So what is this UX stuff all about, anyway?

If you follow web design or development, chances are you’ve heard the term “user experience” or “UX” thrown around at some point. But if you haven’t spend some time around UX literature or practitioners, you might not have a good idea of what UX is about. Also, I’ve heard some outright misconceptions about UX, so I thought I’d talk a little bit about that today. So if you want to learn more about what UX is and isn’t, read on!

Not just another pretty interface

Probably the most common misconception that people have about UX is that it’s all about user interface (UI) design. It’s true that there is significant overlap between UI and UX. Many people even have both terms in their job titles, but the two are not identical.

Your interface can have the slickest graphics in the world, but if users can’t do what they came to do or find the information they’re looking for, that interface is a failure from a UX standpoint. The prime directive of UX is usability. Come to think of it, “usability” is another term that could stand some clarification. Obviously, it refers to the ability to use something, but perhaps it’s best to illustrate with a bad example of usability:

Obviously the video is making fun of online shopping experiences, but the issues raised don’t have to do with the aesthetics of the UI per se. I can guarantee that having well-done graphics accompany this process would not make me any less annoyed. There is a correlation between attractiveness and functionality, but it’s not perfect.

For example, I would consider Reddit to be functional, although it isn’t particularly attractive. Other than when they’re experiencing server load issues, I’ve never had difficulty doing what I want to do or figuring out how to do something I haven’t done before. That’s enough for a decent user experience.

Squishy emotions

Another phrase you hear in UX circles is “emotional design.” This can make some tech types nervous. Many people are drawn to working with computers because of the strict logic and lack of ambiguity. However, it’s worth remembering that ultimately computers are just tools for people to accomplish tasks. And people, like it or not, make a lot of their decisions based on emotions. Even people obsessed with logic. So you can complain about emotions and pretend they’re the province of stupid people, or you can recognize circumstances as they are and incorporate that information into your work.

All that said, UX work isn’t just doing what feels good. Many UX principles have strong empirical foundations. In fact, a lot of the ideas have their roots in previous research on interactions with physical objects. For instance, Hick’s Law is often cited when suggesting that an interface minimize the number of choices in a menu. It comes from a study done with lamps in the 1950s, but its findings are just as applicable today. The original study, as well as many other studies done by others before and since, shows that giving people too many choices at once slows them down. This is just as true of menus comprised of pixels as it is of people trying to choose from a selection of lamps. Side note: the article on Hick’s Law comes from Smashing Magazine, a fantastic resource for keeping up with the latest developments in UX!

I hope you learned something useful about UX from this post. Now when you hear someone conflate UX and UI, you’ll know enough to correct them! Granted, correcting them might not always be the smartest move under the circumstances, but that’s another discussion altogether.

What else would you like to know about UX? How do you incorporate it into your work? Let me know in the comments!

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