Normality vs Novelty: Embracing Context as UX Designers
4 min read
What is a User Experience Designer's job? To design a User Interface? To improve how a product looks? Creating the packaging of a physical product? No, there's more to it than that.
A User Experience Designer's job can be summarized in five words: We design solutions to problems.
Be it a problem that is already known, or one that is yet to be discovered, we try to find optimal ways to solve issues. We talk to users, look for their needs, design ways to fill these needs, test our solution, and repeat. This cycle known as the User-Centred Design is the core of our discipline. Once we're done with this cycle (or until management says it's enough) we end up with a product that helps the user fix whatever problem they had, while having a good experience. We can categorize these products in three groups:
- Products that end up worsening the users' lives
- Products that bring their users to normality
- Products that improve their users' lives
I won't talk much about the first group, as they shouldn't make it out of the User-Centred Design cycle (except when seen as objects of art or study, like Jacques Carelman's Impossible Objects). However, I'd like to discuss more about the second and third groups.
Products that restore normality
Let's start by stating something that might be obvious, then go from there: We humans are social creatures. We tend to live by what we call Social Norms. We are influenced by what other people do, or by things we are expected to do. These norms affect the way we behave, dress, and live. And when we deviate from them, we may start looking for ways to restore normality. Products that fall into this category make us go from our non-standard, unnormalized way to one that falls into social norms.
An example of this is the Football tape: a plastic tape that can be made into a ball. While the product itself is not a bad idea, and it bring the users to normality (having a ball), it does not consider their context nor does it make this better than having a real ball.
Examples of these products can be seen throughout the evolution of the COVID pandemic during the last two years. From the start, we looked for ways to go back to normality:
- Online meetings that replaced in-person ones
- Virtual classrooms or conference rooms where attendants had to take their own virtual seats
- Corona online concerts
Even when trying to replace their physical counterparts, these products just wouldn't fill our needs. We were so used to an in-person context that we even brought its restrictions to the virtual world. Yes, these products kind of give us what we lost while not being inherently bad. They do help us solve a problem we have at hand. But, what if we could do more than this?
Products that improve their users' lives
You could discuss that products from the previous category also improve their users lives. While that might be true, and we don't want to leave any product behind, I want to focus more on the type of product that does more just restore normality. Not only do these bring their users to balance with social norms, but they also help us go well beyond them (Plus Ultra!). These are the products that become objects of study, and that give us a "Wow!" factor.
Going back to our pandemic examples, we can see a few cases where novel solutions were implemented, taking us to a better position than if we tried to restore normality:
- Game worlds where we could create new experiences with our loved ones (E.g. Nintendo's Animal Crossing)
- Flying around in a virtual world to attend a conference room, without seat restrictions
- Attending Ariana Grande's Fortnite concerts while dressed as your favourite character
These products don't try to imitate their real-world counterpart. They embrace the context they exist in, and create a solution based on the restrictions and flexibilities it has. This allows us to create new experiences that probably wouldn't have existed had we stayed in normality.
So where would that leave your product, if it stayed away from normality and embraced its context?
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