Reviving UX: Insights from technology’s leading disciplines—an introduction to Hx: Human Experience Design and Development

A bridge under a purple sky—a painting similar to Monet’s Charing Cross Bridge series in this case under a twilight effect.
Bridging the gap—affording UX a methodology for whole practice

What is Human Experience Design? If you’ve heard me in person or follow me online, you may have heard me talk about it or in other nomenclature: Hx, HxD, HxDD (Human Experience Design and Development).

In 2012, I was immediately attracted to the field of UX and Interaction Design because I had been doing some research, wireframing, flows, and prototyping as a web designer and developer for a couple of years. But also because I love psychology, the human mind, and the behavior it induces. I was always very inspired by the dedication of UX ideologies centered around the human, the person using and participating in the experience. However, as I worked in the field, met more professionals and analyzed the industry, I noticed a few things, which left me wanting to strive towards something more. UX has been considered the intersection of the arts and technology, but, of course, an experience does not have to use technology at all. And there is much more to a tech experience than looks and function. The truth of the matter is that today, for some, UX principles are ideology. There are many parts of great UX that some professionals don’t practice or practice wrongly, I’ll get into this later. So if I may be so bold, I took the disciplines I am aware of, practicing, and hopefully good at and merged them into what UX can be and more, which is part of what Hx is. A discipline not centered, but axis-ed around the humans involved because while humans are an investment, it is through a dedicated, diligent human focus that the ultimate pay off comes.

Hx is the intersection between the arts, science, and technology all aiming to build the best possible experience for as many people as possible.

“Technology alone is not enough. It is technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that make our hearts sing.” — Steve Jobs

Simply and by definition, technology is the creation and use of tools through our understanding. Science is our pursuit for understanding. Art is applied creativity towards a message, to express our understanding. Design begins to bring these together as it is applied creativity towards problem solving. I’m sure many of you have heard similar ideations about design being problem solver. All design should be directed towards solving problems. A key attribute of being a designer is not only noticing imperfections, but also being able to creatively solve them. I’ll be introducing Hx concepts throughout, but in order to talk about and before I talk about what Hx, I have to talk about why Hx is. In UX, it is critical to always ask why first—in fact multiple times. And it is simply that there are some great problems with UX today. Hx intends to be a strategy and to be the solution. Therefore, let me layout the problems at hand:

1.) Many influential stakeholders do not understand the critical importance of the experience let alone an accessible, usable, and great one.

2.) Some practitioners have forgotten about the people, some never considered the people, and are constrained to “concepts” and patterns.

3.) How do we apply UX, not adding it as a feature, but integrating into the workflow and development process, innovating with it and through it rather than to it and by it. So that it is viable and profitable; respected, cherished, and promoted.

Before we go any further and I discuss how we solve these problems and improve on UX, let’s discuss what UX is. The first book I read specifically about UX asked this question. Regularly, my professors asked us to answer it. Yes, it results therein and is of Visual Design, Information Architecture, User Research, Interaction Design, and more; but what it ultimately is, is crafting an experience. There’s a reason why Disney makes origami out of towels. Or why a half an hour into staying on The Simpson’s homepage, at one point, something odd would happen like a character saying a catchphrase or moving. These are what we call delighters. But more importantly they are details. They are the icing on the cake, the bow on the present — and they can make all the difference. “But, who cares about towels?” “Who would stay on a homepage for half an hour?” “We’re not Disney and it is not a priority for us.” It is similar impugnments and questions as those that were about online shopping, being online on mobile, and wearable technology. “No one will do it, so why bother” and the like. These were to some degree widely held opinions. No. Today, more people access the internet on mobile than desktop, more people shop online than department stores (some even shop online on an IoT device), and Apple Watch sales are leading the entire Swiss watch industry. We have to stop thinking about the experience as a feature of the product and more like the product as a service, as in what service are we doing for the user, for the human. This doesn’t mean sacrifice the viability or profitability, but knowing, practicing, and investing in the user. It’s through this investment that with innovate through it rather than to it.

Now that I’ve talked a bit about my definition for UX and what it should be, let’s address solving the aforementioned problems.

1.) Many influential stakeholders do not understand the critical importance of the experience let alone an accessible, usable, and great one.

While UX is becoming more and more popular, it is becoming part of a process in a few different ways. What I mean by “part of a process” is not that it is being integrated into corporate workflow and culture, that is a good thing, but if and when it becomes too automated or mechanical of a process. Don’t get me wrong, I love machines and automation, but

there will always be something special about the human touch. So filled with flaws, rich with emotion, driven: an inkling of great with a pinch of imperfection.

