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User Experience at Hello Erik

View on UX

Posted December 22, 2013

This is my little spot on the web to elaborate and be very verbose on what I believe. This is the high level view of what I believe in and why I do things. If you want to know who I am, this is the place to start.

I’ve come a long way from stating as a hands-on web designer and developer to the experience zealot I am today. I’ve evolved as the philosophy has of UX around me has evolved. Anymore,  I don’t see my goal to be one who primarily produces artifacts and “designs” in the tangible sense. I believe in the power of the whole experience and the psychological journey. Everything has evolved to be a service, where products act as touchpoints. That is what is designed, not just pixels.

I am exceptionally passionate about holistic experience journey design. It’s a whole way of being and thinking. The techniques and  intrinsic love for experience, designing system, and creating meaning and impact is just a part of who I am. Luckily, there is a career that can accommodate that or who knows where I’d be. I’ve never done anything different, from the time I got my first job when I was 15 to today, it’s always been around creating experiences by building things in the digital and physical world.

The sections below are what I am very interested in and work hard to develop as a practice and philosophy. See what you think!

Service Design as the New Meaning of UX

The age of UX being something that only applies to products is dead. Whole services are now just as important, and I’m not sure that there are things that really aren’t a part of service design. This isn’t a different discipline or methodology than popular UX, it’s a superset of what UX means to most of the world; UX is contained inside it. It doesn’t really matter what we’re building, everything has a discourse around it; the before, during, and after that people experience.

This is something I believe is the future of all experience design, and business at large. The historic process and activities scale from micro design on products and interactions all the way up to the macro experience. There’s no real difference in the approach between designing the interface for a sexy mobile app or an un-sexy enterprise control panel, to designing the customer journey experience through a real-world interactive museum or the experience of buying a train ticket and boarding.

Product design, websites, apps, etc, are all still essential. The digital space in which most of us work, these end-result artifacts are the tangible handles that a person interacts with and often perceives as the thing we make. But there’s that service experience effect that precedes and follows the actual interaction that UX has been focused on. The journey of an experience that surrounds and binds together the “UX” of a thing. And this journey mapping isn’t a separate or a parallel activity. It’s broadly called service experience and customer experience, but it’s just “UX” extended to the intangible.

That is what really excites me and expands how I see things. Linking the experiences that a person has through an interaction with a company or product is another form of UX, only now instead of storyboarding and designing for the interactions on a discrete experience, we storyboard and design for a series of linked or tangential experiences. It’s literally a “story” of the entire journey the user has, from when they woke up that morning and had never heard of you, to an ongoing relationship separate from what they touch and use.

How I see it now is that experience design is just too big to be focused in silos around “products” and packageable artifacts. We’ve worked to tear down development silos between product managers, researchers, designers, programmers, QA and such. Now, what the world wants is that cohesive experience across all the company touchpoints, which expands UX to all the stages and touchpoints that occur outside the historic design sphere of influence. It’s a holistic journey that needs holistic stakeholder involvement.

I don’t think anyone would disagree with this. Where the state of design is now, though, is that a focus on service experience design is a luxury. It’s something that companies haven’t had resources or time to think about, but I think that’s changing. That is what gets me up in the morning, this idea that we’ll start designing for complete experiences that stretch to the left and right of the UX product experience.

UX in Organizations

UX moves from just “boots on the ground” to adding “satellites in the sky.” This is going to require a paradigm shift across business as we know it. You can’t “add UX” any longer. It has to be decided up front: are we a company that sells things, or do we deliver experiences? To do the second, you can’t just have a group of mid-level designers trying to paint what you’ve come up with. You need a vision of the experience you’re trying to present from the top down, as essential and important as sales, marketing, operations, development, and everything else. Think VP of Customer and User Experience, or Chief Experience Officers, not a handful of siloed, lonely “UX designers.” The vision of the journey has to start at the top and work it’s way down to the actual implementation.

It’s the “battlefield general” mentality. The plan of how the experience will work across the whole theater of war – tanks, infantry, medics, artillery, supply lines, scouts, recon, and then how that all works with the air, naval, and special forces that integrate together. In this case, the “war” is the whole service experience. That aspect of how you want to be experienced as a whole, as a product company or a service company (or both) needs a plan and central vision.

The way you create things that people enjoy and want to use is by designing the intent throughout that whole journey. Your “UX” isn’t about your products or interfaces, the affordances your customers access aren’t buttons or icons or content. The affordances are now how people access your company, the essence of who and what you are.

This is what makes businesses successful in the modern age. The age of features is dead. The age of experience has arrived. Look at the top performing companies in the world – all are focused on experience. It’s proven. It’s quantifiable. Parity on widgets, patents, technological capability has been reached. People demand a higher order experience.

