The Human Element


This essay is my exploration into an abstract concept that has been extremely rewarding for me. Regardless of the result, whether it be rambling or a magical clarity that develops out of thin air, the research that I’ve conducted for this paper has been extremely enlightening. The only way I’ve been able to explain the User Experience discipline to others is as a fluid discipline that is dedicated to balancing user needs and business wants in ways that are often abstract and otherwise absurd to most outsiders looking in. But once the methods are explained, they seem to be amazed that they hadn’t thought of it before. The methods have evolved so much from the early days of task and time analysis and will continue to do so for years to come as those of us entering the field develop new ways of approaching new challenges. As I work to assemble this research in a way that can be read by humans, I hope that you understand that throughout my research I had so much trouble finding some form of solid definition or idea of the concept of “the human element.” Now, as I write this, I’m beginning to realize that the human element is also a fluid concept that is the sum of the experiences of the individual imagining it. For you, it may be a crossword puzzle, a thanksgiving dinner, and football games with your Father. For others, weekends at the racetrack, local lake, or the local home improvement store. It’s a realization much like the insights I’ve written below, it is relative. So, to head off as many readers as I can, I’m going to place the most important statement right here up front: Don’t ever discount the human experience or limit your creativity because there is an established method. Life is fluid and as designers it is our responsibility to be fluid right along with it.

The History of our Profession

When we look back at the history of our profession, we see an enormous amount of change. As professionals we have adapted as the challenges have evolved. In the early 1900’s, time and motion studies, like those made famous by Frank and Lillian Gilbreth (Price 1989), show us an early example of the research that a User Researcher may be responsible for today depending on the specific user needs and business desires. However, the profession would take on many different forms as technology continued to develop throughout the next century. In the 1940’s we began research on how to link people with professions that would allow businesses and employees to ensure success due to research on how humans can perform physical functions. The 1950’s saw the development of the keypad that we now consider the standard on all of our telephones. This is an extremely interesting portion of our history as those working on this model are largely considered the first User Experience Designers! In the 1980’s the personal computer revolutionized how we interact with technology at home and at work and demanded a different kind of user and thus a different researcher. In the 1990’s the web revolutionized how we interact with one another and businesses even more as we extended our reach across the globe using technology resting at the tips of our fingers. But what changed for us? We’ve applied new techniques to new technologies, and we’ve delivered consistent results. Each new expert brings to light a new theory to enlighten the field and better understand how to design. But what are we attempting to achieve with these designs? How did we define this research and what dictates what gets to be the correct solution? This brings me to the ISO standards that currently define usability as “the extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in a specified context of use” (Bevan, Carter, & Harker, 2015.). Today, we’ll be exploring this concept together but focusing specifically on “specified context of use” and how efficiency, something I’ve seen latched onto by my fellow students, could possibly become less important to the humans of tomorrow. Our work revolves around that human factor that I’ve had so much trouble creating a mental model for. We’re driven by the thing’s humans want to do and they ways in which they want to do them and over the last one hundred years, those ways have evolved so much. More people are taking control of their lives in ways we didn’t see in the past by using virtual voice activated assistant’s, artificial intelligence, and the world wide web. But more importantly, their priorities have shifted away from what has been the standard for so many years. No longer are all of us worried about the speed and accuracy, we worry about positivity and the experience of our activities. How will our profession adapt to ensure we properly serve those users?

Imagination Exercise

Take a moment and imagine yourself in the following exercise: drift off to the last time you were doing your favorite activity. You may be fly fishing on the Colorado River, guiding a sports car around the Nürburgring in Germany, or sitting quietly in your study next to a dim floor lamp enjoying a book or a game of Chess. For the sake of this essay, I’ll open the door and sit you into that sports car, gliding smoothly along the road as your weight shifts left to right, right to left. Enjoy the flow of the car as you sweep through the turns. Your interest today is not a lap record, nor challenging an opponent. You’re simply here for the experience. That thing that consumes you as you navigate the course. Where you lose yourself in something that our field often calls the “flow.” You awoke early this morning and drove miles upon miles to a toll road that consists of one hundred and seventy corners across sixteen miles. At your disposal you have five gears, two hundred horsepower, and the courage to use all of them. Fourth gear down the straight, downshift to third. Let’s take a moment and consider how that downshift occurs. A simple task analysis might say: 1) Pressure off the gas pedal 2) Foot pressing the clutch 3) Shift from fourth to third 4) Match the engine RPM by “blipping” the throttle 5) Pressure off the clutch. How about that efficiency? Hardly! That series of tasks is commonplace in today’s manual transmissions and occurs on race tracks around the world. However, in an automatic transmission all of that would be taken care of for you. A similar task analysis might look like 1) Brake. It’s all taken care of for you! Let’s leap back to your favorite activity. What role does efficiency play in the activity you enjoy? Are there extra steps that you take pride in accomplishing that otherwise might be stripped from your activity? Would streamlining the activity improve efficiency but cost you in any specific way, maybe in terms of satisfaction (hint hint)? Let’s take a closer look into efficiency, where our desire for efficiency comes from, and how it will play a part in the future of our field.