That imperfection is a good thing, but it is what drives us to learn, solve, and become better.

The first, is becoming more popular, there are those that are trying to make UX more efficient and easier to do. This is great, but not when it degrades the methodology. It is sometimes then when people say, “Methodology X doesn’t work so Methodology X is bad for everyone”; or worse bad for us, which is not good for the industry. Bad for us is worse because it impacts the organization and everything it touches. Optimization is great when fine tuning an experience but not when trying to produce results or prove a point. Not when designing for vanity or expertise rather than for people or solutions. Research of all kinds should begin with a hypothesis and lead to a data-driven conclusion. Absolutely not an idea that leads to data-driven proof. We have to be ready to learn the issues with what we are crafting and go back and reiterate with them in mind to come up with a better solution. We even have to be prepared, ready, and enthused about dropping everything, reverting, and starting from scratch — if necessary. There is bound to be disappointments if a product is only tested in the end. I have nothing against quality analysis, it is a relative to UX; but, iterative testing must be an early, continuous process not a concluding one. The disappointment comes from having fallen in love with the solution and not tested frequently and often. When so much effort is invested in something, it would be utterly disheartening to see that go to waste. Testing frequently and often with people in mind may seem more time consuming, but it will protect the project, the investment, and further ensure what has contributed to it to launch and success.

And this is where there can be hesitance in understanding how critical proper UX design is. UX is an investment and knowing it can not result in launch can make it seem too risky. Therefrom, an automated or streamlined process which is safer seems more attractive. However the returns on the investment in human-centeredness often results in substantial return even in failure and especially in success or progress.

While it may be hard to convince management and stakeholders that it is worth company time, it is crucial sometimes we do research without even a product or something solid at all. That we study people, empathize with them and discover problems in their lives that we can solve. This is not putting oneself into the user’s shoes and saying clearly I want, feel, think, and need this. You can not let yourself nor management do this. Those are assumptions not promotions. It is through promoting the user’s way of life and trying to advance it that we yearn to find a solution.

Don’t “walk a mile in someone’s shoes.” Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes includes the assumption that they fit. Rather see things through their eyes, as they see—through their experience. That is empathy.

And through innovation and iteration, we do. In a way it is that UX is becoming too mainstream, but not important enough where it counts and is actually being done right across the entire industry.

2.) Some practitioners have forgotten about the people, some never considered the people, and are constrained to “concepts” and patterns.

While there are doctors of different abilities and different courses of treatment, there is most definitely a consensus and uniformity of the practice of medicine within the industry. While UX does not always result in the life altering, it does deal with people and can ease one’s life and even, if poor, cause it harm. Except UX has been implemented and is practiced like a religion. Where huge corporate teams with vast resources dedicate themselves to the profession; scholars consult, educate, and clarify, and others practice parts and different variations of the discipline. I’m not calling for an end in variety or diversity, those are critical in this field, but I am shining a spotlight on some of the intentionally negligent practicing of UX.

This second way is in the vestigial design and development environments where the user doesn’t matter at all and where the user is a primal shell of a human. This can be simplified and better explained in two ways: 1.) Disrespecting the user and 2.) Disregarding the user. The current situation is as if some doctors didn’t sanitize or provide anesthesia during operations openly and proudly. Before UX, the creation of technology was a business and as is clear for businesses to aim to do—be as efficient and profit bearing as possible. Because to a business everything is costs and profits offset those costs. However Human-Centered UX shows us somethings are necessary investments.

The birth of UX made a big difference, but while it grew, spreading like a wildfire, its reach was more like an ink blot seeping into paper. Some places it was heavy and deep and others less engrained. In the latter, like a superficial stain. It may have seemed to made users the focus where it touched; which it does in principle, but it created blatant disrespect in some cases. Due to it being a buzz word. Hype, as we also see with AI, can be very dangerous. People, companies, professionals began practicing it as a must to avoid a greater cost further down the road. Or claiming they are for promotion of the business. This is not the empathy UX requires. It began to be practiced in fractions of the whole vision. Some practitioners doing what they felt was best or most appropriate, but not giving the user the full attention they deserve. This can be seen in pseudo research that is impersonal and automated; for example, personas v.s. proto-personas or automated accessibility testing. Granted not everyone is nor can be a mystical UX unicorn or as elite in practice as a large UX team, but it becomes a problem when practitioners become ignorant and stubborn. Unwilling to learn more. Or something much more common, unwilling to work across the aisle, bridging the gap. “I’m not a developer, I don’t understand”, “I’m not a developer, I don’t do that”, “I’m not a visual designer why should I care”, or one that I heard once (paraphrase): “Blind people can’t [do core function], why should we make it accessible?” I’m happy to say I sat next to a non-sighted student in a Computer Science lab (class) we shared and she’s making a big impact at Apple. Tim Cook has sung her praises. This is how some disrespect the user by claiming to be an advocate, but only being an advocate for themselves, efficiency, or business promotion alone. By not striving for the user or truly seeking to solve problems in their lives. Where the people are used as an instrument for other than their gain.

