Designing From the User’s
By Peter H. Jones, Redesign Research
|Peter H. Jones
Analyzing customer needs and market trends are essential competencies
for managing complex design projects. However, after confirming
user needs through market research, design teams often focus on
the product, neglecting users until completing the product, or at
best, usability testing. From consumer goods to websites, many design-driven
projects limit front-end analysis to market research, focus groups,
or concept demonstrations. While these approaches are necessary,
they overlook the opportunity for designing from understanding the
user’s authentic experience.
Innovation emerges from truly understanding the fit between product
and person. The understanding of real experience with a product
and its fit to a lifestyle, affords insight into product and interaction
design, feature priorities, and adoption cycles. For many years
in the software product industry, we encouraged this type of research
only in the form of early usability testing. As design and research
methods have evolved, we now hear of user experience. People working
in the field often suggest use of the more inclusive term “user
experience” instead of “usability,” or “user-centered
The notion of user experience has advanced quickly, encompassing
multiple disciplines and interests. Some authors, such as McCarthy
and Wright1, note how user experience has followed the
usability tradition. That is, we have learned from usability to
invest attention to the user’s total experience that includes
the product, but is really centered on experience. “User
experience” has arrived, survived its challenges, and is expanding
its market. Hopefully we intend to really focus on our users and
their experience, and not merely design products by adding some
The recently organized UX Network (www.uxnet.org)
articulates a clear definition, emphasizing the umbrella function
offered by User Experience:
“User Experience (UX) is an emerging field concerned with
improving the design of anything people experience: a web site,
a toy, or a museum. UX is inherently interdisciplinary, synthesizing
methods, techniques, and wisdom from many fields, ranging from
brand design to ethnography to library science to architecture
Design managers may take pause at this description; after all,
what is not included? I suggest we look beyond the inherent
claim of UX being a “field,” with practitioners and
degrees and skill sets. It may not be a field, with university programs
in UX, but it is a practice. From a management viewpoint, it’s
the UX perspective that counts. User experience represents
a stance toward respecting the primacy of the individual’s
experience with your products in their real world. In UX research,
the user’s interpretation matters; features and even
performance are interpreted from their perspective. Research that
explores the richness of real-world experience, rather than usability,
opens new avenues to innovation. Possibilities to enhance a person’s
experience start showing up as “missing features,” new
products, or services innovation. Psychology enhances product design.
Can we design a “user experience”?
The UX Network definition also emphasizes “anything people
experience.” So what is “experience”? Experience
is not a thing or a quality of a designed artifact; it is a subjective,
conscious activity. Until we reflect on experience it remains transparent,
invisible inside the performance of the activity.
When we talk about the user's experience, there is no
experience "out there," instead it shows up "in here,"
inside the lives of people. We do not design an experience, unless
it’s our own. People have an experience of a product, an artifact,
an activity—but these experiences are not isolated examples
of interaction. Our experience and “appreciation” of
a product shows up within a larger context of activity. Experience
is driven by motivations and goals (wanting to get a job done),
and constrained or hemmed-in by many other factors (costs, time,
In the consumer or entertainment world, the product may be the
experience. People seek out entertainment products for their experience,
and people consume products for their satisfying experience. Where
BMW’s historic tagline claims “the ultimate driving
experience,” the driver is not a user, but a driver and experiencer.
Imagine Nike designing for the “shoe user experience”
instead of a specific athlete with specific goals. Industrial designers
in these domains intimately know their end customer, their lifestyle,
their objectives with the product. These are the types of experiences
toward which we must learn to empathize to move design toward
We can design for a type of experience. But the artifacts
of even a well-designed, entertaining product or attraction are
designed materials, not designed experiences.
Product designers may already understand this perspective, but a
key distinction should be made. As UX has expanded to become a recognized
practice, we often hear of “experience design” or “designing
the user’s experience.” Unless we are producing games
or entertainment, this is not really the case. We are not attempting
to direct people’s subjective experience, and we cannot control
it if we tried. We design to and from the user’s
We learn, understand, and interpret experience as a frame for
designing and making design decisions. But most of the methods and
means of user experience put the focus on product use.
Yes, we want to know what people think of our products. But we locate
experience in the person who owns the experience, in their work
and life. Taking into account this essential context allows designing
from authentic experience, allowing for empathy and meaningful integration
of features and preferences in the designed artifact.
