The nature, scope and prevalence of UX has exploded in the last few years. From humble beginnings rooted in geekish usability, User Experience is now everywhere and on the lips of corporations, recruiters and graduates alike.
So what is this thing we call ‘User Experience’? How did it come to be so ubiquitous, welcome and well regarded, like Pinot Grigio or David Beckham’s later career?
Let’s start at the beginning. Back in the blur of time, when men wore white coats, chewed pipes and assumed women were slightly hysterical and not to be trusted beyond laundry. Computers were the size of a 50’s b-movie monster and were full of smoking pipes. As technology was primitive, so was the way in to access this tech – first by dials and switches, then by punched cards – little rectangles of paper where holes could be made (‘punched’) to signify a zero, or left intact to indicate the opposite binary ‘one’.
And that was the user interface. This was the only way to instruct these colossal machines to do what you desired, while you waited for your white coat to be cleaned and leafed through Pipes Weekly. It was clearly awful and needed improvement through the next leap in user interfaces – the command line.
The command line interface (CLI) enabled users to issue instructions via codes, or commands like ‘DIR’ or my favourite, ‘KILL’. As technology grew up, so did the complexity and ability of computers, and for the first time, people looked to design to solve some of those problems. Although they wouldn’t have put it that way (designing UX is a fairly recent concept), these engineers of the 1970’s and 80’s had time between arranging their big hair and bigger vinyl record collections to attempt to solve some of the fundamental problems in the design of computerised input and display.
Fast forward a few years and innovations like the mouse, graphical user interface (giving birth to that most dreadful abbreviation, GUI) made computers easier to use and understand. The barrier to accessing computers was eroded on two fronts: PCs became cheaper, broke out of the laboratory and corporate HQ and settled in the bedrooms of hobbyists and – gasp – even normal people)
The past few years have seen further innovations in user interfaces, which have in turn lead to new ways to think about and use technology; the gesture based waving of Wii put a new way of interacting with technology into the living rooms of millions around the word; Steve Jobs masterful unveiling of the Apple iPhone in 2007 had people marvelling at the first practical touch based interface which could – literally – be put into the hands of consumers all over the work. Wearable tech promises to free us from the omg I’ve just dropped my phone into the loo moments. It may also end the endless parade of smartphones; black glassy rectangles which no longer seem innovative.
But we’ve been talking about user interface only. User Experience is not just about the design or way we interact with screens of information. It’s an emerging field that, along with new concepts such as Service Design and Customer Experience, seeks to understand and design an overall impression over a series of touchpoints with a service that a user might encounter. (I’ll leave aside the rather semantic debate currently quietly raging over the differences and similarities between UX, CX and SD. One will become the heavyweight world champion, but for now they are all just contenders!)
As consumers, we’ve all experienced differing levels of user experience in the services we engage with during our daily lives. Paying a credit card, applying for a mortgage, checking our utility bills, upgrading broadband or moving house. These are all examples of us accessing different company’s services – either via mobile, telephone, face-to-face or online. It shouldn’t matter anymore our chosen channel. What does matter is how our expectations are often frustrated dealing with (usually big) companies who have separate departments covering customer service in telephone, online etc. We don’t really want to have a conversation with them and explain multiple times what we’re trying to do. We just want them to do it. And well.
User Experience is essentially a way of predicting these kinds of interactions between service providers and customer, and thinking about how to make them possible and seamless. Making these experience touchpoints efficient, enjoyable and differentiated is the key to User Experience and why companies are taking it seriously. Oh, and like any good challenge – making a good UX is very hard. Research, insight, innovation, design, iteration and constant evaluation are the only ways to design a high-performing UX. Also, UX is still cabalistic enough to throw up both genius and mavericks.