When the best user experience isn’t the best user experience
I've recently been reading a fairly lightweight, factual book on our Kindle. It's probably been about six months since I've done this, as my wife has had sole custody of the thing for an age, apparently reading Agatha Christie's entire back-catalogue. Anyway, as when I first bought the thing, I have been marvelling at what a nice user-experience it provides. So light, so easy to read, so comfortable to have my thumb by the next-page button and so romp through any given book, never seems to need charging, and so on. It would be fair to say that, as far as I was concerned, the user-experience lacked nothing.
Having recently finished making a vast set of built-in bookshelves for our living room, I have finally got around to unpacking all of our books from their hiding place in the loft. To be fair, we have only been living here for two-and-a-half years...! One of the books unpacked was a rather nice hardcover version of the same book I'm reading on the Kindle. I now seem to recall buying it, nearly new, from a bootsale shortly after it came out. This seemed to be a good excuse to try out a back-to-back comparison, so that night I read the next 3 chapters from the book instead.
The first thing that became apparent is that the Kindle, displaying in my chosen font, size, and spacing, is vastly easier to read. It is also easier to hold whilst lying in bed, and crucially for me, quieter. It's not until you have a tiny baby with the hearing of an owl, and a sleep-deprived wife that you realise how much noise just handling a hardcover book can make.
The second thing I noticed was that the Kindle lacked a whole area of the intended user-experience of the book. The book was full of large colour photographs, content-snippets blown up to full-page quotes, and lots of fun graphic design. The content of the book worked fine without all of this, but its existence added to the overall user-experience enormously. Reading it on the Kindle gave me no complaints at all, but the entire time I could be said to have been missing a whole dimension of the user-experience the publisher had intended me to have.
At work we've spent the past 18 months formalising our UX process. Exciting, I know, but stay with me... This has largely been a process of separating out the Information Architecture and User Experience stuff from the visual design. Previously the journey we took from starting a new project to having the client sign-off a finished design was not that well structured. Although we were already working through most of the necessary steps to be able to call it 'UX', it all tended to be lumped under the common heading of 'design', without significant milestones or deliverable documentation.
Now we have a formalised, structured, and to some extent measurable process. This is good for our internal project planning, good for transparency with the client, and makes it easier to justify why we need a particular number of man-hours on a project. Perhaps most importantly though, it gives us a clearer view of what we are actually delivering in the sense of what kind of UX service.
I've been fortunate enough to be driving this work, and this means that it reflects my firm belief that the visual designer needs to be heavily involved in said process. Some time ago I wrote a post for the company blog giving an example that you would not have one designer design a beautiful teapot, only for a usability expert to come along and move the handle and spout to opposite sides so you could actually use it. A designer should really consider all the ways in which a user might actively engage with a product, not just passively, with their eyes. Aesthetic design is part of the user experience, and has the power to make things more or less usable, so it boils down to the fact that the designer needs to be part of the UX process.
Despite this, our UX service leans heavily toward the scientific end of the spectrum. We are largely asking questions about usability: Can a user find what they're looking for quickly and easy?; Is key information obvious to the eye?; Will these links be easy to click on a smartphone?
And this brings me back to the start of this post. The Kindle answers this type of question brilliantly, as far as I'm concerned, and I find it tremendously difficult to criticise. But, and it's a big 'but', there is scope for a vast area of 'good' user-experience to exist outside of these kinds of usability-led UX tests. I might make the same comparison between an mp3 and an LP. The former is so usable: click the file, it plays, quality is good. The latter is comparatively irksome: find album, remove disc, place on turntable, clean with carbon brush to remove dust and static, lift arm across, press descender button, quality is OK. BUT, the theatre of going through this process - the 12-inch square artwork on the cover, even the pops and crackles - add an extra dimension to the overall user experience. Essentially the more usable product is actually providing a less-rich user experience.
Now this post has clearly become rather longer than anticipated when I began writing, so in order to ensure that your user experience does not degrade any further, I shall attempt to wrap this up.
What I am getting at is that our next steps in delivering a solid UX process have to be greater consideration for the creation of a rich and engaging user-experience; we need a way to make sure that we consider UX beyond usability, perhaps even to the extent that a great overall experience for the user can come at the expense of perfect usability. From a design point of view it's certainly a more interesting challenge: don't just make this easy to use, make it great to use. How we do this I'm not sure, but I look forward to reporting back.
Cross-posted with Martin's personal blog.