As a positivist research scientist I’ve been struggling with the whole User Experience (UX) space for a long time, because to me it just seems a bit – well – ‘fluffy’. Many people seem to have got to grips with it, including Rui Lopes (see his recent blog articles) but to me, the more I read about the subject the more I think it is fine for evaluating specific interfaces but that the results cannot be generalised. It seems to me that it allows us to say something about – the often intangible – aspects of interfaces and their design, but it doesn’t help us say much about interfaces in general, or provide an qualitative underpinnings that are replicable for different interfaces. To me it is useful to give the gist or the flavour of the experiences of a specific user group or individual and a specific interface.
In the past I’ve suggested that User Experience (UX or UE) is often conflated with usability but takes its lead from the emerging discipline of experience design (XD). In reality, this means that usability is often thought of as being within the technical domain. Often being responsible for engineering aspects of the interface or interactive behaviour by building usability paradigms directly into the system. On the other hand user experience is meant to convey a wider remit which does not just primarily focus on the interface but other psychological aspects of the use behaviour.
In reality, user experience is very similar to usability, however, it found its roots within the product design community as opposed to the systems computing community of usability. The usability specialist would often be expected to undertake a certain degree of software engineering and coding whereas the user experience specialist is often more interdisciplinary in focus. This means that the user experience specialist may undertake design of the physical device along with its economic traits but may not be able to take that design to a hardware or software resolution. Indeed, user experience has been defined as ‘pertaining to the creation of the architecture and interaction models that impact a user’s perception of a device or system. The scope of the field is directed at affecting all aspects of the user’s interaction with the product: how it is perceived, learned, and used.’ therefore user experience is less concerned with quantifiable user performance but more the qualitative aspects of usability. In this way it is driven by a consideration of the moments of engagement’, known as ‘touchpoints’, between people and the ideas, emotions, and the memories that these moments create. This is far more about making the user feel good about the system or the interface as opposed to purely the utility of the interactive performance.
User experience then, falls to some extent outside of the technical remit of the computer science trained Human Factors specialist. However, it is likely that Human Factors specialists will be required to work with user experience, or experience design specialists, and this is far more likely to be the case with Web or mobile focused developments. However, because the user experience specialist is likely to be from a design background, scientific and therefore summative evaluation may not lie within their skill set.
However, I’m pleased to see I’m not so far from the ‘pack’ as I imagined. In their paper  Law et al. interview 275 researchers and practitioners from academia and industry, and it turns out that most respondents agreed that UX is dynamic, context-dependent, and subjective. The majority strongly agreed with the statements ‘Fleeting and more stable aspects of a person’s internal state (e.g.. needs. motivations) affect a person’s experience of something’, ‘UX occurs in. and is dependent on the context in which the artefact is experienced’, and ‘Prior exposure to an artefact shapes subsequent UX’; with a majority also weakly agreeing to ‘Designing (for) UX must be grounded in user-centred design’, ‘UX can change even after a person has stopped interacting with the artefact’, ‘UX is based on how a person perceives the characteristics of an artefact. but not on the characteristics per se’.
So it seems that there is broad agreement that UX is as more about a single specific user experience – an experience that may also change – than it is about a generalisable result.
- Law, Effie Lai-Chong and Roto, Virpi and Hassenzahl, Marc and Vermeeren, Arnold P.O.S. and Kort, Joke (2009). Understanding, scoping and defining user experience: a survey approach Proceedings of the 27th international conference on Human factors in computing systems, 1 (1), 719-728 : 10.1145/1518701.1518813