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User Experience at Hello Erik

The Growing Role of User Experience

Posted June 28, 2011

“We choose to do User Experience, not because it is easy, but because it is hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

– Adapted from President John F. Kennedy, in regards to putting a man on the moon.

It is the year 2011. The internet and business have become indistinguishable from eachother. No longer are there many “brick and mortar” businesses that don’t have some sort of reliance on the Internet and websites; either as providers of an online service, or the end-user of online service. The Internet is as essential to business now as a telephone was 75 years ago.

And yet, in this modern era, applying User Experience to your online presence is often seen as a luxury. Icing. Something that has hypothetical value, but is easily dismissed as superfluous expenditure.

In the days of yore, circa the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21 century, the common responsibilities of what we now call User Experience was relegated to graphic artists, html writers, and overall group opinion. Basically anyone who touched the front end had a hand in defining the “user experience.” And as a web developer since 1995, I can tell you – that is a terrible way to do things.

I spent probably a decade as the person who held the role of “visual designer.” This encompassed graphic arts, html creation, and page layout and aesthetics (which we now call wireframing and interaction design). But we were just winging it. Going with opinion and feel and often just copying what bigger companies did. But User Experience as a role was something that wasn’t even considered.

One of the very first books I read on usability and the web was “Creating Killer Web Sites” by David Siegel. This book was published in 1995, and basically predicted most of the tenants of modern User Experience Design, even though the phrase “user experience” is nowhere to be found in the book. This was the first “web development” book I ever read, right when it was published. This single book changed the course of my career forever.

The ownership of site usability and “user experience” (uncapitalized) being held by graphic designers, html coders, and site owners in general. This went on for a while, and slowly businesses started to differentiate development and strategy. Usability and interface design started to be referred to as being “user friendly.” Even the iconic book “Don’t Make Me Think” by Steve Krug makes no reference to “user experience.” The subtitle to the book is “A common sense approach to web usability” and it does refer to people as “user advocates,” but this was still a precursor to what we define as User Experience today. Most people know of and refer to Don’t Make Me Think often, without realizing it was published in 2000. 11 years ago. Over a decade. This book was being written when Y2k was still a threat, and websites had to be optimized for Netscape 4.5 and Internet Explorer 4 .

So yeah, Steve Krug had basically endless methods for improving websites. You couldn’t throw a rock without hitting some abomination of design and usability.

Let’s fast forward, since this isn’t a article on the history of web site development. It’s 2011, and we all know – having a good website is key. In fact, it’s more than key, the venn diagram of “quality business” and “quality website” are almost a complete overlap. No one would tell you that a solid web presence isn’t a basic business requirement.

Get on with it, Erik

That was a long preamble, yikes. So back to the point. What is User Experience and why is it that businesses are starting to fill it as a distinct, specialized roles in their company? Because it’s being made apparent that designing a strategy around how your users interact with your business is not something that can be neglected or an afterthought. All other sorts of offline businesses have recognized the importance of “how our target audience interacts with our product” for almost as long as business has been around. Henry Ford himself was concerned with how to make operating a car easier and a better experience for the driver. But the modern business website can barely be called 20 years old. And, the internet wasn’t built primarily for commerce.

I’ve adapted a diagram from Bruce Temkin about the maturity of User Experience within a business. The original post is in regards to Customer Experience, but the paradigm applies the same to UX. It starts with the lowest level of importance, and grows as the pyramid gets wider towards the foundation:

Here’s a text version (for all you SEO crawlers):

  1. UX is not recognized at all. Usability is a crapshoot depending on your html coder and graphic artist.
  2. UX is recognized as a term, but is considered to be a nonessential focus. Almost all icing, no cake.
  3. UX is recognized as a goal, but not delegated to one person or specialist. Everyone is supposed to just “keep it in mind.”
  4. UX is assigned to one or more people, usually pulling double duty as UX and visual design, html/css, or development.
  5. UX has dedicated personnel and might even be recognized as a distinct department of the business. May be compartmentalized and used as an adjunct.
  6. UX is a part of the business in the same sense as accounting or marketing or sales. It is not compartmentalized and is considered a required role/department.

Again, I didn’t invent this model. I reworded it and introduced my own opinions into the levels, though.

Most businesses are pulling a 3 or 4. UX is becoming more and more of a buzzword, and business are adding new hires to fill the role, where it had not existed before. Levels 5 and 6 are becoming more popular too, but mostly for ecommerce sites or businesses that have a large userbase and large scope, where what the user experiences is a critical role to the businesses (application, service, offering) success.

I’ll be the first to admit that usually, a level 4 will suffice, if UX is a consideration at all. Not every business needs a dedicated UX department, nor a dedicated UX person who does nothing else. In my article “Treatise on User Experience Design – Part 1” I outline 5 roles that a UX team could consist of, but 1 person could easily fulfill all those roles. In fact, as of my typing of this article, I fulfill all 5 myself!

The coveted level 6, a dedicated and necessary team within a company, is a significantly more rare thing. Partially because most business don’t need it, and partially because business who do need it are still adapting and adjusting to a new paradigm. It didn’t exist before, do we really have to expand and allocate resources for it now? We’ve gotten by all this time without “UX,” is it something we can just skip?

No.

If you operate on the internet and have “users” who interact with your website, product, or application (desktop, browser based, mobile based, whatever), you need UX focus. You can no longer continue without it. It is like having at least 1 accountant – no business would think of operating without one, or retaining one as a contractor. We don’t expect the rest of the employees to just “wing it” with the accounting and budget and payroll. It’s understood: If you want your finances to work, get an accountant.

If you want what your users experience to work, get a User Experience Designer.

P.S. I’m going to drop the same construction worker quote I’ve said before:

Never time to do it right; always time to do it twice.

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I love all things experience design. I work as a Principal Service Experience Designer at Intuit in Mountain View, CA.