Creating Killer Services

David Siegel’s book Creating Killer Websites was probably the most influential web design book of the 1990s. It’s anathema these days, but Siegel introduced concepts that fundamentally changed how websites were built. Besides the technical heresy of single pixel GIFs and table-based layout, Siegel advocated experience design principles for the web.

An entry to your site tells people where they are without serving them the whole smorgasbord of delights at once. A front door, also known as a splash screen, loads quickly and tells people what’s going on inside. It should be hard to walk away from, yet it should tell people what they’re getting into.

As visitors enter your site, you may want to give them the option of taking a short ride rather than going straight into the site. I call these rides entry tunnels. They help build anticipation as people approach the heart of the site.

From an experience design perspective this is right on, and if people were actually interested in having an experience on the web, entry tunnels and splash screens would still be around. But people hate them; they’re simply not willing to have their digital encounters mediated with such a heavy hand.

It’s not just the web either. The entire field of user experience design has little if anything to do with experiences. Certainly not in the sense that Pine and Gilmore define them. There’s a nice quote on the distinction over at UX Matters:

The only true experience designers in history are Hugh Hefner, Walt Disney, and Steve Jobs.

That goes a little too far, but he’s right that user experience design pales in comparison to experience design. Most digital encounters aren’t designed to be memorable events. Users are impatient and carry a healthy sense of entitlement. Give me what I want and then get the hell out of my way.

Jeffrey Zeldman has commented on this tendency to forego the niceties of experience. People ask him why he doesn’t offer a full RSS feed for his blog so people can read his posts without visiting his website. His reply: “why don’t you store your groceries on the sidewalk so we can eat your food without sitting across the table from you?” He’s not just providing content, he’s doing his best to engage the reader. But it’s an uphill battle.

It’s really too bad the two disciplines share such similar names. Maybe there are more accurate words to describe user experience. User encounter? User transaction? I believe that experience design does exist, and it’s a different animal. If user experience design isn’t about experience, let’s figure out what it’s really about and start calling it that.

  1. mc

    i agree with a lot of what you’re saying, but just because one is not completely in control of a full start-to-finish, single-path, one-sided experience, doesn’t mean they’re not designing an experience at all.

    users do have a healthy sense of entitlement, but that means a good experience designer has to design multiple potential experiences simultaneously. the user is still going to experience something and someone has to design all the possibilities of that experience.

  2. Much of the blame rests on those who called themselves user experience designers, rather than the intention of the term “user experience.”

    When initially coined, user experience referred to the whole experience a customer had with a (technology) product, including packaging, manuals, hardware, software, etc. In the boom of the web, user experience got pejorated to user interface.

    What’s nice, at least, what we’re seeing our practice at Adaptive Path, is that user experience can still have the grander meaning, once our clients appreciate what’s going on.

    Anyway, I think you’re fundamentally mistaken that user experience isn’t about experience — it tends to be about a type of experience, perhaps a type of experience you don’t want to design for, but a valuable type of experience all the same.

  3. Jeff

    I think the problem lies in the fuzziness of the word “experience.” John Dewey differentiated between the daily inchoate stream of experience we all encounter and something more specific called “an experience.” Pine and Gilmore frame experience as a memorable event; something that can be staged. On this blog I use the term in that strict sense.

    Most user experience doesn’t (and can’t) have such a well-defined beginning, middle and end. The user is “experiencing” something, but only because of the limitations of our language. When I sign into my WordPress blog you might say I’m experiencing something, but it’s probably more accurate to say I’m transacting. I apprehend the situation. I perceive sensations caused by the touchpoints as they wash over me. But it’s not “an experience,” it’s an encounter. It’s designed to be forgettable.

    I think UX as a discipline is perfectly valid. I still design in that domain, and when attention is paid to the grander scale (an iPod unboxing for example) it starts to approach experience design. But on the whole I think we need some other word to describe it. Calling the majority of what happens in that domain “an experience” diminishes the term.

  4. mc

    i would be more worried about diminishing the experience of transactions than diminishing the term experience.

  5. Jeff

    I think many people would be perfectly happy if wide swaths of user experience were diminished completely out of existence. For the most part, things that fall under the purview of UX Design are only means to an end. Experiences however are often ends unto themselves (sometimes the means to transformations).

    Think of it this way. If you can pay someone else to undertake a transaction on your behalf, and still reap the benefit, then it’s almost certainly not an experience. At best it’s a service. I’d happily have someone else weed the spam from my inbox or keep track of my passwords. I could hand off the “experience” of editing a digital photo or paying my bills online. As long as I have to participate in those situations, I want the transactions to be as painless and satisfying as possible but I don’t confuse them with actual experiences.

    Experience design focuses on events that have intrinsic value. Resonating experiences that fall into four quadrants: entertainment, education, esthetic and escapism. Imagine paying someone to experience a stage play on your behalf; to learn calculus or to take a vacation. These are powerful experiences; comparing them to user experience is like comparing lightning to a lightning bug. Worse, it obscures the fact that we can actually design for those experiences.

    Instead of UX Design, how about User Encounter Design? Occurance Design? User Transactions? User Situations?

  6. I’d worry about renaming to something like “User Transaction Design” as that’s eroding the gains we’ve made so far. I feel like we’re just on the cusp of the average client really understanding the breadth of an “experience” and becoming ready to embrace it. I’m not sure what part of the country you live in, but if it’s Northern California or the Pacific Northwest, stop by an Umpqua Bank. I don’t think you get any more entrenched in “transactional thinking” than when you are a bank or are visiting one. But the experience of transacting with Umpqua is distinctly different than with, say, US Bank. And that experience was most certainly designed, I know Ziba was involved and I believe some other design groups (sorry for not being able to give credit where credit is due).

    I think it’s important for experience designers to understand user needs and deliver accordingly – even when you’re just transacting I think there’s an experience involved with that, which ultimately defines the brand.

  7. Jeff

    I made a special trip to Portland a couple years ago specifically to visit Umpqua Bank and a few other environments designed by Ziba. Umpqua is a fantastic example of service design with some nice experience design principles thrown in for good measure. It’s precisely the kind of thing I’ve been writing about on this blog for the past year, but it’s not UX Design.

    The discipline of Service Design is poised to realize the early promise of User Experience Design as described by Peter in his comment. Unfortunately, when I think of UX Design today, I don’t think of projects like Umpqua; I think of software and digital interactions exclusively. That’s a perception from which I don’t believe UX Design can recover.

    My point in the original post was that the ambient variety of “experience” that UX Design is concerned with doesn’t deserve to be called an experience at all. We should call it something else.

    Transaction is probably too harsh, but the idea of “User Encounters” sounds about right…

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