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 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.
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.
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 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.
- Frijda, N.H. (1986). The Emotions. Cambridge University Press.
- Hart, S.G., & Staveland, L.E. (1988). Development of NASA-TLX (Task Load Index): Results of empirical and theoretical research. In P. A. Hancock and N. Meshkati (Eds.) Human Mental Workload. Amsterdam: North Holland Press.
- Lazarus, R. S., & Lazarus, B. N. (1994). Passion & reason: Making sense of our emotions. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Mori, M. (1970). The uncanny valley. Energy, 7 (4), 33-35.
- Norman, D.A. (2004). Emotional Design: Why we love (or hate) everyday things. Basic Civitas Books.
- Power, M. & Dalgleish, T. (1997). Cognition and emotion. From order to disorder. Hove: Psychology Press.
- Szajna, B., & Scamell, R. W. (1993). The effects of information system user expectations on their performance and perceptions. MIS Quarterly, 17 (4).