Defining Efficiency

When we look up the definition of “efficient”, we find the phrase: “capable of producing desired results with little or no waste (as of time or materials)” (Efficient, n.d.). I’d like to get one thing out of the way early, the idea of waste. Time and materials can be wasted, and they often are. However, it’s a reality that we, as professionals, often conduct ourselves within a business vacuum where any waste is considered an expense, and reducing expenses is always a priority. If we step back through the history of our profession, we will see efficiency playing a large role in how we, as a society, have conducted business. The time studies mentioned earlier were often an effort to reduce the steps necessary to complete a task and thus create time for additional tasks (Price 1989). If we move forward and look at the beginning of the Ford Motor Company, we see a man, Henry Ford, who was consumed by the efficiency of getting work done. He believed that the sole reason for going to work was to preform work and “that pressing always to do work better and faster solves nearly every factory problem” (Crowther & Ford, 1926). Moving forward just a few years later, we see society shifting to a system that matches people with jobs based on their physical characteristics so that they would perform well. This assessment of human capability brings an interesting shift however, as this is the first time we truly include the human element (at least at a physical level) into the equation. Previously, we were only interested in providing the proper tools and steps but now the human itself is seen as an inconsistent variable that can be moved, modified, or replaced to better improve the outcome of our situation (reverse this and it sounds more familiar to those of us new to the field). This is by no means ideal nor representative of the user experience we desire to achieve today however it was an important stepping stone as we begin to recognize the human potential to perform. This attitude would flip in what seems like the most cited reference in user experience history, the Bell Labs development of what we know of today as the common keypad. The most important piece of this history takes place when Richard Deininger, the team lead for the project, brought in volunteers to test various versions of the keypads that his team had produced (“Telephone Dials,” n.d.). This moment would cause a dramatic shift in how things are created in the world of users. No longer are things dictated by the company mass producing the item, instead the user has the opportunity to provide input prior to production so that the product better fits their needs. Efficiency was still a common priority through the 2000’s with the exploding popularity of the world wide web. Today we see a completely different kind of user as we have transitioned from mostly a manual workforce seen in factories assembling products to a knowledge-based workforce that produces a different kind of output Alongside this shift the priorities of the worker have changed as well. Employers are now concerned with the atmosphere of the office and how it can improve that ability for employees to do their jobs. One example is remote work, where the employee does not commute to the office and instead completes their work from home and communicates with those in the office electronically. Employees are no longer valued at their physical output and are instead seen as capital that must be invested in and developed over time similar to how we see our projects over time. Changes have been adopted in an attempt to improve the experience of those workers and has set efficiency to the wayside (okay maybe just slightly) in an attempt to improve employee satisfaction. This is a transition that we should continue to explore as we determine how industry professionals should adapt to improve upon their work.