3.) How do we apply UX, not adding it as a feature, but integrating into the workflow and development process, innovating with it and through it rather than to it and by it. So that it is viable and profitable; respected, cherished, and promoted.

This is also happening in another way. For a long time UX was also used to create better products. Better for the business, not the person. Purposely playing on instincts, urges, and drives to embed an unnecessary item into their lives. Something that solves nothing and sometimes even creates problems. I’m talking about pervasive technology. And while it is critical to the business that a product is readily used, there are ways this can be done without manipulating the user. The tech industry and the world is learning this more and more in recent times.

One of the articles I’ll be writing in the future, is about the hierarchies of innovation and problem solving. I’ll introduce the hierarchy of innovation later here. These elements of Hx can help create genuine solutions that can have great impact. This quasi-emphasis on the people involved is disrespectful to the end user and the people creating the product — it does no human any good. What about disregarding the user?

What is the difference between disrespect and disregard? Disregard is a complete lack of acknowledgment. While disrespect can touch on this, one can unfortunately accept or partially accept, as valid, something while disrespecting it. It is similar to disagreeing with an opponent, but acknowledging their right to their opinion and free speech. Where disregard strips them of their rights, opinions, status as humans. This environment and situation exists where UX has not propagated. It is in disrespect that UX is practiced or promoted to get more profit alone; which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but is practiced haphazardly or partially. This could be no research or only market research, complete skipping over prototyping and full emphasis on the final product, and accessibility and usability testing; and in general inclusive and universal design, in the end (rather than iteratively) or not at all. Disregard on the other hand exists in the environments where design and development are still being done out of vanity or expertise. Where only stakeholder vision is trusted and there is no empathy nor understanding of people, their lives, and the problems therein—only what some particular person/persons thinks is/are good. It is important for leadership to build great teams and work with their expertise, what the research uncovers, and stakeholder vision; which may or may not be complimented, to build an Hx or Human Experience.

“Great leaders focus the right people on the right problems”

Whether it is disrespect or disregard for the user, we should not seek to overly optimize the process. This lays the foundation or the opportunity for Hx as a UX strategy. A hi-compassion methodology I developed when prototyping Ellsi and aim to implement in my work and where I work. Where some preach and aim to practice UX, but don’t. Or where some do not recognize that there are humans involved and that design and development should not only be humane, but must be empathetic. Perhaps it is because true UX in its whole form is expensive. A key point of Hx design is, a must to look at people as an investment and not sell but promote it as that. In the long run, and sometimes even in the short run, it will create a more profitable, viable, and successful organization and environment; product and service. Sometimes some people fall into the traps of disrespect and disregard not wholly intentionally, but because they have learned how to do something but not why to do it. This is the difference between a skilled method and an empathetic approach. Yes, all the techniques in UX are skills, but it is important to approach problems with this skillset, with immense empathy. This is another element of Hx that in this case inspired by appropriating models in Machine Learning, the skill of properly matching the right tool to the problem for the best solution. This is a way more of us can be unicorns by knowing when to apply UX skills — a skill in itself. However, there are those that hear bits of ideas, pieces or maybe a good part of a method, but do not practice it intelligently, empathetically, and whole heartedly. Intelligently meaning to solve problems. It is crucial we do not sacrifice the user at some other cost because the user is of the best investments that can be made.

So now that I have critiqued the current state of UX, I’d like to briefly introduce Hx. This is not to say one should abandon UX as they know it. Prioritizing User Experience is absolutely essential and the above problems must be addressed and solved so that UX is practiced in its full form and not as a trend. Hx is an extension of UX. Fixed on, but growing from and with the human & human condition, stabilized by accessibility & usability, creative & striving through arts & research, and applicable & uniting through mindset & practice. A methodology. Focusing on the elements of Hx like accessibility, usability, empathy, intelligence, research, and expression is how through Hx you can make better; more robust, solving, and gainful innovations.

