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From Industrial Design to User Experience

by Mark Baskinger
11 min read
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Experience-driven design has made “experience” the new hot buzzword. But is it really new?

I was standing at a double water fountain the other day filling my water bottle when a gentleman approached and started drinking from the adjacent fountain. When he pressed the actuator, my water pressure dropped dramatically. Instinctually, I reacted and moved my bottle to follow the water. As he repeatedly hit the actuator to take individual sips, the randomly changing water pressure sent the water from my fountain over my bottle, onto my hand and arm.

Frustrated and irritated, I wondered who didn’t consider this phenomenon in the product development cycle. Why didn’t anyone account for this shared experience? After all, these two individual units obviously shared a supply line. In retrospect, I realize I could have gotten even with a bit of actuator pressing myself.

Who should have thought about the possibility of water spraying everywhere and who should have thought about me having this terrible experience?

In this article, I want to share some thoughts about user experience design, UX practice today, and its parallels to industrial design practice. In efforts to continue the conversation about the true fit of UX as a growing specialization, I will attempt to position it within the landscape of established design disciplines. I will also to raise questions and considerations to entertain as UX emerges from its software-related origins and grows into strategic leadership across design disciplines. This is neither a manifesto nor a hard-lined stance on UX; rather just some ideas to help carry the collective discussion forward.

Human Centered Design in the Rear View Mirror

Let me start with a slightly controversial statement that I drop on my students each fall during the introduction to the sophomore industrial design studio: all design is human-centered. If it’s not human-centered, then it’s not design. If it’s not design, it’s something else and we don’t teach that here.

As you might imagine, half of the students have no idea what I mean and the other half usually aren’t listening. Throughout the semester we continually explore the relationship between people and objects. We consider physical qualities, ergonomics, semantics, and form language. We also consider aesthetics and beauty using Gestalt principles. Fairly early on, though, each student realizes that the product forms they are creating can effectively take almost any shape. They wrestle with finding the correct form as if there is a magical curve they can pull and the form will snap into beautiful ergonomic shape. So to guide students in form development, I ask, “What impact will this object have? What do you intend it to do in someone’s life?”

Immediately they answer, “Well, it should be ergonomic and easy to use.” Then I press further and say, “Okay, you’re a designer, you’re expected to deliver something that is ergonomic and easy to use, and it has to be beautiful too. So, what will this thing do once you bring it into the world?” As you might guess, the students catch on quickly and respond with, “It should have some significance to the user and to enhance their lives in some way.” Eureka!

In their minds they shift their thinking from making things to designing things that help facilitate actions, behaviors and experiences. It’s a fundamental shift to consider an object’s form to be in service of something much greater than its own visual image. This is the core of human-centered design—considering the relationship of people with their products in the context of their activities. It’s also the core of experience design.

The term “human-centered design” is interpreted today more strictly as ergonomics, thereby representing an older, more limited viewpoint on designing. But this is just a question of semantics; the perspective of “user experience” has been here longer than the terminology and literature indicates.

Today, design isn’t design without a concern for human experience. The pervasiveness of experience-driven design has made “experience” the new hot buzzword. But is it really new?

It’s 1964 All Over Again

I recently had the privilege of spending a day with a 1965 graduate from the Industrial Design program at Carnegie Tech (which is now the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University). As we walked through the undergraduate studios, we chatted about the concerns of today’s designers and how our curriculum is shaped to address aspects of holistic design practice.

We also talked about “user experience” as a key concern in designing products and how we have shifted our focus across our undergraduate industrial design curriculum to be driven by human experience. It was at this point that he said with a smile on his face, “so nothing has really changed.” This threw me for a loop; 2010 has to be very different than 1964, right? The concerns for today’s designer are different than those of decades past.

But apparently back in the 1960s, the industrial design program began running studio projects that were based on designing for human experience. And although the hallmark of industrial design has been the styling of everyday objects, the belief that industrial design is only concerned with styling and manufacturing was as much a misconception in the 1960s as it is today.

As we talked further, I learned that one project in particular, led by Professor Richard Felver, looked at designing the interior of an automobile that could travel 100 mph. After all, in the future cars would surely do 100 mph. The project, named “Man at 100 mph,” was to design the technology, information, seating, safety, controls, form, and amenities of a production automobile. Students considered two things: 1. you’re doing 100 mph! and 2. people will experience very different feelings, emotions, behaviors, and social dynamics in such a vehicle that could travel that fast. By today’s accounts, this is experience design.

