Is Technology Driving Your User Experience?

Years ago, I was a freelance writer who happened to get a copy of some graphic design software. After a few weeks of playing around with the software, I decided that I could add “graphic design” to my resume. Yes, I’m very ashamed to admit this today. But you’ll be happy to know that in time, as I looked at some examples of really excellent graphic design, and compared it to the work I was churning out, I realized just how mediocre I was. So I tried to do something about it, and went back to school and took design classes.

The first thing my first teacher told us was that he would not allow any computer-generated work in his class. This was in 1992, and even then most work was computer generated. He reiterated, “Computers and software are simply tools that artists use to aide their work, not the work itself. You could put a Stradivarius in my hand, but it doesn’t mean I can play it. In turn, you can put the cheapest violin in the hands of a virtuoso violinist and he can still create beautiful music with it.”

To be honest, I don’t think I ever became a virtuoso designer. Karma did end up biting me in the butt when I moved onto web production, and had to compete with “web developers” who knew nothing beyond what FrontPage had to offer.

This is one of the things I so love about the UX Movement that I see happening not only in my company, but in companies all over the world. We as designers are learning to be more judicious about jumping on technology and design bandwagons. Our tools do not define us or our users.

For so many years, designers were at the mercy of managers and clients who didn’t know squat about design, but because they were signing our paychecks, we were forced to create designs and implement technologies that really didn’t serve anyone but someone’s ego. And because we had to eat and pay rent, we had to hold our noses and launch those steaming piles into the interwebs.

I once had to create a web site that was geared toward men, but since my client had a preschooler at the time, the site I ultimately designed looked more like it was for Fisher-Price. I don’t think I need to tell you that they needed to redesign shortly after that. And of course I’ve seen the genius, spot-on cartoon by The Oatmeal.

And don’t get me started on all the sites I had to design in the early 2000s with snazzy Flash intros, or “splash pages” that accomplished nothing but wasting precious time that users will never get back.

Anyone who works in technology needs to be aware of what’s going on in their field. You snooze, you lose. But must you hop on every single trend that someone identifies as the Next Big Thing? My supervisors have trained me to start asking the question, “What problem is this going to solve?”

If your answer is, “It will make us look cool, and we’ll be doing what everyone else is doing”, ask yourself how well that worked for you in high school. If your answer is that it’s something your users need, and will potentially increase credibility, productivity and profit, then go for it.

Fortunately, we’ve come a long way since the days in which we allowed fluffy design and useless technology wag the dog. We now have analytics to arm ourselves with.

Technology should not be driving your User Experience. Your User Experience should help delineate the tools you desire to most effectively implement your content. If you have the opportunity to use best-in-class tools for your site, I implore you to use them to help you create beautiful music. But don’t let them define it.