We all like to play God. We like to imagine that the design we create is ushered into the world and all those who use it have an epiphany…they do things exactly in the way we have prescribed. They approach, use, and experience our design in the manner we envisioned, resulting in an amazing user experience.
You might call this the God complex approach to UX. It is the ego-driven approach, the one in which designer knows better than user, the one in which users don’t know what’s good for them. The architect Frank Lloyd Wright fell into this mould. He designed houses for a particular (in his view enlightening) experience. He designed all aspects of the house, from the large unified rooms to the built-in furniture to the small kitchen. As a house owner you could change very little. You want the furniture a different way? Too bad. You’re a foodie who wants to entertain in the kitchen? Not going to happen. Wright had already determined the experience you should have.
But most people who have actually lived in a Frank Lloyd Wright house report that it’s not all that great. It’s too restrictive, too confining. What Wright saw as the ideal way to live isn’t the same as another’s ideals. Wright took his God complex too far…and built beautiful but not quite usable houses.
No design survives contact with the user. Just like most people change the house they live in, most people change design artifacts to suit their needs and taste. Computer users customize the software on their computer, adding the programs they need and removing the ones they don’t. House owners paint the walls of their house to their current favorite colors. Social software users are customizing from the very moment they add a particular friend…the entire user experience of social software is personalized.
Designers do not create experiences, we create artifacts to experience. We create tangible things that people use over time. If someone using our artifact has a good time while using it, they might be said to have a positive user experience. But we cannot dictate this in the sense that Wright would have wanted. The experience (positive or negative) belongs to our users in the same way that a memory belongs to them. It’s an event that happened to them, not us. It’s a custom internalization.
In his book How Buildings Learn, Stewart Brand describes the static nature of architecture as an endemic problem.
“Almost no buildings adapt well. They’re designed not to adapt; also budgeted and financed not to, constructed not to, administered not to, maintained not to, regulated and taxed not to, even remodeled not to. But all buildings (except monuments) adapt anyway, however poorly, because the usages in and around them are changing constantly.”
Brand could as easily have been talking about any designed artifact. We start out building them statically because we don’t see people using them over time. Once that happens, though, once a design has had contact with its users, and the designer observes that contact, the world changes. This is what social software is showing us each and every day: its core value is its ability to be something different for everyone, to be adaptable to people’s varying needs, to change over time, to be a subjective user experience.