Understanding Working Memory

In my research for this essay, a common theme continued to pop into my mind as I read into human experiences and that is the concept of the human working memory. Johnson writes about working memory in his book Designing with the Mind in Mind and states that we should design interfaces to assist users in remembering essential information (Johnson, 2013). He describes a short test to show the reader how the working memory responds to stimuli and how inefficient we can be as humans in trying to remember details especially when the context is vague (this example includes the act of remembering a string of words without any context and we, of course, are terrible at performing this task). If we are to move outside the technology space that includes user interfaces and instead think about working memory in a physical space, we could talk about a desk calendar. You remember physical calendars, right? A large floppy pad made up of multiple pages with squares large enough to write this essay in. You draft your notes and place reminders as you navigate the year and it never lets you down (unless you forget to write stuff in it). As we have moved away from this desire to be as efficient as possible, as seen in the manual workforce explained earlier, we’ve begun to appreciate the act of achieving outside our norms. The challenge of performing with the human working memory at first makes no sense but if you relate this to a different process like shifting the gears in the car the activity takes on a whole new feel. To remember colors is challenging and frustrating to the common user but pushing yourself to perform as you run through the gears of your car can be pleasurable. The challenge of trying to be perfect with your calculations and performance over an extended time is something humans do naturally. We could talk about Chess and the many moves and calculations that describe the perfect set of moves. Instead I’m going to take us back to the Nürburgring and the one hundred and seventy corners that are required to circle the course. Racing drivers are taught at a young age that knowing the course is mandatory for a successful race. Corner locations, braking zones, and racing lines are all essential for the most efficient lap around the track. But the only way to get there is with practice. I remember reading an article in a magazine (really, a physical one!) that documents a specific motorcycle racer that would spend time folding paperclips so that they resembled the current course on the racing schedule. It was his creative way of priming his working memory to recognize the next corner regardless of where he was on track. The exercise of becoming familiar with the track is often considered romantic in that drivers will develop feelings for certain tracks that they enjoy and perform well at. If we were to look at this activity through a professional lens that is guided by business needs, we would probably scoff at the use of paperclips. There must be a more efficient way! We would throw a GPS unit in with an intelligent virtual assistant that will guide the driver through every obstacle imaginable without a single error. We could even program it to navigate around other drivers. We could even eliminate the need for drivers at all, it would be even more efficient if the car drove itself! But what would that do to the experience of mastering the act? Would the activity become beneficial for the user? Would there even be a user? In these specific situations we trade efficiency for control and that tradeoff is what enhances the experience of preforming the activity. But sometimes, the effort of the performance is what is best for the user even when the constraints aren’t ideal or could be improved. Everyone has been asked (some more than many) why they’re doing things the hard way, my response? Sometimes it’s worth it.

Sometimes it’s worth it

Commuting has always been a chore for the majority of Americans. While some would rather be spending their commute time preforming work-related tasks, others imagine reading a few pages of their favorite book or catching up on rest. The research behind driverless cars supports these goals and it doesn’t seem to be too far off in our future. But before we lay our lives in the capable hands of Alexa and her imaginary friend Siri, let’s take a look at commuting in traffic and see if we could possibly improve the experience in another fashion. I’ll be talking about my experience as this is something that I have begun to hold close to me. Sitting in traffic has recently become one of the more enjoyable experiences in my day to day. Sounds weird right? I’m slowly rolling at twenty miles per hours morphing what is commonly a fifteen-minute commute into forty-five long minutes. There isn’t much I can do about it, so I turn up the radio, place the top down, and slowly focus on keeping a safe distance. I flow with traffic and keep an eye out for the dependable driver that assumes they can make some headway with a few quick emergency lane changes. My feet working independently but in harmony, my hands placed one on the wheel and one on the shifter. It’s a short span of time where I’m very much at peace. I have a job to do and it requires a fair amount of focus to accomplish but not enough that keeps me from enjoying my favorite tunes. A focus that wouldn’t be required if I was doing things in the most efficient way possible. I could save some waste, effort, and cash by swapping to an automatic transmission since they are more fuel efficient. Then again, I could also go to school online so that commuting is no longer a factor. I could change so many things about this exercise that would technically improve the efficiency of it but, for me, this specific set of variables places me in a space that is very comfortable and enjoyable to be in. I’ve taken a negative experience, sitting in traffic, and turned it into a positive one. As a user in this scenario, I no longer seek efficiency. I have accepted my predicament (traffic) and instead prioritized improving the experience of it and making it about me and how I want to spend my time. This leads me to my next point: it’s no longer enough in today’s society to create experiences that allow users to achieve a task with efficiency. We must create, in some specific contexts, an experience that may transform the experience from task completion to enjoyment of the task itself because the user needs have shifted. We must not limit ourselves to the techniques of the past and instead prepare for the needs of the future. But if that is the case, how do we determine what the user wants?

What do we want?