Now let’s discuss how some of the core disciplines and strategies in Hx can help us create better technology and experiences.

a painting of flowers coming out of a skull
a painting of flowers coming out of a skull
Reviving UX

Hx: Empathetic experiences for everybody

A.) Accessibility

Accessibility is an absolute must and the world is growing more and more aware of this fact everyday. While unfortunately some have learned this after litigation, the fact of the matter is that in Summer 2017, a federal judge established precedent ruling that websites and apps are part of a public facing establishment and therefore must follow the ADA or American’s with Disabilities Act. I have developed a passion for accessibility from early in my career because with investments in experiences for all peoples, the overall experience for everybody often improves. The best way on can do that is following the WCAG guidelines—as Section 508 unfortunately termed but aptly named only requires a separate but equal experience for those with disabilities; however, often the experiences aren’t even close to equal. In fact, as late as 2017, I found a website for a major company that had an separate alternative accessible and separate alternative mobile site and an inaccessible core feature of an e-commerce web app, which both I presented on, that recently lost an accessibility case. We should never be stubborn enough that accessibility is shrugged off and later becomes a legal problem. WCAG 2.0 comes in 3 levels of compliance in increasing level of accessibility A, AA, AAA and WCAG 2.1 greatly improves on accessibility in touch, intelligent, and more-modern technologies. A good starting point is remembering POUR or making the interactions, content, and experience as a whole Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust. In echoing the earlier point of automation in UX, it can very easy and tempting to use automated accessibility testing, but there are however key criterion in WCAG that can only be confirmed by a human.

Responsive design is clear and commonplace, it is designing experiences for all devices. It is more than time accessibility—designing experiences for all people is clear and commonplace too.

B.) The Arts

a semi-abstract painting of greens and pinks roughly resembling a water lily pond with water lilies reflecting a twilight sky
a semi-abstract painting of greens and pinks roughly resembling a water lily pond with water lilies reflecting a twilight sky
Compassion truly is a mutual experience. “I want to convey what is alive between me and the subject.” — Claude Monet

“It is better to be high-spirited, even though one makes more mistakes, than to be narrow-minded and all too prudent. It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love, is well done.” — Vincent van Gogh

The above, by Monet, is not at all meant to belittle the user, but I chose to quote it for the exact opposite, through compassion and emphasis of the relationship between the people involved, we can create better technology. I chose the above, by van Gogh, because compassion is a pure form of love for which things done in are done with care, in respect, and well. We must care about our users. Finding strength in belief in the user, the audience and what is best for them and what is viable and best for the business as one. That once this is feasible and with compassion, great experiences will come.

While the best tech integrates itself into the user’s life, it shouldn’t do so at the cost of the user. We should use the same principles, fortified by research from The Arts, Science, Tech, and on all peoples to build for all peoples. We’re all humans. We’re all your audience. Experiences should sway, move, inspire, and involve us.

Another important point, which I believe in, from the van Gogh quote is the ability for a team, a company, an organization to grow with diversity. That when practicing self and outward compassion. With ourselves and within ourselves we’ll grow through inclusion, building on each other’s strengths. Through learning, reflecting; not reacting, and being the best we can be, the best team we can be, the best company we can be, and; at last, the best society we can be through diversity and inclusion of peoples, experiences, talents, and perspectives.

C.) Research

While intelligence is what helps us actualize and realize our plans and solve our problems, it is not alone in that which contributes to consciousness or the mind, human or other. We see across species in beings we consider aware or not, that there is an element of opinion that helps one interpret and make plans, have desires. A key element of Hx is purpose oriented design and if we are to create technology designed with a purpose in mind, it should be able to achieve it. This means intelligence is a must and so is the ability to strive. In addition, to create technology that is aware, striving or fulfilling does not necessarily mean that which is super-human or that which could endow or dismay the human race. What will hinder humanity is a continuation of the problems above and what can relieve it is empathetic, purpose oriented experiences, or Hx.

Apart from empathetic intelligence, we can earlier on create empathetic experiences through thorough and empathetic research in the beginning of our UX workflow. It is beyond important that we learn and experience the lives of all people. Through this empathy, we can hinder our bias and assumptions, problems in Machine Learning and design, and solve problems for people ensuring authentic use and not a cult following or a following through manipulation.