In the end, business goals are reached when the customer says “I like this, I want more, and I like you.” That’s ubiquitous across all business, there is no debate. And the only way to get that is by creating an experience.

The Work Behind Experience Design

The work of UX is what the UX organizational machine produces. Telling the story is the most essential part. The journey a user takes through your products and services has to be known, documented, pondered and iterated on. This story is where all the artifacts spring from. The story allows for the flows, which allow for the wireframes, which allow for the interfaces, which allow for the visuals, which ultimately comprise the whole tangible experience.

It’s so important to me to have a cohesive flow of how we handle designing things. Not just what we see on the screen, but the design of the whole experience. What a use ends up feeling and thinking in their mind can’t be designed, that’s the experience that manifests. But the tools and methods we use to set it all up is what brings us as close as we can to setting up that happy journey.

I am a firm believer in personas. Both detailed, and ad-hoc. Even just giving a name and gender to your user as you envision them going through their journey adds so much. It’s a story we’re building and authoring. We can’t know how someone will react to what we’ve authored, but the research, time, planning and energy we put into writing it can be done with a rigor that hopefully primes the experience.

It takes a lot of work, and a vision. Having that shared understanding and meaning of what we’re building is what allows us to make the artifacts for personas, flows, storyboards, wireframes, interfaces, and interactions that actually have value. Cohesiveness, that’s the goal of UX design and service design. And cohesiveness comes from those valuable artifacts – it’s never enough to just whip up any of it off the top of your head and call it good. A wireframe without a basis in a flow is just a visual design of boxes and lines. A flow without a persona and story is just fantasy and speculation. It’s all connected.

The Psychology… and Biology of UX

It’s psychology now. Not that it hasn’t been before in UX, but it’s coming in to the spotlight. We step into the person’s mind like it’s a vehicle, and we go on the journey and see everything they see along the way – from before they even know about us, through their initial experiences, down to the hands on touchpoints with our products, and off into the experiences that happen after they’ve journeyed through what we’ve intentionally design to what they decide to construct on their own.

The end result has to be a visceral experience with anything you make, I don’t care how boring you think your industry or product is. That visceral experience is that happens when the user is finally connecting you with the experience. This is done through the thinking and feeling and touching. Even as a very cerebral, architectural UX proponent, that end visual and tactile experience is so crucial to me. The visual aspect of what we product, from an interface to how a train ticket kiosk looks, can’t be ignored. Around 1/3rd of the outer cortex of the brain is dedicated to vision and visual processing – there is no more powerful means to tap into that emotional experience that links a user to you.

This is all because the feelings an experience creates don’t happen in the thinking brain, the outer cortex, but in the inner brain, the limbic system. While the outer cortex process language, features, facts, the limbic brain has no capacity for language. It is the part of our biology that makes something just “feel right.” That is what connects an experience and feeling to the objects that are experienced. Without a visceral response, the experience won’t stick, won’t be remembered, and will inspire no one.

Whenever I see something, I’m instantly a pretty harsh judge of the appearance. I know in my mind that good research, information architecture, flows, etc etc have a tremendous impact on the experience, but if it doesn’t “look and feel” right, the brain rejects most of it. This isn’t to fault the UX work that went in to it, you simply cannot get around the effect that an impression has on our limbic brain – the part of the brain that links emotion to memory and thought.

That paradox of UX and “look and feel” is a sticky trap. It’s very easy and seductive to start with the appearance, since if you do produce something that triggers a strong, positive response, that makes it feel like a good experience on face value. It’s also low hanging fruit; got something that is a poor experience? Spruce it up with some sexy visuals and short circuit the UX process by tapping right into that emotion center of the brain. The problem is that bad flows, usability, and overall long-term experience erodes away at that. You end up with a half-baked experience and something that actually is subterfuge, a veneer that washes away. And design is not veneer, it’s everything from the surface down to the strategy.

The UX Process and Cohesion of Experience

Some have said a UX process is a waterfall approach – I disagree entirely. I see a waterfall approach as a bunch of factory conveyor belts, each doing their part and then passing the widget through a hole in the wall to the next conveyor belt, with no real knowledge of where or why it came from. A UX process is like baking a cake – you’re going to make a pretty terrible cake by just starting at an arbitrary spot. Or worst of all, starting at the end with the sexy fondant and icing.

As much as we may want to just hurry up and skip the parts that don’t feel essential in the immediate, things we’ll “get back to” or “add in” later, it’s very difficult to mix egg yolk into a cake you’ve already tried to bake. And trying to just sorta jam it in and think that people won’t taste it never works. UX isn’t something to be added, it’s the whole process that gets us to the cake, including knowing if it’s a birthday cake, a wedding cake, who the cake is for, all that. So often it’s just an emergency of “get us any cake, make it look good, and we fix the rest of it later.”

