UX is an abbreviation of the now well-established term User eXperience. Experience can be defined as the process of one’s mind being affected by a certain thing or event. On a philosophical level, the term has a long tradition of being generally linked to consciousness itself. User experience, therefore, is also a wide umbrella term that covers impressions, emotions, attitudes, feelings, as well as style of use, learning process, behaviour patterns, their changes and development. In other words, everything we as users of a product do, everything we experience when using it (but also before and after this use), what moods arise within us as a result, what context we generate, what we take away from it, how it affects our life, and what we are left with. It is quite a complex thing. In fact, a whole separate meaning of the word experience has emerged, which the Cambridge dictionary defines as “the way that something happens and how it makes you feel” (as in “dining experience”); it has become a technical term for describing a service/product from the point of view of the clients using it.
UX design – the discipline of designing and creating such user experiences – concerns itself with making sure that this “using” of a service or product is pleasant, useful, elicits positive emotions, that our take-away from it is pleasant and positive, and that the experience we are left with is an agreeable one. You might think that this is not something exclusive to making websites (or computer or mobile applications), that the concept of UX design must cover a wider domain, stretch across all types of human activity.
And indeed, you are not wrong. Every piece of industrial design, be it a chair, car, or plate, is also an example of UX design. The concept and realization of an exhibition, concert, or conference, the style and atmosphere of a restaurant or a theme park, the creation of a nature trail in a national park – these are all practical applications of UX design.
This blog, however, does not aspire to cover UX design in its entirety, and for its purposes will narrow the topic down to a single small sub-discipline, that being the UX design of interactive applications. What exactly is meant by that, we will discuss shortly. But at the same time, we will take a broader view of our subject matter, and design itself. That is because one of the central ideas of this blog is a much more general notion of design – one that covers everything a typical interaction designer needs to be able to handle in practice. There is a lot more to discuss besides designing the end-product: communication with the client, analytical work, and coordination of the many different professions involved.
The word application is now most frequently understood to mean a piece of software (a software application; a computer program; an app), so much so that there is little point trying to fight it. However, its original meaning is wider, and means applying, using, implementing something in practice. This suits us well. It allows us to use the term applications – just to keep things simple – without thinking merely of individual pieces of computer software, and extend it to other related products that are of interest to this blog and its branch of UX design. We shall call them interactive applications, meaning namely:
- Websites – ie sets of documents interconnected by links that offer their visitors information online, from simple presentations, through to personal as well as news sites and blogs, to extensive catalogues and portals
- Online tools – applications built as dynamic websites offering some kind of interactive services: e-shops, communication tools, social networks, purpose-built applications, online games, etc
- Computer applications – programs with an interactive interface, executable within an operating system, as well as graphical user interfaces (GUI) of operating systems themselves; text editors, information systems, tools, games, and so on
- Mobile applications – interfaces of operating systems (OS) of smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices, and programs (“apps”) that run on them
- Non-computer applications – interfaces of systems and programs of devices that we do not consider to be computers as such (they do have a computer inside, but hidden in the background) – smart TVs, digital radios, all kinds of media players, etc
- Interfaces of machines and appliances – the method and manner in which interactive machines are manipulated and in which they communicate with the user – ATMs, coffee machines, parking machines, payment terminals, various dashboards and instrument panels, consumer electronics, or home appliances: cookers, fridges, radios, home weather stations, and suchlike
- Other similar interactive user interfaces, ie any machine or tool that communicates with us in one way or another: responds with some sort of feedback to our actions and commands, and expects our reaction
The domain of interactive applications is rather broad, as it turns out. To keep things simple, we shall limit ourselves to applications we all probably know best: websites and online tools, but we will make occasional forays into computer, mobile, and other such applications.
The primary focus of this blog is designing websites and web and mobile applications. The processes and principles, however, can also be of use elsewhere.
Interactive design and interaction design
Here, interactive is the key term. Traditional “passive” design in a traditional format – eg print media, normal advertising, company logos, etc – is essentially a one-sided and unidirectional activity. From a communication standpoint, it is a monologue: a designer proposes a method in which a medium passes required information on to a viewer, reader, or listener. The method is executed, the information is conveyed in one direction, job done. An image has been seen, a radio advertisement heard, a magazine read, a poster spotted.
An interactive medium, on the other hand, engages its users in a dialogue. They are not just passive consumers of the transmitted information – instead, they provide response and feedback, and their actions, behaviour, and decisions influence and alter the behaviour of the application. This is where interaction design comes in.
An interaction designer no longer only designs the shape and style of information conveyed in one direction, but a mutual communication. They define a communicative language which facilitates a dialogue between ourselves and a parking machine, a mobile phone interface, a calculator on the computer, a website, an e-shop, an online application. And not only this, but also the style of such a dialogue and the rules of its behaviour. They also design readily comprehensible symbols and commands (that will confuse the user as little as possible), and signpost the easiest ways to get to the most common destinations.
Individual steps, words, and sentences within this dialogue correspond to the typical specifications of traditional design – the designer must work out the layout of a specific data table, how an error message is displayed, the first impression of a company website’s homepage, the appearance of input fields and buttons on an order form. But all these particular features come together under the umbrella of interaction design, which is what binds them together into a coherent whole. This subsequent whole is governed by consistency, logic, intuitiveness, comprehensibility, and straightforward paths to destinations.
Interaction design endeavours to unify the design of all component parts of the interactive applications into one consistent, logical, and intuitive system.