The UX practices and mindsets are evolving. It’s becoming clear that UX is not just about user validation, pixels, or wireframes. That’s the old paradigm. UX is much more. UX permeates the whole design process and the overall underlying strategy. Because UX is strategy in action.
A little bit of history: do you remember when…?
For many years UX has been dominated by the design/wireframe and testing paradigm, and this is not a surprise.
Although stemming from HCI and UCD, the real turning point in the dissemination of a user centred culture was early 2000, when Jakob Nielsen and Donald Norman have highlighted and explained the importance of usability and good design.
The initial reaction of the industry was to introduce user testing, heuristics, and guidelines to support designers developing products that were accessible, usable, and fairly simple. The delight and the pleasure of using the digital products were still not fully understood, as at that time, the main focus was onfunctionalities and delivering products that offered new digitalised services — e-banking, e-commerce, e-learning… Usability was the magic word, as all those new services needed to be sufficiently easy to use to attract early adopters.
The competition was somehow limited, and the new services served the purpose to offer something new, innovative, answering an emergent need or exploiting a new opportunity. User testing was the perfect answer: asking the user to validate the concepts and UI was seen as a key step to make sure products and services were reasonably usable.
But soon the emergent needs became habits, and the reasonable usable concepts became inadequate for the growing market. Technology also evolved fast — someone may still remember WAP sites on incredibly slow Edge phones, when accessing the site was already perceived as achievement.
Now we live the times of the Always-on, and we can hardly imagine our lives without being constantly connected. And this caused the competition for the user to change quickly: more and more providers started offering similar and competing services on the new emerging digital platforms, and the user needs could be fulfilled by countless different offers from different providers.
Answering users’ needs or exploiting a market opportunity soon was not enough anymore, and user testings and heuristics, despite remaining great tools, were not adequate to keep up with a fast paced competition to grab users’ attention, time, and loyalty.
This is the same time when the experience economy paradigm was emerging, highlighting how users were not looking for services, but experiences: the shift from a service based economy, to an experience based economy has been subtle but key in determining how the UX industry evolved. And this new paradigm meant that good UI and IxD design and user validation and testing were not sufficient anymore, that a new way of engaging with the user and a new way of thinking and designing was needed.
And then UX appeared: the user as the sole expert in their experiences, where designers, researchers, developers, and strategists operate together to understand the opportunities and develop complex experiences, rather than products. The new opportunities today are not meant to fill a need, but to satisfy the desire to feel engaged and delighted by the interaction with a service or product that is perceived by the user as valuable and meaningful.
…And this is where we are…
The UX industry is maturing and it is becoming clear that UX is an end-to-end process that ends with design and the delivery of products and services through iterative user testing phases, but it starts with explorative and generative research to define the strategy and what is valuable and meaningful for the users.
The wider adoption of ethnography based methods and the increased attention to users mental models, behaviours, attitudes, and emotions before the design phase kicks off indicates that the UX practice is moving towards a more holistic and strategic dimension, embracing and including the user at its very core to deliver and generate value.
Because it’s not anymore about the pure function, as in the old usability and user testing days, but it’s about the experience. It’s not about the what can be done, but it’s all about the how it feels.
Strategists, researchers, designers, and developers are the professionals that can and should translate users’ mental models and expectations into experiences that empower the users and the brand, but the sole experts in their experience are always and only the users.
UX is a strategic holistic approach, where the service or product is strategy in action. In a mature UX process, execution and design complement and embody the understanding of what users think, feel, expect, like, and value to generate value, meaning, and relationships.