2011 / 13 July

User Experience (UX) Design Explained In a Single Image

Over the course of my professional life, I’ve been asked quite a few times to explain the idea/importance of User Experience (UX) Design to a person with no prior experience in the matter. Based on my professional background, this was usually in reference to web application development, but the core idea behind UX both originated from and continues to branch well beyond digital media. As anyone in the field would surely argue, it’s a many-faceted discipline that involves the marriage of both traditionally “left-brained” (problem solving) and “right brained” skills, as well as the ability to empathize with the challenges faced by a theoretical end user. I’ve found that it’s often difficult to convey the nature or importance of the discipline, as many of the most successful interfaces the average person comes across are — due to their very intuitive nature — some of the the least noticed. As Donald Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things and Living With Complexity might argue, sometimes a User Interface is only noticeable when it fails to be intuitive.

The concept of User Experience Design has existed, in one form or another, for quite some time. Although nowadays much attention is given to its application to computer interfaces, its roots are in more physical, concrete applications, often referred to as “human factors.” According to the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, the essence of human factors — and thus the root of UX Design — is “the interaction between human users, machines and the contextual environments to design systems that address the user’s experience.” From this concrete root I draw the comparison that lies at the heart of this blog post.

While visiting the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan during the winter of 2010, I came upon an exhibit called “Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen.” The exhibit featured both media and actual historical artifacts relating to the transition from the formative kitchens of centuries past to those which we now know and love in the modern western world.

While browsing the offerings of the exhibit, I came upon the following image (click to enlarge):

Image from MOMA exhibit Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen

Upon seeing the image, it suddenly dawned on me: This is the very essence of User Interface Design; this single drawing sums up exactly what is important about the craft. Anyone can technically dictate the layout of a kitchen (or website, or magazine page, or ATM interface…), but it takes skill, creativity, empathy, and problem solving prowess to create a functional space that takes into account all reasonable applications while retaining aesthetic. A well-designed kitchen (or website, or…) should result in an efficient, elegant, attractive, and safe end product.

I’ve since referenced this very image when introducing inexperienced individuals to the concept (and importance) of User Interface Design. In doing so, I’ve often witnessed immediate understanding wash over their faces.

I suppose it’s true that a picture is sometimes worth a thousand words.