Ars Contexualis and UX

Ambiguity kills everything in User Experience (UX) design and research. And yet, the field itself is perplexingly ambiguous, “With the lack of consistency and simplicity in how we define UX, we’ve stripped it of its meaning and, more importantly, reduced the job to a mere buzzword,” as Yazin Akkawi states.

For example, what is the ideal curriculum one ought to have studied previously in order to be successful in UX is not congealing after a few decades. Sure there are Human Computer Interface-type degrees in academia, but it’s not uncommon to meet folks in UX whose backgrounds are from all over the disciplines: anthropologists, psychologists, lawyers, librarians, graphic designers, and so on. Then there is the definition of what, precisely, UX is?

What’s in a name?

Don Norman is credited with coining the phrase “user experience designer” when he gave himself the title upon joining Apple in 1993. The phrase wasn’t created in a vacuum, of course, and Norman was also drawing from his training in usability engineering, see Whiteside & Wixon, 1987. Norman and Nielsen, as NNg, now advance a definition of user experience that “encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.” This definition has moved from Norman’s initial focus on humans interacting with computer screens to now include customer experiences in brick and mortar and other field sites.

Caglar Araz, from whose blog post outlining the historical development of the definition of UX I have drawn heavily, argues that UX ought to be defined as, “singular and accumulated experiences that occur for users as a consequence of them interacting with an object in a given context.” Araz builds his case for this definition by presenting primary aspects of UX:

1. UX is subjective

User Experience is located in a human’s mind, not in the artifact that elicits the human’s affective reaction. If this were a math equation it would read something like:

subject (the human’s mind) + object (the artifact interacted with) = UX

2. UX happens in a context

But in order for UX to occur there has to be more accounted for than just an object and a subject, there is also the holistic context. The problem with the equation in 1. above is that it assumes the universe is full of autonomous billiard balls bouncing around in a vacuum, but the reality is that objects and subjects are the result of the constraints and affordances of the local arrangement of material conditions.

3. Accumulated Experiences

For Araz, the experiences designed for a digital space contribute to the experiences that occur in a brick and mortar site and it is the accumulation of these touch points that contribute to meeting an organization’s goals.

This leads Araz to come into alignment with NNg’s definition of UX and state, “User experience refers to the singular and accumulated experiences that occur for users as a consequence of them interacting with an object in a given context.”

Ars Contextualis

Over the last decade or so I have researched and written extensively about the meaning of autonomy and how it is possible. These studies initially began with my work investigating the nature of addiction.

What the data and analysis revealed in those studies is that context is of primary importance. More recently I’ve been writing about the “ars contextualis,” the art of context-making. This has led me to discussing the crafting of friendship (London Design Biennale, 2018). In asking how do we “make” friends? I argue that we’re transforming our context artfully.

This exploration of context has become a recurring theme in the work we at continent. have been presenting in Paris over the last several years (our 2016 event, our 2019 event).

Araz provides some useful explanation of the development of the term UX, beginning by discussing the shortcomings of Norman’s definition only to, in the end, affirm how Norman and Nielsen now define UX.

What I find especially useful about Araz’s short article is the proposition that UX designers begin articulating their “desired user experience” as an outcome that results from the work design teams commit.