoshop and why my car was designed in AutoCAD and not SketchUp. There are of course other scientific methods that allow the developers to arrange complex features in a less intimidating way by making certain functionality more prominent or by arranging controls in logical groups. And there is much more to the science of user experience including techniques such as navigation design, interaction design, attention economy, cognitive dimensions, etc. I won’t even pretend that I am an expert here.
Google is simple - it does just one thing
I have this nagging feeling, though, that user experience is also to a large extent an art. Design elements such as color palette, symbols, fonts, or image style are subject to fashion trends that change from year to year. Today, there is no algorithm that predicts which fashion collection will succeed next spring, which pop star will score a hit or which video game will become a blockbuster. For the same reasons, we can’t really tell about which user experience will be more successful with users.

Just think about some of the famous examples of successful user experience. When Microsoft SharePoint first took the market by storm, a lot of the success has been attributed to the compelling user experience. “It is just like Office”, we kept hearing. Today, the SharePoint UI is being considered rather outdated and Microsoft invested heavily into introducing new a UI in SharePoint 2013. We’ll see how that’s going to be received.

Or think of Apple, the ultimate pinnacle or coolness, hipness, and user experience. Do you really think that the original models of iMac and iPod look that awesome today? Probably not. But you did when they first came out. We all did! In fact, as successful as Apple’s products are, iTunes offers a very poor user experience. We use it anyway because we like the devices and we have no alternative to iTunes. But we didn’t select iTunes because of its user experience.

The original iMac does not look as cool today as it did in 1998
Look at today’s popular software - take social networking. You can hardly argue that the user experience offered by Jive or by Yammer is any better than what eRoom provided 10 years ago. Sure, eRoom was perhaps ahead of its time. But maybe, the fashion finally caught up with the user experience of online collaboration.

The perception of user experience evolves not only as a result of fashion trends but also as function of innovation and technical advances. 20 years ago, the term GUI (graphical user interface) was the state of art in user experience. 10-15 years ago, a web-like UI was all the rage - in fact, Microsoft even shipped a version of Windows that used a browser to navigate folders. Remember the wave of Flash-based user interfaces? Or the excessive use of Ajax-based components? Widgets? Gestures? As a new technology allows us do new things, the user experience expectations evolve. Predicting what’s coming next might be difficult. Predicting what will succeed is both, art and science.

Microsoft Windows 8 introduces the Metro-style UI: is it art or science?
Right now, every ISV is trying to figure out how much to invest into the new Microsoft Metro-style user experience. Is that a real emerging trend? We’ll see!

1 comment:

  1. I agree "...user experience is also to a large extent an art" and as such hard to predict. But I think user experience is measurable in some areas, e.g. for Websites. There you can test it and learn how to make good user experience. Two weeks ago I've been in a competition guessing 19 A/B Website user experiences. If you want to try it yourself: