With digital product design and development, where does user experience begin and end?

It doesn’t take long in any tech related conversation before the acronyms begin to flow, because they’re a convenient way to express complex phrases in fewer syllables. Sometimes the acronyms we adopt don’t mean much when broken down (‘wi-fi’ anyone?), but that’s OK if they’ve taken on a single, accepted definition.

Other times we adopt terms that evolve from their original context without taking on a single definition, and this is the case with ‘UX’ as a shorthand for ‘user experience’.

Apart from issues with lay-person pronunciation (“You’re what? An ‘ucks’ designer?”), the problem with ‘UX’ is that it has become a buzzword, a convenient catch-all for a set of issues that UX teams are commonly asked to deal with. I frequently hear ‘UX’ substituted for usability (“we need some UX testing”), user-centred design (“UX process”), wireframes(“when can I see the UX?”). Replacing ‘UX’ with ‘user experience’ in these examples doesn’t work. The idea that the experience of a product or service is affected by more than usability and wireframes is lost, and with it the opportunity to really understand and improve it.

What should UX actually mean?

I was interested to discover that ‘user experience’ is defined within an ISO standard, which fits much better with my own understanding of the term. ISO 9241-210 Human-centred design processes for interactive systems defines user experience as:

A person’s perceptions and responses that result from the use or anticipated use of a product, system or service.

User experience includes all the users’ emotions, beliefs, preferences, perceptions, physical and psychological responses, behaviours and accomplishments that occur before, during and after use.

It’s clear from this definition that user experience is affected by multitude of factors beyond the common ‘UX’ wrapper. To illustrate just how broad that goes, let’s consider a movie streaming service as an example. Outside of design, influencing factors for the service’s user experience might include:

1. Expectations How does the service compare with the user’s pre-conceptions set by internal forces like marketing, advertising, price and brand identity, but also external forces like word of mouth and experience of competitor services?

2. Technology Can the technology deliver what’s expected of the service? Is the streaming quality great on the user’s 60” TV? Is their connection up to it? Is it even available on their platform? Do outages and bugs affect the service?

3. Content Is the content what the user wants? Does it have the latest blockbusters and that 80s sci-fi B-movie they’ve been recommended? Or, is it hampered by licensing restrictions? What about the interface content – are the descriptions useful and the movie stills recognisable? Does advertising get in the way of accessing the service?

4. Customer Service Do they resolve the problem within minutes, outside office hours? Or, are reps over-stretched, under-trained and hard to contact?

5. Context of Use Is the user trying to use this service in difficult circumstances, or in a way it was never intended for? Maybe they want to use it to watch films on a smartphone with a cracked screen in bright light over a 3G connection.

So next time you’re asked you’re asked “where the UX is”, tell them there’s more to it.