When I went to design school in the early 1990s, it was common practice to design for the impact that the object/artifact/system was intended to have in a person’s life, but we never referred to this specifically as the user’s experience, and we certainly never used the term experience design. It was just designing for people. So, perhaps design is now a ubiquitous practice and the social concerns of product development that are so rooted in the fundamentals of industrial design practice are now being heralded, identified, and championed in other fields.

So, who owns UX? Should anyone? Should it be a discrete subset of design? Can industrial design reclaim ownership of this core aspect of its discipline?

The UXing of Design Practice

If UX has always been part of industrial design, why has it taken so long to permeate through the design landscape and why are we now creating new specialized fields within design practice? Is this a case where other disciplines are extracting key principles of design and rearticulating them in a contemporary context? Perhaps this is a result of UX advocates and practitioners coming from radically disparate fields, many rooted in software, computer science, and HCI, and are newly discovering the depth of methods, theory, and practice of traditional design.

A quick scan of the Wikipedia page on UX reveals, in part, the following definition:

User experience highlights the experiential, affective, meaningful and valuable aspects of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and product ownership, but it also covers a person’s perceptions of the practical aspects such as utility, ease of use and efficiency of the system. User experience is subjective in nature, as it is about an individual’s feelings and thoughts about the system. User experience is dynamic, because it changes over time as the circumstances change.

UX in general is concerned with the situation around products and systems that affect the formation (or design) of the product or system. In a sense, you could argue that UX is more concerned with the situation than the product itself. This is important because UX practitioners are therefore concerned with holistic views on product ecosystems and user-product relationships.

There are certainly better sources for learning about UX than Wikipedia, but this is the most easily accessible profile for the practice. The top two Google search results for “UX” are the two Wikipedia pages on “user experience design” and “user experience.”

In today’s landscape, UX is becoming differentiated (or specialized) from established design practices of industrial design, communication design, and interaction design by its holistic viewpoint and strategic outlook. This positions the UX designer as the strategic/visionary driver and can marginalize traditional designers as tactical form-givers, pixel-pushers, and stylists. This is dangerous as it shifts the perception of traditional (ID, CD, IxD) designers to that of cake decorators who fashion only the visual appearance of artifacts in precision and beauty. All surface, no substance.

The UX practitioner today is very different from a couple years ago as UX designers aren’t specifically tethered to software or limited to information architecture. I believe a virtue of UXD is in the focus on the role a product/system plays in someone’s life. The de-emphasis from “thingness,” or the “it,” positions UX concerns on the activities, actions, interactions, relationships and interconnections of the product/system–the strategic “ing.”

As someone deeply concerned with the formal qualities of objects, this is somewhat blasphemous. Why divorce the “ing” from the “it”? In today’s design practice, designing happens through interdisciplinary collaboration, but as I will touch upon later, the future of UX may involve more integration. So the UX designer specializes in the “ing,” but what about the gulf between the strategic planning and the concept development? Who bridges that gap? Where does interaction design fall in relation?

UX will be the death of UX

I recently saw an episode of That 70s Show where Kelso (the Ashton Kutcher character) tries to understand what his father does for a living. Trying to put it in the simplest of terms, his father describes his work as “throughput.” He’s not the originator of ideas and doesn’t generate the input, and he doesn’t craft the output; rather he receives the input and gets it ready for output. Seems like he was actually describing a process similar to (design) synthesis, although described with great comedic timing. So how do you describe UX practice?

Industrial design has the exact opposite problem. The tangible artifacts of designing are so critical to the survival and perception of the discipline that the thinking, research, and UX principles that created those artifacts are often never seen. As stated earlier, this is the hallmark of the profession. Historically, industrial designers have had a very difficult time shaking off the impression that they’re only stylists. A March 20, 2000 issue of Time Magazine proclaimed on its cover, “The Rebirth of Design: Function Is Out, Form Is In.” True, we love forming things and we do “decorate cakes,” but the deeper driving concerns of industrial designers are never known.

UX is a nebulous term much like “design.” It is often interpreted in a multitude of ways and practiced in a widely varied fashion. Whitney Hess’ 10 Most Common Misconceptions About User Experience Design introduces some good themes for UX practitioners that can also be applied to other areas of design—just drop the UX and replace it with any other design discipline. Ms. Hess consolidates viewpoints and perspectives across the UX landscape and provides a must-read if you’re introducing the idea of UX to a non-design audience.

As UX and UXD migrate toward the strategic center of design practice, UX practitioners run the risk of becoming marginalized as specialists equipped to handle only the front end of the design development process. What is currently missing in much of UX practice is the delivery of a concrete tangible artifact—a synthesized outcome. Yes, proposals, system architecture, interaction schemas, profiles, and design criteria are all valued components of the design process, but to what end?

