UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 732 September 27, 2011

Old Wine in New Bottles and New Wine in Old Bottles

Underlying the recent surge in interest in user experience may be the realization that consumers have increasing power over the fate of information technology. Taken literally, user experience concerns the subjective first-person feeling (hence “experience”) arising when technology is being used for something (hence “user”). This is the interpretation we assume in the rest of this article.

We claim that the failure to produce a reliable scientific body of knowledge about UX is partly due to falsely treating it as a new topic, as if nothing has ever been said about it before. Although it is inaccurate to claim that UX has been entirely ignorant of psychology, treating UX as if it was something truly novel is one of the biggest impediments to scientific progress in this field, and it is manifest in the lack of reliable methods and actionable theories. We need to reformulate our understanding of UX in a way that connects it to areas of research that deal with human experience.

Old Wine in New Bottles

In the history of human–computer interaction (HCI), almost all branches of research have been interested in experiential aspects, some for decades. For example, human factors researchers have developed measurement theories for workload, a subjective and experience-related measure by definition (e.g., Hart & Staveland, 1988). And computer graphic artists have long been interested in the experience of naturalness of graphics (e.g., Mori, 1970). Information systems researchers have been studying post-use satisfaction with a system, an important aspect of UX, for at least three decades, linking satisfaction to key aspects of user performance, such as failing/succeeding at tasks (Szajna, 1993). And even within the usability literature, satisfaction has been a part of the standard taxonomy at least since Jakob Nielsen’s 1993 book, Usability Engineering. Usability has recently been expanded to cover broader aspects of experience, such as in the recent emotional usability initiative (e.g., Norman, 2004).

But alas, present-day UX research does not build on these existing lines of inquiry. Even if it is true that user experience is broader than the abovementioned approaches, should we not first examine what they do and do not cover?

New Wine in Old Bottles

An even more critical shortcoming of UX research is the almost complete neglect of psychology. This 150-year-long tradition can add much to our understanding of users, if only we could effectively use it.

Psychologists deal with human experience including its most complex aspects, such as love or the experience of one’s environment. The first question a psychologist would ask a UX researcher is whether there is anything special about user experience, compared to experience in general. Occam’s razor guides a psychologist to first approach UX using well-known general theories of experience.

We know, of course, that not all of psychology is relevant to UX, but there are a number of issues in which psychological concepts, theories, and methods can be helpful. The main problem is not the lack of theories, but the building of bridges between theory and practice.

The following list is not comprehensive, but illustrates the immense potential in psychological literature.

Emotions

Emotions should be at the core of UX research. Users’ emotions define their relationships to technology use. Present-day UX theory would benefit from accounting not only for the experienced state but also the biological, cognitive, and social aspects of emotions that determine how they link to important phenomena such as social interaction and identity. For example, studies indicate that before a emotion arises, cognitive appraisal processes take place, which quickly interpret the situation at hand and give the first meaning to the emotions (Frijda, 1986; Lazarus & Lazarus, 1997; Power & Dalgleish, 1997). Understanding cognitive appraisal process would be useful for UX design.

Aesthetics

A very important aspect of UX is experience of beauty. The aesthetic appeal of a product affects its importance to users on an emotional level. Psychologists have studied how attributes such as “good looking,” “aesthetically interesting,” “aesthetically appealing,” and “funky” emerge.

User needs

Needs and motivations are the driving systems for basic “user experiences,” such as experiences of failures and successes. Even an undergraduate-level textbook on psychology discusses several theories that are underexploited in UX. For example, motivation theories imply what technology is used for and why people use products. Whereas engineering expressions of “user needs” view “needing” as tantamount to missing something, the more modern psychological theories view needs as parts of personal growth.

Learning

Learning changes how we experience and interpret the world. Much in UX is connected to transformation of experience as a consequence of expectations and exposure. This is seldom discussed, and requires much more attention than we have given it so far.

Identities, groups, and cultures

There is presently much talk about shared experiences or co-experiences, which are experiences shaped when people interact with each other. The rise of social media has made it very important to investigate the various types of social relationships between users as a basis for experience.

Aging and life span

The widest perspective on experience is life itself. People who grew up before the proliferation of digital technology experience new technologies differently than people in the Facebook generation. This means we have to understand developmental and lifespan psychology.

Toward Psychologically Informed UX Research

UX has underlying psychological dimensions, implying that we should reformulate and elaborate on our understanding of UX with more advanced psychological concepts. However, mainstream UX has lost contact to two important areas: previous work in HCI looking at UX, and psychology with its 150 years of research related to human experience.

We should gradually set aside intuitive notions of emotion and replace them with systematic psychological knowledge. The key concepts of UX should be given psychologically acceptable yet relevant interpretations. And once we have replaced laymans’ concepts with scientific ones, it will be possible to utilize the huge troves of empirical observations made in psychology. It may also become possible to use detailed psychological theories to solve design problems, to explain why users behave and experience the way they do. Finally, access to psychological knowledge will make it possible for us to advance our methods in designing experiences.


REFERENCES

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

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Antti Oulasvirta is a Senior Researcher at Helsinki Institute for Information Technology HIIT. He received his PhD in cognitive science from University of Helsinki in 2006. He is presently leading the group Ubiquitous Interaction (UIx) at HIIT.

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Pertti Saariluoma is professor of cognitive science in the university of Jyväskylä, Finland. He has studied with Alan Allport in Oxford, Herbert Simon in Carnegie-Mellon and Alan baddeley in Cambridge. He presented his thesis on experts' thinking 1984 in the university of Turku.

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Rebekah Rousi is a researcher and PhD candidate of Cognitive Science at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland. Areas of interest include the psychology of user experience, affective human-technology interactions and the mental factors of design encounters.

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Jaana Leikas is Senior Researcher Technical Research Center of Finland.

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Comments

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For the most part, the author is correct in his analysis. However, we - UXers - have been using a lot of knowledge from other fields:

Gestalt Principles - in page layouts
Cognitive memory/ Short Term memory - auto fill, prefilled forms, contextual information
Cognitive dissonance - Scenario based design, limiting number of choices
Chromostereopsis - during visual design
Persuasion and Trust - Contextual user reviews and ratings
Demand Vs Supply - Displaying quantity and expiration date for offers

I just named a few, there are many more examples.

I agree that we don't really call out these principles in our design but they "definitely" are inherent part of the design.
The author, also, suggests treating UX as science, this definitely is a great idea. However, given the "agile" kind of environment we work in, how feasible it is?

Making and treating UX as a science will make it a mainstream research "discipline," however, it will become more expensive for the clients to bring UXers onboard.

How many times do we see psychologists on the project? Either psychologists are too expensive, just talk about psychology and not design, or the clients are afraid of their assertive "scientific" attitudes.

Certainly, bringing or "calling out" the science perspective will make UX discipline look like science and not art. And, it's always easy to sell science.

In my perspective, UX is a combination of Arts and Science - knowing and applying the design principles wherever they make sense but bending them whenever required, to make things more interesting. UX is an inter-disciplinary field - where ideas come from all directions: marketing, design, psychology, and ergonomics (hci).

No doubt, the author, definitely, makes an intersting and valid point, but we have a long way to go before treating UX as pure science.