Extending our understanding of user
How do we understand people beyond their roles as users, even
within the user experience framework? Design research shows
several directions for extending the scope of the user. From an
innovation management view, von Hippel2 describes users
as “firms or individual consumers that expect to benefit from
using a product or service.” Users as markets have
multiple relationships to products—consumers and firms both
use and produce innovations. However, only consumers can have “user
Users are also groups, participating in teams, organizations, and
industries. We can extend the scope of inquiry by learning how people
collaborate or share in product use. But the most critical extension
is toward depth, to view users as full participants in their world,
not just from our interest in their usage. We design products for
people who have experiences, and these people lose their richness
to the extent we consider them as “users.” We design
for people that have certain kinds of activities and jobs to do,
using our products for some of these jobs. Their activities,
not the product, give meaning to our product’s role in their
Compare the differences in depth of experience across product domains.
In professional and business markets, people spend time in their
work lives engaged in the activity to which you are designing. Perhaps
they represent more than “users” in design research.
In the professional workplace, we design to help people accomplish
their work goals. While enjoyable and engaging user experiences
are touted (by many) as an optimal design outcome, in complex work
the dimensions of usability are tempered by other values, such as
information clarity, efficiency, and adaptability. Professionals
incur significant consequences when the product experience facilitates
error. Attorneys may be sanctioned for missing the status of law,
engineers may incorrectly specify a requirement for a sourced component,
physicians or nurses may find it difficult to read the settings
on a piece of electronic test equipment. A deep understanding of
work practice is required to design in these domains; the skills
and tools of user experience design are insufficient in themselves.
A deeper respect for the user constituency is in order.
So rather than “observing experience,” we should aim
to understand experience. While the traditions of market
research are grounded in social science and business, and usability
research draws from experimental psychology, this emerging research
approach seeks a deeper understanding of individual experience.
Whether its practitioners realize it or not, UX has been adopting
a hermeneutic research approach3. This refers to a movement
to understand lived experience through careful, almost
empathetic interpretation of an individual’s culture and context
of use. Given that significant attention is now being given to emotional
factors in product design, a hermeneutic approach offers
value by giving us tools for eliciting the meaning behind users’
verbal descriptions and emotional expressions. Rather than seeking
“objectivity” and isolating variables in product research,
UX seeks to understand the people we call users and identifying
their unique approach to their world. User profile tools such as
personas and scenarios are commonly used to build rich descriptions
of typical customers and their culture and behaviors. A hermeneutic
approach delves further by allowing us to see the product from the
user’s own worldview and the culture where it will be seen
While user experience interpretations may not guide every product
decision, they lead to deeper recognition of a product’s meaning
to people, and show the drivers behind observed behavior and trends.
In managing design research, we want valid user feedback to evaluate
products. UX is highly pragmatic, and design managers may appreciate
the actionable results from a UX research and design approach.
In summary, several guidelines are suggested from these points:
Consider whether UX makes sense in your environment and organization.
Ask designers and researchers what they know of the concept, and
what it means to your product design process.
Expand your concept of “user” to embrace the work
practices and lifestyles of the customer for whom you are designing
products. Invest in research that reveals their authentic experience.
Use rapid ethnography, field research, and in-depth onsite evaluations
to understand the context of work or engagement within which your
product will be adopted.
Use research methods that fit your projects and organizations.
Review the methods used by innovation leaders in your industry
to advance your UX research practices. Select from these to inform
product decisions during the design process (use brief, iterative
phases or parallel customer research if necessary to manage scheduling).
Find ways to (simply) communicate the in-depth discoveries
about your users and communities. Draw up personas (profiles),
workflow scenarios, and rich pictures from your research findings.
Build a user experience knowledge base that contributes to new
design thinking from your team “living with” representations
drawn from real user experience.
When researching user experience, consider all the touchpoints
and interactions surrounding the product, including its initial
discovery, the initial interpretations about its use, and the
impact of brand on experience and perception. Learn about the
full lifecycle of customer experience - how the product will be
found, shared, reused, or returned to over time.
It takes time to introduce new approaches and absorb new methods
and design languages such as those developed from UX. Learn what
elicits the best results from your user constituency, Allow your
teams time to integrate user experience approaches into processes
and projects. A repeatable UX process specifically designed for
your business needs becomes a powerful competitive advantage.
1John McCarthy and Peter Wright, Technology as Experience,
MIT Press, 2004.
2Eric von Hippel, Democratizing Innovation,
MIT Press, 2005.
3Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores, Understanding
Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design, Ablex,
Peter H. Jones, Ph.D. is managing principal
Research, a practice for interactive product design, customer
research and innovation strategy. As a design/research consultant
for over 15 years, he has designed custom and commercial products,
websites, and information services in the automotive, telecom, legal,
scientific, and information services industries. Dr. Jones authored
Team Design: A Practitioner’s Guide to Collaborative Innovation
(2002) and publishes business and scientific articles as an independent
This article appeared in the August
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