CX Insights

User Experience. Where has it come from, and why is it here?

8 min read

There has never been a better time to be a UXer. A quick browse over any job site or forum reveals a plethora of Web-related User Experience positions. You needn’t be a genius to notice the demand is there, and it is huge! But where has this all come from?

Featured Image: User Experience trends over time. Red – User Experience Design, Blue – UX Design, Yellow – Web UX Design. Data from Google Trends.

A little bit of background

10 years ago, ‘User Experience’ would have been dismissed by the majority as marketing lingo restricted to Apple and the like. A web designer controlled the look of the website and not much more as the general feeling went. In many cases the terms developer and designer were synonymous, and it was often obvious to see.

IMDB, eBay 2003
IMDB and eBay in 2003

The reason for this is plain: Technology has come a long way. We’re no longer hooked up to our 56k modems. Pages load extremely fast, and don’t take all day. We have grown used to whatever we need or want being a quick search away and provided to us in an instant. It now seems hard to fathom those archaic times, and we see it fit to complain how our 10mb connection just isn’t quite good enough. Combine this with new web standards such as HTML5, and the amount that can be done with a web page increases significantly.

As technology has improved, so have websites and the amount of people using them. In 2001, only 360 million people were online compared to well over 2 billion now. With people comes money. And true to economic principles, more demand = more supply as the number of sites have boomed from around 3 million to 634 million (Dec 2012). Websites have never had so much competition – if a user has a bad experience on one site, there’s always a plethora of others ready to take you on. In an age where interests and fads are so fleeting, they forever need a way stay current. To bring in fresh and hold onto current users.

Combine greater technology, with increased competition and you have a new job spec. Websites need designers to ensure they are always ahead of the competition. Making use of these new technologies and standards to ensure their site is always on top. The rise and dominance of E-commerce requires sites to tune themselves to ensure buyers are always buying. The internet has become a virtual shopping mall: with sites required to first market themselves and entice customers in, ensure they do what is wanted of them, and make certain users return in the future.

Changing User Experience of Amazon
Amazon in 2000, and now.

In order to do this they must offer their visitors a great experience – be it enjoyable, convenient, stress-free, or a combination of factors. Compare Amazon of 2000 with the Amazon of today. The old Amazon seems very familiar, yet very different. Things have become more complex, more modern and more personal – yet the overall style of the site has not changed. It has been finely tuned to both serve the customer, and Amazon. Ensuring people can find and buy what they need as conveniently and efficiently as possible, whilst also ensuring Amazon make the sales they need.

Welcome User Experience.

User Experience Trend
User Experience growth over the last 9 years according to Google Trends

User experience (UX) has existed in our vocabulary for quite a while. The term, coined by Donald Norman in the early 90s, was brought about to encompass all aspects of a system aimed at a user – from the UI, to the manual. Used to describe a User’s Experience with the system as whole: their emotions and how the system drew on existing and created new experiences. In time this definition has become diluted and can now be used to encompass many or all Human Computer Interaction (HCI), usability and User Centered Design (UCD) methods. UX has become a wide field. However, its principles remain. It remains the study of system users. Aimed at ensuring efficiency and offering a user the best possible experience.

Is UX the internet’s Holy Grail?

It is surely a match made in heaven then! The greater a site’s ‘experience’, the more enticing it is to users. User Experience Designers are able to offer great marketability, branding and usability through visual design. Combining classically separate disciplines, which far pre-date the internet and computers altogether. Using UCD methods to ensure the usability of a site is tuned for the user; If the user takes home a great experience, they will come back for more – they may bring friends. That’s your marketing. Combine this with common usability methods such as consistency, and some great visual design then you have your branding sorted too. It seems the internet has found its Holy Grail.

Hang on a minute…

Disneyland, the Apple Store. They encapsulate all of this but in the physical world. Steve Jobs is revered as a master of UX, yet he wasn’t a website designer. He was a marketer.
Predating Norman’s definition by decades is Disneyland. Was Walt Disney a UX Designer or purely a marketer? Disneyland is certainly a great experience for any kid and it is certainly possible to make an argument that he was a UX Designer. Even before Disney, the Victorians were at it with their Great Exhibition.

It has always been the marketer’s job to create great experiences. It is a rather simple concept to grasp: If you offer someone a great experience, they will come back hoping to recapture that same experience. Advertisers have done this for years – the old cliche goes that a great product sells itself. Of course, things aren’t always that simple. We still need advertising. Yet, advertising itself encapsulates core UX concepts. What would advertising be without great visual design?

With Disneyland, Walt Disney was merely trying to achieve the same as any UX Designer. Using his park to offer great experiences to the visitors, whilst selling his brand: Disney. Substitute Disneyland for, park for website and suddenly Walt is looking like that first UX Designer. The medium has changed but the core principle is there: A great Experience sells.

Thought: Has the term ‘User Experience’ become so diluted that it could be used to refer to a pre-existing branch of marketing?

Different User Experience of Disney
Walt Disney World, Orlando FL and – two examples of a great user experience

The Rise of Mobile

There is so much more to User Experience than purely marketing of course. HCI is at the heart of UX. How the user interacts with a system. Afterall, this is what Norman’s original definition was targeted at.

The past 5 years has seen unprecedented growth in mobile and touch screen usage. The first iPhone launched in June 2007. The catalyst for a storm that has forever changed personal computing. In the 6 years since, mobile web usage has yet to show any signs of decline. The rise in the mobile web also corresponds to sharp rise in the UX designer (according to Google Trends data). It seems logical to presume the two are interconnected. Especially when UX is so suited to the new ways in which people are using devices, and websites.

Rise in Molbile Web
Historic and forecasted mobile web use in comparison to desktop to usage –

With greater physical and emotional interaction, a different skill-set is required than those used to design ‘traditional’ websites. Users interact with touch, with gestures. They are physically shaping the content on their screen.

Historically, effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction have been at the forefront of usability engineering. With the emphasis moving more towards HCI, UX has seen a surge in interest as user motivations, feelings and emotions are given equal or greater emphasis due to the personal interaction. This isn’t only down to the rise in mobile computing, but also the abundance of ubiquitous and social technologies – ensuring they integrate seamlessly into our lives.

Is UX merely the new name for Web Design?

User Experience Designer trend
Google Trends data for Web Designer and UX Designer. Y axis not to scale.

With the mix of marketability and suitedness for mobile and ubiquitous computing, it is no wonder UX is such a hot topic. According to Google Trends, since its appearance on the scene 4 years ago, popularity of User Experience Design has increased significantly. In the same timeframe, web design has seen a downward trend.

UX and Web design inhabit the same space. UX is a form of web design. The skills brought upon through User Experience theory all lend themselves to creating better designers. A pure web designer – who doesn’t develop – requires the same skills as any good UX Designer should have.

So is UX really a standalone, new industry in itself, or the evolution of an existing one? Claims can be made either way. Describing oneself as a User Experience designer may be preferable as it removes the shackles to the web. It can be used to express study over multiple platforms – not only the internet. It may also lack the artistic qualities of a web designer, often taking a backseat role in guiding the design process with theory and usability studies.

Of course, roles differ from job to job. Sometimes they compliment each other, sometimes they don’t. And as mentioned earlier, it is even possible to categorise UX as a modern form of marketing, ensuring websites are finely tuned to return as many conversions as possible.

One thing is for sure, UX is on the rise.

Oliver McGough
Passionate UX Designer and Marketer.