D.) Development

Now in the next decade since the establishment of HTML5, Javascript APIs and ES6 are becoming more and more supported. We must always build with cutting edge technology with graceful degradation. I have built Front-End experiences that don’t break in legacy environments or devices yet leverage the best when it is supported. It is important that we do this when building an experience for everybody. To not discount either extreme, but to build things for the largest outreach possible. The key part of this section however is in being a UX generalist or a specialist, it is important we educate ourselves with as much breadth as possible. Yet depth in some select areas creating that T shape I and we all should aim for. By doing this we can connect across departments and fulfill a true purpose of a UX Designer to bridge the gap and create the best possible experience through it.

E.) Poetry

In echoing UX Designers educating themselves across disciplines; on the other hand, everyone is a designer. Everyone at the company. Everything is poetry. everyone in a designer. It is important that all departments and contributors know we all contribute to and create the product and with that, we must act with compassion. And it is with that compassion, that we flow together like a poem and our experiences become eloquent like poetry.

After we focus in, learn from, and practice these disciplines, the next element in Hx is purpose oriented design and development. When we outline the purpose of a technology or an experience in general, we can craft how it will best achieve that purpose (with our skills and disciplines). Purpose oriented design is a critical element and methodology of Hx. This is how details become delighters and delighters contribute to an experience along with human centered focus as mention in part E, “Poetry”, above. The aesthetic-usability effect shows us that even improving the visuals of an experience can make all the difference. Now imagine if we research, built around humans towards a purpose and crafting intuitive and robust interactions and architecture. Invest in great visual design and content as well and you might create something wonderful. Humans are not sacrifices, they’re investments we have to make.

Citing a Verge article and a well know fact, the current tech landscape has grown very successful through disruption. Amazon and Shopping, Facebook and Media Consumption, Netflix and television, Tesla and automobiles, Ride sharing and driving to name a small few. But what happens when there is nothing left to disrupt? We don’t innovate nonsensically as mentioned in the article nor do we do a delayed innovation. We go higher up the hierarchies of Hx and we find our solution. I don’t plan to go into detail on the hierarchies as this is an introduction to Hx; but I will, however, introduce the hierarchy of innovation. How we don’t have to dive deeper all the time, but can spread farther, higher and we may find something unique, a diamond in the rough that’ll lead us to a mine we never thought of exploring, but whose gems enrich experiences, products, and services tenfold. Gems that glisten so great, they lead current efforts and create new efforts: solving the past, crafting the present, and shaping the future.

In conclusion, I know I have a scathing review of the current condition UX, but I felt it necessary in introducing Hx. As a Human Experience Designer and Developer, it is important that I do not invent things for no reason, but craft solutions to problems. This does not mean I only create things people know they want, but I am motivated by the human condition, striving for humans through empathy, knowing that through investing in humans comes so much. I’ve too long seen classes in UX. Not of talent although it seems that way, but in practice. Most of us, except those disregarding the user, appear to want the same thing. Now we have to unite in uniformity, but not be constrained by consistency. Consistency should be the foundation, but a guideline not a law by which we feel forced to not innovate. Everything we do should be poetic.

Extra—an introduction to the Hierarchy of Innovation

Innovation at its best solves past, present, and future problems. It does this through empathetic research. Research at its best is when it is broad and not oriented towards discovering something specific but learning something new.

The hierarchy of innovation details how the further down the chain we go the more of an investment it will take, but the more impact we will have when designing and developing. Rungs on this hierarchy are:

  1. Features
  2. Apps and products
  3. Interactions and experiences
  4. Algorithms and methodologies (these are what we do in design and development or what needs to be done)
  5. Languages and guidelines (how we conduct our workflows)
  6. Purposes (why we are designing)
  7. Philosophies (why what we are doing matters)
  8. Technologies (taking the largest investment, but throughly altering the landscape in the greatest impact)
van Gogh’s famed yellow house at night representing diversity and union across UX teams and practioners
van Gogh’s famed yellow house at night representing diversity and union across UX teams and practioners
welcome home

The painting above documents van Gogh’s famed yellow house except at night. Beauty in the night is important because it lets us know that while UX may not be practiced whole heartedly everywhere, the dawn is coming and it can be. The best is yet to come. van Gogh aimed for his yellow house to house like minded artists. I however propose that this be a symbol for our diversity and growth under a single vision. That I can contribute through my independence, drive, and leadership yet compassion, collaboration, and fellowship towards achieving our vision. As I say, just as your technology plays a prime role in the story of your users, let me show you how I can play a prime role in the story of your company.

Lover of empathy, intrinsic motivation, and alliterations. Philosopher, Poet, Problem Solver. Experience Designer, AI Researcher by profession.