Defining UX with Leonardo da Vinci

A few days ago I had the honor of being on a panel for PhillyCHI to help define the term “User Experience” (UX). The panel (intentionally) consisted of several Philadelphia-based colleagues with diverse backgrounds and skillsets. It wasn’t the first time someone’s attempted to define UX (see this and this) — nor will it be the last.

In fact, there were a lot of familiar themes coming from both the panel and the audience. One that stood out was how UX (and the role of the UX professional) will likely continue to evolve within organizations. To contribute something new to this ongoing dialogue about defining UX, I thought it might be helpful to take a crack at defining the emerging roles and skill sets of the UX professional.

Placing UX in a Broader Context

Despite being a young field, we’ve already undergone major shifts. Early UX professionals were mainly concerned with architecting and designing digital experiences primarily for consuming or creating content — and rightfully so. The Internet boom necessitated pros who could tame the beast that is the World Wide Web.

Now, the emergence of the “Internet of Things” is forcing a major shift in our thinking and in our approaches to user experience design.

UX pioneers Don Norman and Jakob Nielsen define user experience as “encompassing all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.”

I would go broader. In life — which is, by definition, an entire experience itself — we use an abundance of objects, services, systems, and environments. Almost everything could be characterized as a user experience. Hence, my tweak of the above definition: User experience encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with a product, service, system, or environment.

Pretty ambiguous, right?

Right, and like many ambiguous concepts, UX needs context for clarity. An unspoken general consensus is that UX disciplines and methodologies are most concerned with digital technology — or any technology that involves software with a display, whether it be a smartphone, tablet, PC, or other digital device. What happens, though, when we start to see more symbiotic interactions between the digital and physical world?

UX Pros Will Travel Beyond the Borders (of the Screen)

We’re seeing a rapid proliferation of connected devices and systems across industries (50 billion according to Ericsson). To name a few:

  • Medical products that connect to your iPhone or iPad
  • Home appliances
  • Home automation systems that can be remotely controlled and monitored
  • Automobile dashboards
  • Public transit systems

I could go on. Really, I could.

The point is that UX practitioners will need to look beyond the edge of the screen at the objects and environments with which the screen is interacting. UX design and research will require a more holistic approach. New methodologies will take form to design effective experiences as technology amalgamates the digital and the physical.

We’ll need to have a deeper understanding of how to bridge the two; and that understanding will require, at the very least, solid knowledge of the skills and methodologies of other disciplines that overlap with user experience design.

See the infographic below that circulated widely earlier this year. I think it’s relatively comprehensive and doubles as a good skillsets-shopping list for the forward-thinking UX professional.

 

User experience methodologies — such as user-centered design, design thinking, etc. — are some core skillsets for anyone dealing with designing for humans. For the pro who’s advancing beyond the screen and into other objects or environments, it makes sense to be knowledgeable about:

  • User Interface Design
  • Information Architecture
  • Human-Computer Interaction
  • Human Factors / Ergonomics
  • Industrial Design
  • User Research
  • Sketching

Gaining and retaining knowledge about these different domains is a daunting prospect, but hey, UX pros are lifelong learners. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but anyone with a solid grasp of the disciplines above is going to be successful at bridging the gap between the digital and physical realms.

UX Pros: Follow in the Footsteps of da Vinci

So my answer for you is … Leonardo da Vinci. The archetypal Renaissance man is best known for his paintings and sculptures, but he was much more than an artist. He invented hydraulic pumps and musical instruments; and he studied nature, human behavior, and the human body. His worldly knowledge and diverse skill set made him arguably a much better innovator — or at least much better at communicating his ideas. Da Vinci would have made an excellent modern-day user experience designer, and he serves as the ultimate paradigm for our fast-moving, fast-expanding profession.

[Update: Read my interview with Leonardo da Vinci to learn how he defines UX.]