Every aspect of the user's interaction with a product, service, or company that make up the user's perceptions of the whole. User experience design as a discipline is concerned with all the elements that together make up that interface, including layout, visual design, text, brand, sound, and interaction.
User experience (abbreviated as UX) is how a person feels when interfacing with a system. The system could be a website, a web application or desktop software and, in modern contexts, is generally denoted by some form of human-computer interaction (HCI).
What is UX? I've heard some people refer to it in the context of the system or the interface. Are they correct? Or is it more than that?
A definition that I keep going back to for User Experience (UX) is from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO; http://www.iso.org/ referenced as ISO 9241-210). They define it as:
User Experience (n.) - a person's perceptions and responses that result from the use or anticipated use of a product, system, or service.
So what does this really mean? It's a person's preconceived notions about the product, system, or service before they have even used the system. Perhaps based on information they have heard from other individuals, or based upon their past experiences from other products, systems, or services from the same organization. It's the emotions they bring with them before they've even started based upon their anticipation.
Also, it is their responses as they are using the product, system or service. Is it providing them the information they expect, and when they expect it? Is the product or system doing things on their behalf, but they didn't directly ask for it? Is the product or system presenting an error message, but it doesn't make sense? Are they running into points of confusion or frustration?
Let's take a moment to look at user experience from a different perspective, from a software / product development perspective. I often hear that "we need to build the system for anyone to use." I jokingly refer to this as a chicken-little effect. Anyone in the whole world, all 7 billion of us, need to be able to "intuitively" be able to use this system.
The challenge is when we build something for "anyone" to be able to use, you end up building it for no one. So who are we building it for?
We're building it for... (queue the drum roll) ..."the user" ...the who? This mystical living thing often known as "the user."
Sometimes I hear "the user" referred to as you, in first person. Once the system is created and launched into production, if you are the person who will be regularly using the system as well as paying to use the system, then great! If not, then you are not "the user."
At other times, I hear "the user" referred to as your mom. (Hi mom!) Often in the context that the system needs to be so easy to use your mother can figure it out. Now if your mother will be using the system regularly as well as paying to use the system, then great! If not, then sorry mom (no offense) but you are not "the user."
But what we need to keep in mind is that "the user" represents real people who need to accomplish real tasks. Another way to look at this is by identifying a specific target audience of people.
This reminds me of a quote from Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppets:
Good experiences are invisible... give the audience enough to work with and they will do the rest.
On a side note, it's usually the bad experiences that we hear about. Just as with the infamous Kermit the Frog, people don't usually think about the puppeteer controlling Kermit behind the scenes, they think of Kermit. In parallel to technology, people don't usually think about all the server farms, load balancers, database schemas, and business logic layers; they just think about the interface they see displaying on the screen of their device. However, just as Kermit wouldn't come to life without the puppeteer, in most cases the interface would not come to life without all the programming and system architecture design. But it's the interface that people experience and have an emotional response.
As I'm working on software / product development efforts, I try to keep four principles in mind for the identified target audience:
Minimize / decrease their confusion
Minimize / decrease their frustration
Maximize / increase their productivity
Maximize / increase a positive response
To further elaborate, by "positive response" I'm referring to providing the given target audience with a compelling experience, a.k.a. a WOW factor.
Throughout the process, trying to minimize opinionated feedback. It's not what my opinion that matters, or the personal opinion of any member of the project/product team, but rather what really matters is what is in the best interest of the identified target audience who will be using the product / system.
Another quote that comes to mind is from RJ Owen, stating
Every project... starts with people.
People who will pay for the project. People who will be on the project team. People who will draft the requirements and user stories. People who will design the database. People who will do the coding. People who will craft the user interface and user experience. People who will conduct the QA. And hopefully once that is all said and done, people who will use the product or system (and perhaps it doesn't just turn into an assumption of "if you build it, they will come").
From the user experience discipline, we can validate what we are building with the real people who will be using the product or system. A group of people who belong to the identified target audience. And not to only validate the product or system with the stakeholders who are paying for it. We can achieve this validation by observing real people perform real scenarios and tasks (known as usability studies and ethnographic research) using a proof of concept, a prototype, or something already in production. Once again, doing all of this while trying to minimize opinionated feedback.
It's an ongoing challenge to seek the balance between the needs of the business with your users' real needs. However as user experience practitioners, our goal should be to create extraordinary experiences for our identified target audience.
And, this is why UX is more than just a buzz word.