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The art of fostering a transcendent user experience

By Maria Santos

Digital Marketing Manager

Published:

Ahead of Camp Digital 2017, People for Research got in touch with one of the speakers at the event. The result is an exciting interview with Elizabeth Buie, senior UX consultant at Sigma, about transcendent user experience (TUX) and the workshop Elizabeth will deliver at Camp Digital along with sensory design consultant Alastair Somerville.

With more than three decades of experience in user experience (UX), Elizabeth has consulted on different projects with different types of user populations. She now shares her knowledge and reveals a bit about her workshop at Camp Digital before the event takes place.

You have been working in the UX industry for three decades and have witnessed a lot of changes. Do you think UX has aged gracefully?

transcendent user experienceHmmm… I had to think about this one a bit. Can I say “yes and no”? UX has its origins in human factors, the study of human capabiities and limitations and the application of that knowledge to the design of things people use.

For a long time, human factors were big in products and systems such as furniture and aircraft cockpits. Then computers became a larger part of everyday life, and we saw the rise of “human factors in computing systems”, or human-computer interaction (HCI). Initially a collaboration of computer science and psychology that focused on performance in work environments, HCI soon expanded into the home and then into other areas of life where performance was not paramount, and later it added a focus on subjective user experience, which we know as UX.

UX has exploded in recent years, both in academic research and in industry practice. Its ageing has not been uniformly graceful, though – no indeed. Grace has come with the inclusion of art, graphic design, storytelling, and other aesthetic endeavours that evoke the subjective and the emotional and pay attention to how we feel when we use something. Grace has come with the growing awareness of the importance of the user’s experience in the success of a product or service. However, to some extent, these have come at the expense of human factors. We used to see a lot of products that looked dull and boring but enabled smooth operation.

“These days it’s the flip side: products that look beautiful but are a right pain to use.”

We see people entering the UX profession with a passion for designing great products but without an adequate understanding of usability (which is necessary for good UX although it isn’t enough by itself) or of the human capabilities and limitations on which UX so deeply depends. I see this as a situation of demand outpacing supply: we don’t have enough adequately educated and trained UX practitioners to keep up with the need for people to do UX work.

Fortunately, the opportunities for appropriate education and training are increasing. From the growing incorporation of UX coursework into undergraduate programmes in departments of computer science and of design, to the availability of credible online training resources such as the courses offered by the Interaction Design Foundation, to the willingness of senior UX professionals not only to mentor less experienced UXers but also to educate management and marketing, the ageing of UX is becoming ever more graceful.

So, to your question of whether UX is ageing gracefully, I answer: “It’s getting there, and I am encouraged.”

The workshop you have developed for Camp Digital focuses on TUX – transcendent user experience. How would you explain this concept?

First let me talk about transcendent experience, which I call TX (to align with the X in UX). A TX is an experience of connection with something greater and more permanent than yourself. When I speak of something greater than yourself, many people understand it in terms of religion – and indeed it could be a deity or other religious figure – but it could equally well be Nature, the Universe, a spiritual community, a humanitarian cause, a creative pursuit… A TX is an experience that takes you beyond yourself.

A transcendent user experience – a TUX – is a TX that is supported by technology. It’s a TX that occurs while you’re using technology and in which that tech plays a role. The tech is not the focus of transcendence; it’s a facilitator of it. Simple examples include sensing a divine presence whilst studying a digital sacred text, feeling profound awe whilst looking at NASA images of star clusters, or feeling at one with all of creation whilst watching a meditation video.

“A transcendent user experience is a transcendent experience that is supported by technology. (…) The tech is not the focus of transcendence; it’s a facilitator of it.”

The workshop will involve talking about new tools and techniques that can help UX designers to facilitate the transcendent user experience…

We’re going to play a board game. Transcendhance, a portmanteau of “transcend” and “enhance”, takes components of transcendent user experience – context, perceptions, reactions, desires for enhancement – and combines them in random and sometimes surprising ways, giving players a set of simple elements from which to explore ideas for TUX technologies. The game, which I developed as part of my PhD research on what TUX is and how design can facilitate it, uses fun, play, and surprise to stimulate both fanciful and serious ideas that can generate further thinking about possible transcendent user experience technologies.

I’ll summarise another tool that we won’t have time to explore. Design fiction has been around for a dozen or so years, but it is particularly suited to TUX because of fiction’s ability to encourage the willing suspension of disbelief. I’ve developed three new forms of design fiction, and we may just have time to take a quick peek at one of them.

What other talks/sessions are you looking forward to attending at Camp Digital?

transcendent user experienceAlastair’s, of course! Partly to find out exactly how he’s going to set the stage for our workshop, but mainly because I always find his talks fascinating even when I’m familiar with his thinking.

I’m particularly intrigued by Emer Coleman’s topic of technology’s dark side and the ethics questions it raises, and I hope to chat with her about some ethical questions around designing for transcendence. Both Hany Rizk’s talk on “building products that matter” and Stefanie Posavec’s ideas for humanising and presenting data to facilitate warm, emotional communication resonate with my focus on designing to support transcendence.

I also hope to hear Simon Wilson and Dominic Campbell; their work in the public sector aligns with my long history of focus on UX in government systems, and I’m always interested in hearing new ideas regarding that arena.

You have worked with different audiences and personas, from literally the whole world to NASA spacecraft controllers. How important is to test a new product or system with the right participants?

It’s always important, because you never know your users as well as you think you do. Sometimes you can’t do a lot of testing, and you can’t always involve all audience groups, so you do as much as you can with the resources you have.

Sometimes usability in terms of performance is far more important than user experience in terms of pleasure – say, when a mistake or delay can crash an aeroplane or cause a nuclear meltdown – but we know that people who are happier in their work tend to be more productive, so even with those kinds of systems it’s important to design for subjective experience as well.

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Maria's signature picAbout the author: Maria Santos is the Digital Marketing Manager at People for Research. You can find her on the People for Research’s Facebook or Twitter accounts, regularly engaging with potential participants, market research experts and the UX community.

About People for Research: We recruit participants for UX and usability testing and market research. We work with award winning UX agencies across the UK and partner with a number of end clients who are leading the way with in-house user experience and insight.

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