from the desk of H. Bowie...

desktop with typewriter


Dethroning the False God of User Experience Design

My first personal computer was an Osborne 1. It came with not only a CP/M operating system, but copies of SuperCalc, WordStar and two versions of the BASIC programming language: both CBASIC and MBASIC.

I even convinced my Dad to buy one of these things, and he happily used both SuperCalc and WordStar for years to put together spreadsheets and documents for his real estate business.

While these devices seem ancient and massively underwhelming by today’s standards, the acquisition of a computer such as this arguably represented the single greatest leap forward in the history of personal computing. It’s hard to picture today, but before this individuals had to put together spreadsheets by hand, and add up columns of numbers using a calculator, and produce letters and other documents using a typewriter.

The Osborne 1 was released in 1981. It would be nine years later before Steve Jobs would conclude that a computer is like a bicycle for the mind. And it would be midway through the 1990's before Donald Norman would popularize the phrase “user experience,” leading to the idea of UX design, and the role of UX designer, and the eventual enshrinement of the notion that users need to have their experiences with computers designed for them by cadres of highly trained specialists.

Looking back on all these events from our modern perspective, the overall arc may seems natural and even preordained, with each achievement along the personal computing timeline smoothly leading to the next.

The problem, though, is that we’ve had something valuable stolen from us along the way. And the whole modern notion of UX design is one of the thieves that has robbed us.

Let’s go back to the core of what Steve Jobs was saying back in 1990.

1) Tool building is an intrinsic part of what makes us human, what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom.

2) The computer is the greatest tool that humans have ever invented.

And implicit here, I think, is another statement:

3) Tools are used to build things, including other tools.

And yet, if we look around us today in 2019 and see what computers are being used for, how much of that activity could be considered building? I mean, it’s wonderful that Apple’s holiday ad captures an epic snowball fight filmed completely with an iPhone 11, but how many of the iPhones around you are being used for similarly creative tasks?

Back in 1990, Jobs pointed out that what a human needed to beat a condor in a race was a bicycle; today, the human might have a better chance if he gave the condor an iPhone and downloaded a few apps for him – the condor would never even make it off the couch.

And so, if our modern computing devices are not being used for purposes fit for humanity at its height, then what went wrong?

Consider that, in the quotation from Jobs, there is no mention of a user. Instead he casts all humans as tool builders, and presents the personal computer as the ultimate tool.

Contrast this with the summary definition of User Experience found on the website for the Nielsen Norman Group:

User Experience encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.

Notice now that most humans are no longer tool builders, but are end-users. The use of the term end in this context is especially revealing, because it implies that a whole chain of building has preceded the delivery of a company’s products and services, but that the focus of UX design is on the user who sits at the very end of the line. In other words, whatever this recipient will be doing with these products and services, s/he certainly won’t be building anything new that will then be passed on to others.

Notice also that the focus is now on designing an “experience” for the end-user. How precious. It now seems that our users need not do anything useful with the computers they’ve been allowed to access; instead the focus is on providing them with a high-quality experience that has been precisely designed to go “far beyond giving customers what they say they want….” And so our poor computer-using humans, considered the “crown of creation” in Jobs’ words, have now been reduced to the point where they cannot even be trusted to reliably express what it is they want from their interactions with a computer. No, their experience must be designed for them by “the seamless merging of multiple disciplines, including engineering, marketing, graphical and industrial design, and interface design.” And oh what a joy that is bound to be.

Consider also that our modern definition of user experience is inextricably tied to the products and services offered by a company. So it is no longer humans building tools, and using those tools to build things for one another, but rather companies building things that they can sell to customers.

And then, finally, removing the last shred of humanity from our definition of UX design, those doing the creating are not even accorded the status of artists, who might be allowed to create objects of wonder and beauty (and also some ugly, unpopular flops along the way – for, after all, they are only human, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder), but instead are positioned as professionals: one can imagine them wearing white coats, working in their labs, with their UX degrees and certificates on their walls, seamlessly laboring together to produce high-quality user experiences according to the arcane and demanding precepts of their craft.

And then of course this whole conception of mysterious UX wizards working behind the curtain in service to their corporate masters to deliver experiences to customers who don’t even know what they want leads quite naturally to modern tech giants such as Facebook, Google and Amazon who are quite happy to provide their users with never-ending experiences of engagement, information-gathering, political expression, shopping and consuming, while never once giving them space to stop and question just who is building what for whom, and why? And what might they want to build, for themselves and their friends, if only they were given the tools?

And so, I think, we must begin to question the inevitability of the sort of progress we have suffered over the last years and decades; we must begin to reclaim our rights as active builders, rather than passive users; we must allow ourselves the open-ended, ill-defined joys and frustrations that come from tinkering with tools; and we must return to the very human feelings that come from using our tools to build things for ourselves and each other, according to whatever whims and fancies take us, and then being proud to claim them as our own.

After all, life should be a series of discoveries and adventures, not a series of experiences that have been carefully curated for us.

And if computers are to be parts of our lives, and extensions of our humanity, then they too must live up to these expectations.

And so now, rather than finish with some tidy guidance that might provide you, my reader, with a carefully crafted media consumption experience, let me instead offer up, for your further adventures and exploration, some examples of the sorts of builders who have inspired me over the years.

  • The character played by actor Donald Meek in the Capra film You Can’t Take It With You, along with all the other basement tinkerers featured in this fine adaptation of the Kaufman and Hart play.
  • My friend Richard Glatzer, with whom I watched dozens of films over our undergraduate careers at Michigan, and who went off to Hollywood to make his own movies.
  • Tom and Ray Magliozzi, affectionately known as “Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers,” who spent decades of their lives talking every Saturday to callers with questions about their cars, convincing all of us, not only that we could fix and modify our own vehicles, and that tool acquisition and use was a fundamental human trait, but also that something wonderful and new could be built each weekend using nothing more than a phone line, a few random callers, and the vagaries of the English language.
  • The men and women of Boeing who, despite occasional missteps by their management, show up at work daily to build amazing flying machines that help to preserve the peace and to whisk us around the world in ways that were barely imaginable a short time ago.
  • Ron Avitzur and Greg Robbins, who created the original Graphing Calculator app for the Mac.
  • Tim Berners-Lee, who cooked up the World Wide Web, creating HTML and the first web browser, thus paving the way for everyone and everything that followed.
  • John Gruber, inventor of Markdown, a tool that allows anyone to learn a simple, straightforward syntax for writing in plain text, and then converts that text to the HTML that can be read by a Web browser.
  • Brent Simmons, who is now busily working with a team of passionate volunteers to create a modern, open-source version of his classic Mac app, NetNewsWire – just for the love of it.

The Bottom Line

It’s time to start paying more attention to the ways our computers are using us, and to start rediscovering the ways in which we might truly want to use them. As Jackson Browne points out, we need to understand “the way the hammer shapes the hand.”

May you all find tools that are worthy of you.

December 27, 2019