So Long, User Experience… Hello, Human Experience!

Last updated on 19 September 2023

I detest “User Experience.”

Calm down 😮 I’m not hating on the field, on its practitioners (I am one), or on Don Norman, who invented the term back in the 80’s.

I detest “User Experience” the way Whitney Hess detests “Lean UX.” It’s specifically about the word “user” and the unhealthy connotations that have grown around it. So I’m making a change for myself.

I no longer practice User Experience Design. I practice Human Experience Design.

Anyway, here’s why I’ve switched from User Experience to Human Experience.

Design Must Focus on Humans.

Dr. Norman recently wrote an inspiring piece for Fast Company, entitled Why bad technology dominates our lives, according to Don Norman. He implores us, “Instead of starting with the technology and attempting to make it easy to understand and use, let us take human capabilities, and use the technology to expand our abilities.”

Let’s give humans the superpowers they need.

In his book from 1930, Civilization and its Discontents (Das Unbehagen in der Kultur), Sigmund Freud says that “Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God.” He notes that we’re so preoccupied with the problems that technology “solves” that we ignore the new problems that it creates. So let us “not forget that present-day man does not feel happy in his Godlike character.”

87 years later, Dr. Norman shows how this preoccupation has driven us to turn “the positive trait of curiosity into two negative ones:” distraction & addiction. When industrial or automobile accidents happen, we blame humans 90% of the time, for being distracted. And all this while gambling, computer games, social networks, and TV series exploit our curiosity to capture our attention and addict us for their own financial gain.

Human Experience Design serves humans, not technology.

We Design for More Humans than Just Users.

Whom we design for: Users, Customers, Active Stakeholders, and Passive Stakeholders

As Bill Buxton said at his CHI keynote in 2008, “It’s not about us anymore.” We design technology to benefit humans, and users are only one segment of the humans who have relationships with our products & services. Beyond just users & customers, we design for more humans than we may realize.

Users use the thing.

Customers buy the thing.

Active Stakeholders benefit from and directly influence the thing.

Passive Stakeholders are affected by, but have no influence over, the thing.

Human Experience Design considers the needs of users, customers, active stakeholders & passive stakeholders.

For example, let’s say Company X wants to issue all their employees a Fairphone (it’s an ethically produced smartphone). While employees use them, it’s a procurement manager who actually buys them. But there are lots of stakeholders here:

  • Fairphone business managers benefit from and influence the design (How many customers will buy them?)
  • Fairphone engineers are affected by and can influence the design (How difficult is it to develop & build?)
  • Company X’s IT administrators are affected by the design (How much maintenance does it require?)
  • Mineral miners are affected by the design (Which materials are used for components?)
  • Factory workers are affected by the design (How do the phone’s components fit together?)
  • E-waste processors in Ghana are affected by the phone’s design (How often will end-users need to throw these away?)

Human Experience Design serves the broadest spectrum of humans.

You’re More Than Just A User.

Human, Behavior, Experience, and Love

To call a person “user” is to define them by their relationship with something else. But we’re much more than that!

Humans are more than just their relationships with technology.

Each of us is a complicated, irrational being that exists within many contexts at once. Not only does the term user carry connotations of drug abuse & addiction, it also implies that the only thing a designer should care about is the “user’s” direct interaction with their product, service, or brand.

Human Experience Design serves the broadest spectrum of each human’s needs.

We Humans Need Love.

We say we design experiences, but what we really mean is that we design for experiences. At its most fundamental level, design shapes a human’s external environment in order to influence their internal experience, usually to empower specific behavior.

The fundamental goal of Human Experience Design is to help people experience love.

So, if cogito ergo sum, then each human is a conscious, thinking being with knowledge, feelings, & dreams. And, as Froukje Sleeswijk-Visser points out, consciousness gives us tacit, subjective experience, i.e. everything we know, feel, & dream. And the way I see it, the pinnacle of human experience is love.

My understanding of love comes through concepts from drama, psychology, and mindfulness. In the context of experience design, love represents catharsis (release of emotional tension), that results in feelings of connection, safety, mastery, and/or satisfaction.

Dean Birkett at UXCampNL 2017 - Photo

Love can be as simple as that feeling when you turn the key, and your car starts immediately. Or it can be as profound as the feeling when, as an eight-year old kid with severe autism, an app lets you tell your parents you love them for the first time ever (thanks, Dean!).

Let’s break that into its parts. My understanding of love represents only a subset of all possible results of catharsis, namely feelings of connection, safety, mastery, and/or satisfaction.

In Computers as Theatre, Brenda Laurel applies Aristotle’s concept of catharsis to human-computer interaction. When a system performs a complete action, the human interactor is rewarded with catharsis, the release of dramatic tension. Incomplete actions do not give us catharsis, leaving us wanting for satisfaction.

But here’s where love is specific: unlike film or theatre, catharsis in real life can still be dangerous. When someone encounters a button they don’t understand, they may experience catharsis when they touch it and see what happens. But if the result is e.g. that all their important data are permanently deleted, then the catharsis does not make them feel connected, safe, empowered, or satisfied.

Human Experience Design serves to put more love in the world.

Long Live UX!

To be fair, swapping “user” out for “human” isn’t a dramatic shift. It’s a subtle but powerful way for me to (1) remind myself why I do this, and (2) communicate to others why I do this.

With her words “Empathy over Ego,” Whitney Hess shows us that great design can only come from authentic connection with people. And with her Empathy Design Framework, Dr. Sleeswijk Visser shows us the process of creating these connections.

UX Design: empathy, catharsis, & love.

I still abbreviate it as UX Design, even… Oh, is it weird for me to abbreviate “human” with the letter U? Any weirder than abbreviating “experience” with the letter X?

Besides, for better or worse, “UX” is an established concept, which saves some explanation. There’s no reason to throw out the baby with the bathwater 😉. You won’t catch me using hUman eXperience though…