UX and the Runaway Buzzword Snowball5 min read
Over the last decade, user experience (UX) has finally taken hold. Digital products are getting better. Well, mostly. While amazing online services like Airbnb, Cash, Waze, and Slack are becoming more the norm, the world is still awash with hard to use, frustrating sites, apps, and software. If organizations care so much about UX, why is this?
Buzzword Shelf Life
When something is new, we think of it as other. It is a novel ingredient we’ve added to an existing dish.
As a GenX guy, I remember the early web. If it wasn’t nailed down, we put an “e” in front of it (as in “electronic”). Inspired by “e-mail,” we gave the world “e-commerce,” “e-books,” “e-learning,” and even “e-zines.” We loved this prefix so much, we added it to our titles. Thus the inevitable director of “e-business.” In 1994, Apple even created eWorld. Look it up on Ask Jeeves or Alta Vista.
Then Steve Jobs 2.0 showed up and singlehandedly changed the “e” to an “i.” Same idea. New letter. Where would we be without the iMac, iPhone, and the dreaded iChat? But time marches on. Now Apple is abandoning the “i.”
That’s the problem with trendy names. They have a shelf life and die from overuse. If we kept all the odd names ever invented, Tim Cook would be the iCEO of Apple and American industry would still hire directors of electricity.
Buzzwords pass into history as the things they describe become a normal part of business and life. E-commerce is simply selling stuff online. Even iTunes is now just Music. Thank goodness for that.
The UX Snowball
User experience was also once a shiny, new concept. Coined in the (gasp) early 90s, it originally referred to (and is still best understood as) the entire experience a person has with a product or thing. This broad definition transcends the digital part of digital products.
Over time, this idea has narrowed. When people talk about user experience today, they usually mean screen-based design and interaction. This notion has gained momentum, especially as firms making websites have proliferated. UX has achieved buzzword status.
Like all good buzzwords, UX has become a runaway snowball, indiscriminately barreling down a mountain gathering more and more adherents, each less connected to the original definition than the last. As more firms proclaim user experience capabilities, the snowball grows and “UX” becomes a diluted, empty term.
We use it so much it has lost all meaning. Have you heard of a digital agency (or any agency) that doesn’t claim to do “UX,” often listing it among a dizzying array of other capabilities? When tanning salons start touting “user experience,” we’ll know the folly has run its course.
Back to the Key Question
If the notion of user experience has become commonplace, why are most digital products still hard to use, frustrating, and often outright awful?
Because the discipline of user experience has devolved into a vapid, stale buzzword. And buzzwords, by their very definition, are superficial. They are simply new words for the same old things. These days, most people talking about “UX” mean something more like web design.
That’s a problem if you seek to make a sought-after, easy-to use digital product. It’s an even bigger problem if your product is a part of an interconnected set of online and offline interactions. Real people experience your product or service from the moment they hear about it to the moment they use it to achieve a goal. A great digital product is just part of that.
Devotion to buzzwords cannot fundamentally change the way you serve your customers or help you remain competitive in the market. To do that, you must embrace the original, broader meaning of user experience.
The Way Forward
Organizations must adhere to the fundamental truths of user experience to make exceptional products. Here’s how to start:
Don’t focus on words. Focus on principles.
Embrace the holistic, original principles of real user experience. Learning these principles doesn’t have to be difficult. You can start with a bit of light reading. Spend time with these short, easy-to-digest books, and your eyes will be opened.
Don’t treat UX as special. Make it mundane. As long as UX is seen as an additive, it will be seen as optional. It can be ignored. Consider solid user experience as a fundamental requirement for everything you make. This includes all products and customer (buzzword alert!) touch points. When you treat UX as completely normal, others will also.
Equate UX with quality.
Few people understand UX, but everyone understands quality. If you are making digital products or services with users in mind, you are undoubtedly making them better. You are committed to quality.
Try using phrases that convey the value of solid UX without using the terms “user” or “experience:”
- We want happier, less frustrated customers.
- We help people accomplish tasks easily and quickly.
- Our customers should love using our products.
- We make things that are easy and even pleasant to use.
- Our customers tell their friends about our products.
- We focus on efficiency and productivity.
- People need less help when they use our products.
When more and more people speak buzzword-free language like this, you’ll be well on your way to making significantly better digital products and services.
Paying lip service to user experience will never make your site, app, or software better. It simply can’t. Only by deeply engraining the principles of user experience into your culture and process will your digital products rise above the field.