I ordered a sandwich for lunch today, and as I ate it, I contemplated its user experience. Why on earth would I think of this? Well, I’m a User Experience Designer. In my profession, if you’re extremely engaged and passionate about what you do, you start to notice the user experience of EVERYTHING. It’s not just about technology; it’s about life.
Take my sandwich: I ordered it to go, which means I eat it at my desk with one hand while catching up on my online news. This is obvious to me—and I’m the eater (user). The first problem was that when I picked up half of it while using my mouse with my other hand, the whole sandwich came with it (still attached by a small piece of uncut crust), and I almost lost it all on the floor. It wouldn’t be a big deal for a person who took their time and checked this first, but I never do because I have subconscious assumptions and expectations. They’re based on my own logic and my previous experiences with this sandwich shop: this has never happened before so I didn’t check.
The sandwich also had too much mayo and mustard. It was advertised as coming with several veggies and condiments, and I stated up front that I didn’t want the grilled mushrooms. The woman making my sandwich, asked to confirm this, and I said “yes, no mushrooms please.” I then assumed (incorrectly) that if I was asked about one of the ingredients, she’d also ask about the other ingredients. But she didn’t, and I wasn’t paying attention. This assumption was totally subconscious: I didn’t know I'd had it until I was at my desk with mustard dripping on my keyboard. No offense implied for the woman who made my sandwich—this was a problem I could’ve prevented myself. And this was the first time this has happened in the dozen I’ve been to this shop. I know after this experience what I need to do differently next time, what to expect and not to assume. Despite my minor complaints about my sandwich, its quality and taste far outweighed the uncut crust and dripping mustard – I would get a sandwich from this place again! By now, some of you may be thinking: this is the pickiest, most perfectionistic woman I’ve ever heard of. While I would argue that these traits actually make me a great user experience (UX) designer. I prefer to describe myself as “fully engaged” and “discerning” with an extreme attention to detail.
I may be the only person on the planet who constantly thinks about her everyday experiences in this way. But there is a user experience for everything we interact with, whether it is a product, appliance, object or a service or process you have to go through. Maybe you briefly feel annoyed when your dryer consistently eats one sock out of a pair, but then you toss out the remaining one and buy another pair. I, on the other hand, automatically think: how do I prevent this? What could the dryer manufacturer have done to fix this? Does this only happen to me? And most commonly: I must have a vortex in my laundry closet.
I’ll give you another example. I’ll be moving in a few weeks and decided to invest in one of those tape guns for my boxes. I’ve seen people use them a million times, and they seem really efficient and easy. An hour later, after re-reading the loading instructions, re-starting and putting the tape back on its track and watching three YouTube videos to see what I was doing wrong, I gave up. I returned the dispenser to the store, where the cashier insisted: “But these are so easy to use!” and then demonstrated a successful taping on the first try, to my chagrin. My response: “Well there must be something wrong with me, then.” (Hours of packing make me a little short, but the stress and frustration inherent in moving contribute to my overall context and experience of this product.) Also, even though it was a flippant comment, I blamedmyself, not the product (a common by-product of bad user experience). Whether it was user error or a faulty dispenser, I certainly don’t want to use a product again that makes me feel inept. My point is that theentirescenario is important in judging an experience: moving is stressful, the weather has been hot, and I don’t have time to deal with a dispenser that doesn’t work perfectly for me—an average person —the first time. I can be impatient, but there are many products I use frequently that work 100% of the time “right out of the box.” There are enough that I often expect this level of quality from other products and services as well.
I’m a regular user of things. I come with my own personality, experiences, expectations, preferences and assumptions. Throw in situational factors and emotions, plus how the thing actually performs, and you have much of what forms my experience or relationship with the thing I'm using. I can think of many things and processes in my everyday life that I am positive I could improve my experience with if I took (had) the time to look up a tip on the Internet. But I don’t have time. When I do have a choice about which experiences and products I choose, I prefer to do my research beforehand to avoid frustration later. Usability is at the top of my check list- e.g., having a remote control for my bedroom fan, a one-touch blinking blue “ready” light on my Keurig, and other “affordances.” Usability is probably high on your list too, even if you don’t realize it.
There’s another product I use every day at the office that might not be working properly, but this “feature” or potential defect actually improves the product. It’s the water dispenser in the break room. When I put my narrow opening water bottle under the dispenser and press the button, it drips one or two drops before it dispenses a full stream. I suppose it could just be leaking, but these drops help me position my bottle in the right place so the water goes into my bottle instead of the tray. I don’t know if this is by design or a mistake, but it’s genius!
I could go on, but if you find this subject as fascinating as I do, be sure to check out the classic book by Donald Norman:The Design of Everyday Things. You may just find yourself seeing your sandwich in a whole new light.