September 16, 2013

Designing for a Total Experience or Improvising Discrete Aspects of Product

Summary: User undergoes ‘a total experience’ - an entity in whole with unique properties of its own - resulting from reactions of the discrete product attributes working on each other in the context of a specific emotional and environmental settings.

User Experience Design
In my decade and half of experience as a user-experience professional in the digital world, I have witnessed many design flaws leading to negative user-experience for the product. Needless to say, I along with my peers have made an example of the past design failures and contributed to a list of “things not to do” while designing future digital offerings. However, as a designer, there is a question that I find myself asking again and again.

How can I guarantee the outright success of a product?

Let's look at some earlier attempts at the role of user experience design in building a great product. A common tenet is that great user-experience design must be ‘useful’, ‘usable’, and ‘desirable’.

IBM website says that "user experience design addresses the user's initial awareness, discovery, ordering, fulfillment, installation, service, support, upgrades, and end-of-life activities.” Robert Fabricant on Harvard Business Review said that user experience is concerned with “all the touch-points from marketing to product development to distribution channels.” It is clear that the domain of user-experience professional is not limited to user interface design or usability; it encompasses a gamut of user’s interactions with the product from the out-of-box experience to first-experience to help and customer support.

Is it enough to deliver a ‘useful’, ‘usable’, and ‘desirable’ user-experience for all the discrete aspects of users' interaction with the product?

IBM website talks about designing a ‘total’ user experience, which "consists of all aspects of a product or service as perceived by users". Don Norman also mentions aiming for a ‘total’ user experience. He talks about a "unified visceral, behavioral, and reflective design, right down to the packaging" that lends to a great product. The keyword is ‘unified.’

What is this elusive ‘total’ experience?

‘Experience’ is a fuzzy concept, not restricted to the user interface, or the mechanical interactions of the user with the product. It has an emotional component. A kiss is not a kiss without a meaning. This emotional component leads to both imaginary and perceived attributes to actual actions and reactions on the part of the user, the product and the context.

Let's look at some famous success and failure stories. Orkut vs. Facebook is one of them. There are many discussions comparing the failure of Orkut to the success of Facebook. Objectively speaking, there was nothing wrong with Orkut's usability. And it also supports a wide gamut social networking features. But why did Orkut fail? Some said that it was lack of gaming apps.

But why didn't Orkut pick up after gaming apps were added? The persistent one-word response was that Orkut is 'boring'. Facebook was considered 'fun', and users found it 'cool' to be on Facebook. It is "an experience" of warmth. A setting which is fun-filled and exciting. A total experience which is better than Orkut.

Total User Experience
An appropriate analogy is that of elements, mixtures and compounds. The user undergoes ‘an experience’ which comes into existence due the interaction of various elements – physical, emotional and contextual - working together. A total experience is not the ‘mixture’ of discrete interaction elements, but it is the ‘compound’ resulting from the various elements working on each other.

Pinterest is another example where the multiple elements have converged to provide a great total experience. The visual rather than textual representation, the ease of pinning, the emotional satisfaction of collecting, discovering, and gaining followers have come together to build a great product.

The interplay of the emotional and mechanistic components of user's interaction with product results in an unique experience for the user. A total experience, which has characteristics of its own, which is not necessarily the sum-total of individual experiential components.