Quite often I hear people talk about User Experience (UX) as if it only exists for software and digital product product design. They may go on to incorrectly refer to User Experience and User Interface (UI) design interchangeably. I am especially exasperated when I hear other designers and engineers speak in these terms.
I think it is important to emphasize that User Experience Design goes beyond software and apps – it also applies to physical product design and services or systems (the physical experience predates the digital). An interface is something, anything that is experienced.
Interestingly, the UX approach is pretty much identical regardless of the project domain. Start with research and identify the users and their environments. Begin with rough concepts, evolve them, and validate as best you can along the way. The big differences are in the execution and the particulars.
Components / Materials
This is the most obvious difference. The only cost of software is servers, maintenance, and any 3rd party services. Consequently, materials have a pretty insignificant effect on the application design.
For physical, the bill of materials (BOM) cost and material properties will greatly constrain the solution space. Understanding these constraints is continuous through a project, as concepts are created and vetted. For instance, a plastic part might have to be utilized over a longer lasting, better working metal part.
For a piece of software or an app, it is permissible, if not common, for a company to release a buggy (in physical terms: malfunctioning) product. The company can continually release updates with patches and new features. They get analytics and user metrics very easily in large quantity. They can release an MVP with minimal functionality and slowly roll out updates.
For the physical – there is one shot. Of course, iteration is inherent in the product design process, but a company can’t release functional updates on a product with electro-mechanical components. A company doesn’t manufacture (digitally: code) one product that everyone can use. A buggy product or system spells doom. It’s not an option. Just think about a medical device – misuse can translate to dead users. That is an adverse business outcome for most.
Product validation is much easier in the digital realm. Creating prototypes and getting metrics on users is typically not very difficult with all the services and standard procedures now available. As stated above, a company can continue to get user metrics and A/B testing results after a product has launched. You don’t have to be in the same room, there aren’t many variables or measurements, and so much of the process can be automated.
A designer or engineer often must get creative in just devising proper testing methods for services or physical products. They must ask questions like: What metrics are meaningful? What kind of test can get me these metrics? How do I measure this data? If a prototype is broken, it might have to rebuilt from scratch to reuse.
On the digital side, you have designers (User Experience and Graphic) coming up with concepts and communicating these to the programmers to execute.
For the physical and/or service product – let’s consider the development of a connected medical system. It will have multiple interaction points, simultaneous users, and cutting-edge technologies integrated.
The team still needs programmers and UX designers, but there will also be many other contributors, including Industrial designers and a variety of engineering experts (electrical, mechanical, biomedical, manufacturing, packaging etc.)
The technical constraints and functional requirements exist in a delicate feedback loop. Sometimes the constraints and requirements are in direct conflict. Concepts must be feasible and executable. Communication and coordination between all team members (and consequently top-notch project management) cannot be overstated.
User experience is basically human experience. As humans, our experiences are not limited to interactions with screens. It is important to keep this in mind so that designers and engineers alike can truly innovate and make the best possible products.