Category Archives: User Experience

For Science! Aperture and the user experience

I’ve been thinking lately about how best to communicate the different aspects of user experience (UX).

In the process I’ve been reading different books and articles on UX and in amongst the many and varied interpretations (For example: 1, 2, 3), I have started to see a trend.

Mike Kuianvsky talks about “functionality”, “efficiency”, and “desirability”. Don Norman uses “utility”, “usability” and “emotion”. Christian Rohrer’s simple model of user experience is similar with “utility”, “usability” and “brand experience”.

Whatever you call them, the consensus seems to be that UX is generally about the product:

  • meeting user needs
  • being easy to use, and
  • being desirable and appropriate in appearance or form.

There is sometimes disagreement about exactly where to draw the line between the three, but these general divisions certainly make a lot of sense to me, especially if we are discussing web products—and I often am.

Interestingly, in his book Emotional Design, Norman also discusses three levels of processing in the human brain: reflective, behavioural and visceral. I find this interesting because although there’s not a direct parallel to the three aspects of UX—the reflective level can be used to contemplate all aspects—there does seem to be strong linkages between visceral–emotion and between behavioural–usability. I would also say only the reflective level can truly evaluate the utility of a product.

With the general breakdown more or less sorted, let me share where I consider the lines are drawn between them.

Utility

As a sweeping generalisation, I believe this aspect is most often overlooked by web professionals and even UX professionals. I suspect this is true only because “utility” seems so self-evident that it passes by largely un-acknowledged:

Every product should serve a valuable function and meet the needs of it’s users.

This is so elementary, that often times we don’t question the value of a new product or feature. It’s possible to jump right into optimising how easy the new feature is to use before considering whether it is worth using at all!

I would say that a business analyst is well equipped to ensure a product has good utility, although they would need to bring their skills to bear on user analysis rather than business analysis.

Usability

This is the aspect I believe we all tend to know well. It covers how easy functionality is to find, how straightforward functionality is to use and how easy content or instructions are to read and understand. There are many sets of heuristics around to help guide interaction designers in optimising a product for user behaviour—my favourite are Ben Schneiderman’s—and there are many practitioners who are very good at finding usability issues through scenario-based user testing.

I would say that accessibility can affect all aspects of the user experience, but most accessibility issues will initially be issues of usability. From there, less-than-universal access can affect the utility and identity of the product for some users.

Identity

This aspect seems to be the most prone to grey areas in it’s definition. It covers aesthetics and desirability but also brand treatment and the emotional profile of the product. It even covers issues related to the personal identity of the person using the product (i.e: what does my ownership or use of this product say about me?).

Identity design takes the black magic out of graphic design. Once a visual treatment is chosen, it can be iteratively tested and refined like the other aspects of UX until it closely reflects the brand values and emotional profile that has been determined to be appropriate for the product.

Aesthetic treatment can also be used to smooth over some utility and usability issues. For example: If I am using an attractive product and experience frustration I am more inclined to give the product a second chance and keep trying than if the product is ugly. I reason that if the designers have put a lot of thought into the identity design I trust that they are more likely to have put similar thought into the product’s other aspects, so I will give them the benefit of the doubt… for now.

Don Norman presents the case that attractive things work better because an aesthetically pleasing product can help to relax the user, giving the brain a greater ability to perform creative problem solving and work around issues we encounter.

As customers, we may even be willing to make a compromise on utility or usability if the product makes a fitting statement about who we are or who we would like to be. Such displays of—very natural—vanity lead some people to decry “form over function!”—but as we know, aesthetics can have a more valuable impact than vanity alone.

Regardless of how it helps, good identity design can only compensate so far for deficiencies in other aspects of a design. Serious utility or usability issues will generally result in a useless or unusable product—unless it’s so attractive that it functions as art in it’s own right.

For science

So, where does Aperture come into this discussion? Well, I’ve hinted before that I enjoy the odd game. This odd game is one I have enjoyed immensely. The game’s developer—Valve—has user experience down to a science, so their Aperture Science Weighted Companion Cube® seemed a fitting example for the aspects of UX. A 1920×1200 pixel wallpaper version is available. Enjoy!

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