The big question: Can you design an experience?

Paul Boag

There has been much debate about whether it is possible to design the experience of users. Can you really be a user experience designer? I believe that depends on how you define the role.

Over the years I have heard many people argue it is impossible to design the user experience and that being a UX designer isn’t a thing. I do share sympathy with this viewpoint.

So many things and so many people affect the experience of the user. Many of these things are utterly outside of the control of the designer. Things like where the user is, what else is happening around them, and the context of their entire lives.

We have so little control over the experience

I once did usability testing with a lady in her home. In many ways, she was a walking stereotype. An older woman who lived alone with six cats. She had covered every surface in her house with knick-knacks, including her computer desk.

When we sat down to test the site with her, a cat immediately jumped onto her lap. Through the entire session, she was struggling to use the mouse, partly because of the cat and partly because of the limited space on her desk.

After getting her to add an item to the shopping cart, I was about to ask her to go to the cart when I realised she would fail. I had been careful to design the site to include the basket in the top right where people would expect to find it. But I knew instantly she would fail to spot it. Fail because she had a post-it note stuck on the top right corner of the screen.

Often there are factors in the life of users that can hinder the user’s experience of our sites.

Of course, there was no way I could have anticipated the post-it, the cats or the cluttered desk. But all these things impacted her experience. Does this, therefore, mean we cannot design the user experience? Is there too much outside of our control?

I guess if you are pedantic, you could argue so much is out of our control that creating the experience is impossible. But I would say that designers in any field have to accept there are variables outside of their control. Parts of the experience of using their products that they cannot ‘design’.

I understand that creating an experience is a hazy idea. As UX designers, we find ourselves struggling with many variables beyond our influence. Variables created by the context in which users find themselves. But there is another key factor too. When it comes to designing a user experience, there are many people involved.

No one person can design an experience

As a user experience designer, I don’t produce anything tangible. I don’t create the interface, that is the UI designers job. A copywriter writes the copy. The developers produce the code. The information architecture is set up by the… well, you get the idea.

To design the user’s experience requires people across an organisation working together. All kinds of employees, even those that have no direct contact with the user. Once again, this challenges the definition of designing the experience.

You could argue that giving ourselves the title of user experience designers is a mistake. Perhaps there is a better analogy for what we do than ‘design’.

If not designers, then what?

In Aaron Sorkin's 2015 movie Steve Jobs, Woz asks Steve:

What did you do? You can’t write code; you're not an engineer, you're not a designer. You can’t put a hammer to a nail… What do you do?

For me, Steve’s answer sums up in many ways what we do as user experience designers. He replied, “I play the orchestra”.

This simple analogy has helped me to understand what I do. It has helped me come to terms with both the lack of control I have over the experience and my reliance on many other people to achieve anything.

The conductor doesn’t write the sheet music. In the same way, we as user experience designers don’t create the experience. But like a conductor, we can shape it. We can set its tempo and influence its feel. A good conductor can bring out the best in a piece of music, while a bad one can destroy it. So it is with us as user experience designers. We cannot fundamentally control every nuance of the experience, but we can influence it, we can shape it.

Being a UX designer is like being the conductor of an orchestra .

Neither can the conductor achieve anything alone. He needs the orchestra. But the orchestra needs him. Without a conductor, the orchestra loses its cohesion. It loses its unity and common direction.

Our job as user experience designers is to get everybody focused on the user and creating a great experience. We are the ones that decide how we want to shape the experience, but we need the orchestra to make that vision a reality.

An overstretched metaphor

I see it as my job to lead the charge towards creating a better experience for users. I recognise I can only control so much and that I can achieve nothing without others. But equally, I know that little will get done without somebody taking on this role. Every project, team and company need someone who champions the user experience.

Look, I know this is an overstretched metaphor. I am not suggesting we all start calling ourselves user experience conductors (although I do like user experience director). I am just sharing a way of thinking that has helped me to understand my role. I hope it will help you too.