Can UX designers decorate the cakes that they bake? Or can they only write the instructions for baking a cake? Or can some continue to write the instructions without actually baking and decorating at all? Perhaps the immediate future for UX may be to deliver on the “it” to back up the “ing.” Maybe more UX-titled designers will be recruited from traditional design disciplines. Or perhaps UX is a fad that will not reach maturity and will come and go like fashion. A similar problem afflicts “green” design; its popularity and catchy name may end up curtailing its impact.

We do know that the concerns for the human experience are deeply rooted in design practice, and this will persist. However, the term UX may end up doing itself in. Perhaps it will be replaced by HeX (human experience) or some other equally obscure terminology.

A Brief Comment on Design in the 21st century

Terry Irwin, former principal and creative director of the San Francisco office of MetaDesign and now head of the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon, has adamantly stated that this is the century for design. No other discipline is as equipped to address current problems, forecast a new future, and shift conventional thinking, behaviors, and understanding of the world.

UX represents a uniquely orthogonal viewpoint to any business model and product development process as it provides sight across landscapes, domains, and silos. This is an important aspect for design to redefine itself for the 21st century and to articulate all of the core practices, methods, and thinking that have made design integral to the advancement of civilization. We are the shapers of the modern world. UX has the opportunity to shift the focus on the socio-emotional issues as the main drivers for designing and let the other parts fall in service to these humanistic ideals.

As we trek toward 2011, the articulation of design and user experience will continue to shift from design as an entity (the “it”), to designing as a behavior (the “ing”). It’s really the act of designing that matters, so we should focus on designing rather than design.


Closing Thoughts

I believe that UX in its current incarnation is not entirely new, but shows promise to provide a critical link between design and the rest of the world. Businesses are spinning up UX departments at an incredible rate thinking this will be the answer to slumping sales or poor product performance. Maybe this is the cure. Realistically, it’s likely the first part in acknowledging that consideration for the people using, purchasing, interacting with, and identifying with the products and systems we create is extremely important. It seems that the concerns of the designer are now coinciding with equitable business models.

The UXing of the articulation of design is new. This new language and expression of the impact of design provides the invitation for others to connect with design and see clearly what design can do for them. But we have to deliver good, human-centered, experiential, sustainable, ergonomic, beautiful forms. As professor Joe Ballay said at the Industrial Design 75th Anniversary at CMU:

When I talk to my students about the importance of form and understanding I say, Look, everything in the world from a clump of dirt to the shiniest car has a form. You can’t avoid it. It’s got a form. It’s got a color, it’s got a texture. It may as well be the right one. It isn’t a question of form, no form, it’s a question of which form.

post authorMark Baskinger

Mark Baskinger,

Mark Baskinger is an associate professor in the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University who teaches courses in industrial design with an emphasis on form & interaction. His interests include exploring new paradigms for interactive objects and interpretive environments, and methodologies of design drawing and visual thinking to promote collaboration. He has published papers and articles on the language of designed artifacts, inclusive/universal design, visual “noise” in product design, tangible interaction, and methodologies of visualization.

Baskinger currently serves as a researcher with the Quality of Life Technology Engineering Research Center through Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh; he is a core faculty member in the Master of Tangible Interaction Design program through Carnegie Mellon’s School of Architecture (mTID), is an affiliate faculty member of the Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII) at Carnegie Mellon and collaborates with the /d.search-labs at the Technische Universiteit Eindhoven, The Netherlands (TU/e).

An international speaker and workshop leader, Mark also conducts Drawing Ideas®: A Field Guide to Visual Thinking courses in conference and business contexts where he makes design drawing methods and visual thinking techniques accessible to a broader audience and demonstrates strategies for using sketching to foster collaboration in design processes. His work has been featured in design publications and international magazines, and has been exhibited in numerous galleries and museums, including the Museum of Modern Art (New York), I-Space Gallery (Chicago), the Krannert Museum (Illinois) and the Regina Gouger Miller Gallery (Pittsburgh). His work is also included in the permanent art collection of the University of Illinois.

He has won numerous design awards from ID Magazine and the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDEA) and personally holds multiple product patents. Prior to joining Carnegie Mellon, Baskinger was creative director at Corchia Woliner Rhoda in New York City, and was the lead designer at the Central Park Zoo - Exhibits and Graphic Arts Dept. He also held a visiting faculty position in the School of Art and Design (https://art.uiuc.edu) at the University of Illinois (UIUC). Parallel to his appointment at Carnegie Mellon, he co-directs The Letter Thirteen Design Agency, and is a founding member of the EcoDesigners Guild of Pittsburgh.


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