UX Design is Impossible. So How Do You Do It?

“Nightlife design is a set design for a play that hasn’t been written.” -Serge Becker, Experience Designer

It’s sometimes said that UX design is impossible because you can’t design the user.  People are slippery and individualistic and won’t behave the way they’re supposed to.  The UX designer profiles user personas, writes narratives, defines parameters and design conditions.  But you can’t design the user, or as a creative director once told me when I was a young designer, “Never underestimate the stupidity of the user!”

The ways in which experience design is approached in the design of night clubs is extremely informative for the UX designer of other media.  Night club designers cannot design what people will do in the club, they cannot design the user.  But what they can do is design parameters and conditions, a “set design for a play that hasn’t been written.” Night clubs are most effective at creating a first impression and a conceptual environment different from your everyday life, taking you somewhere else the moment you step into the club.  And clubs are ephemeral, they don’t last, they’re only about what’s now and what’s next.  Digital media like websites and mobile apps are the same.

The moment you click onto a website or open an app on your smartphone, there is the potential to be transported into a different user experience than the other websites and apps you’ve used in the past.  In the case of apps, the loading screen is critical for this first impression. It’s not just a spinning wheel to reassure you that something is happening while the app loads into your device’s memory, it’s a prelude to the user experience within.

app_load_screensLet’s look for example at the load screen for the Netflix app.  It’s all red, with the netflix logo in the center and a small spinning wheel below it indicating that the app is loading.  The adherence to brand identity is excellent, for it’s readily recognizable as the Netflix brand.  But what of the user experience?  The color red is an emotionally intense color.  It can denote a warning sign (stop! danger!) as well as fire, blood, war, love and passion.  But what Netflix says they want their brand to be associated with, they identify “convenience, service, speed and cost.”  They want their customers to have the easiest, fastest, and most pleasant experience getting movies as possible.  Filling the entire screen of the smart phone with scarlet red is at odds with their branding objectives.  It’s setting users up to be anxious and on edge.  Then, even if a very small annoyance occurs during the customer’s experience, they may be primed to react passionately, and not in a good way.  Netflix has set up the UX experience to be on knife’s edge from the very start.

By contrast, the load screen to Temple Run features the entrance to an ancient stone temple, preceding a menu screen that mimics the same layout.  The aesthetics call to mind ancient ruins in a tropical environment, reminiscent of the stone temples found in the rain forests of Southeast Asia and Central America.  The typefaces, colors, and textures suggest an Indiana Jones-style adventure, and the arched entrance to the temple that is shrouded in darkness suggests the the user is entering this realm, embarking on a thrilling and exotic adventure.  The design creates a first impression that is critical for the user experience throughout.  The edginess and sense of danger are similar to the loading screen on the Netflix app, but in this case it’s appropriate to the UX.

There is much more to UX design than can be covered in one short article. But setting the tone with the user’s first impression, the concept of building a stage upon which the actors will invent the play, are critical foundational concepts.