That’s why I call UX a process. There are tools and artifacts in the process, but again, it’s hard to add ingredients to a cake that’s already been baked. UX adds time and requires resources, something that we’re still adapting to as modern businesses. Droves of UX people are hired every day that are relegated to patching up UI or producing eleventh hour wireframes to be built with no rhyme or reason other than an intuition and educated guess.

Let the process work. It will feel like a short term loss, but it is always a long term gain that makes up for the added focus on the front end with improved experiences on the backend. And those experiences are what lead to more customers, more users, better products, higher revenues, and increased retention. That’s the secret behind the curtains, that a UX process is actually the means to achieving business goals, masked as design.

We produce artifacts that are used to build things. Doing the hands on work is extremely important. Doing it with rigor is even more important. I think of it as a 360 degree compass – If the most basic wireframe is on 0 degrees, and all the way around at 359 degrees is the highest level business vision – they’re simultaneously as far away as they can get and as close as they can get. That vision has to travel all the way around the circle so it can be re-validated and implemented, and then checked against that 1 degree of separation.

The Necessity of Organizational Structure in Experience Design

What I love is the design of systems. To me, a system can mean the interface in a mobile app, the setup, wiring, components, placement of my (modest) home theater, or the system of how a team and organization works. It’s meta-UX, it becomes systems theory.

The makeup of how a UX process works is a system. It’s the machine inside a project or organization that actually produces the things we need to design the experience. It’s a mix between the hands-on practice of a UX “machine” that produces the “UX” work, and the vision of the system as a battlefield commander.

It’s an architecture of “how are we going to get things done.” Some would call it organizational structure, but that’s too confining and mundane for what I envision and try to evangelize. The system that produces “experiences” is a form of an experience itself. Let’s go on a little journey real fast.

It’s been clearly shown by many different companies and agencies that an intangible touchpoint experience can be designed. We can’t control what the person actually experiences inside of that design, but we’ve done our best to make a delightful series of paths to let the person experience what they need.

To me, what is the difference between designing the Exploratorium or the Richland Library building, and designing a UX or service design organization? There isn’t any. Outside of the nebula of UX, it’s known as management consulting, and is probably as old as modern business itself. There are countless certifications and degrees, and “McKinsey” pedigree will land you a job anywhere you want. Apply that mindset to improving the performance, structure, and strategy of a “UX” organization and suddenly you are now in a Mobius Strip of UX process and system designing your companies UX process and system. You can’t have “good UX” without a UX machine that can produce it – and that UX machine itself needs good UX.

That’s the pinnacle to me. Systems inside of organizations that create the systems which produce the experiences of the people we want to reach. UX isn’t relegated to working on products and hoping that the discourse that surrounds it are handled by the “others” involved. Suddenly the business of service and experience design has an overarching charter, structure, and methodology that is crafted for the company and projects that it serves.

It’s a symbiotic pair of 2 systems. The ones we all know and design, and the thing the user/customer/person experiences. The latter is easily visible and we put a lot of resources into it. But there’s another system – the system that creates the it. It’s UX for UX, and it’s something very different that the traditional systems of management consulting, six sigma, agile, or anything else. It’s the system, methodology, and structure that let’s us produce delight.

That’s what wakes me up early and keeps me up late. I want to build awesome things. I want to delight. I want to be a part of that comet that streaks by and makes people gaze up in wonderment and go “Wow, my life is better for having witnessed and been a part of that.”

Why I Do This

There’s nothing I can do to stop my way of thinking. I challenge every notion that things just “have to be the way they are” and there’s no room or capacity for change or improvement. I do this because I believe in making things better, and making better things. I apply it to my work, my life, my relationships.

I want to say that I have other hobbies and interests, but really I don’t. I come home and write on UX, I read about it, I network with people and talk about it. I do side projects, proof of concepts of ideas and methods, join in with online conversation and teaching, speak about it when I get the chance. I do occasionally play some video games or go to a movie, but honestly my dream vacation would be a cabin rental in Switzerland where I can sit and design things that matter. It’s just a way of living, like being an artist or professional athlete – it’s just what you *do* with yourself. It never gets old, it never gets boring. I want to impact as much of the world as I can through creating these experiences.

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

    Such a great post, it resonates with my reflexions and journey, trying to elevate ux from its current execution silo to a strategic organizational asset. Thanks for this boost of sense making.

  • LuyenDao

    I like your take Erik, I think it is holistic, organic and integrates not only a personal view but a macro philosophy that needs to permeate every facet of our societies.