Sabermetrics is defined as “the empirical analysis of baseball, especially baseball statistics that measure in game activity” (Lewis, 2003). The process became mainstream after Billy Beane, then General Manager of the Oakland Athletics, used the process to compete at a much lower operating cost than the rest of Major League Baseball in 2002. Now, baseball has always been a numbers game at the Major League level with statistics tracked all the way back to 1903 when the American and National League agreed to compete with one another on a national level. In a game where so many statistics are tracked, teams have taken to deep diving those statistics to better operate on the field. From player versus player matchups to defensive alignments, there is a plan for every possible situation before the first pitch is ever thrown. However, the rules for baseball are still enforced by, you guessed it, human umpires. There is on-going debate from both sides of the “roboump” argument, but we’ll be taking a look at this from a usability perspective. According to the definition we should be promoting effectiveness and efficiency while ensuring satisfaction. Analyzing a strike zone using an algorithm is already being done for the entertainment of fans using graphical overlays and it’s not unrealistic to assume that, with today’s technology, we could develop a system that could make calls based on the established rules and the data fed to it by cameras. So why have we not chosen to incorporate technology into America’s pastime? During the 2011 World Series there were two hundred and seventy outs called and only two incorrect calls were made per the rule book. That is a ninety-nine percent accuracy. We pay approximately one percent for the beauty that the human element brings to the game. This is an example of a no-win scenario in my eyes. There are people on both sides of this argument that both of a legitimate case for their desires. We could transition into the future, narrowing baseball down to the statistical probability of preforming perfectly or we can continue to accept that humans will make errors and leave those in the game as an uncontrollable variable. So how do we navigate such a problem?

Designing with Adaptation

Vicente published an article in 2000 that speaks very thoroughly to the need for us, as designers, to ensure we are pursuing “an associated objective (designing for adaptation, or equivalently, continuous learning)” (2000). His answer to conducting ourselves in this manner is a system he calls Cognitive Work Analysis and while I find the entire process extremely interesting I wanted to focus in on a specific point in his research that mentions “that tool would provide workers with feedback and decision support as to the constraints that need to be respected, but it would not identify a particular path or trajectory through the constraint space. It would be up to workers to decide which trajectory (i.e., set of actions) to take for a particular set of circumstances” (Vicente, 2000). What I really enjoy about this approach is the fact that it allows for deviation as the user sees fit. In the examples outlined previously, that deviation is what makes those products great. At the Nürburgring, there is a product that is open to all users to experience in their own way. There are rules to promote safety and satisfaction, but the efficiency specifically of the user’s involvement is left up to the user. To frame this, you might see someone driving a race prepped car on the road or you might get passed by a twenty-year-old minivan. That decision is left up to the user and thus the opportunity for satisfaction is expanded beyond what is commonly considered the most efficient path to success. So often in the research that I’ve conducted, my fellow researchers have been tempted to determine “what is best” out of the data that they gather. Clients even more so, are determined to walk away from this research with the one right solution that they believe will change the way that their company is perceived on the market when in reality, it’s a matter of supporting the users as a whole and often times allowing that variability can be a major stride in the proper direction.

Tying my Ramblings Together

Human beings are a complex case study and the world of designing experiences for them is no different. There are many different processes and they can be slightly altered depending on the state of mind of the specific individual that is currently navigating the experience. As we’ve moved through time over the last hundred years, we’ve developed methods of thinking about how to solve problems within society and as time goes on those methods evolve, develop, and are often replaced because humans change consistently. There is a pattern of shifting desires that must be addressed in order for our field to continue to be successful. Bevan, Carter, and Harker mention that “there was an increasing awareness of the importance of the user's subjective reactions and emotional experience” when the ISO definition was being updated (2015). They go on to mention how the experience itself is addressed, that experience will change from person to person, and that measurement alone is not enough to provide the best experiences possible. Two of the most important areas that I believe we, as professionals, must focus includes 1) prioritizing the experience of our users as well as continuing to gain exposure to that experience. The moment that we fail to understand the experience is the moment we begin designing to fail. 2) We must continue to adapt how we conduct our research. From 1998 until 2015 we were focused on effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction but as the revisions to the standard have noted, it’s important that we continue beyond just those variables and develop a better understanding of the entire experience while also respecting the techniques of the past. This essay has been a wild brainstorm that has circled around my thoughts and feelings about things I do “the old-fashioned way” out of a desire for satisfaction. They are my personal experience and only one small portion of the big picture that is the experiences we must design for. My hope is that we can continue to be creative in finding new ways of bettering the user experience and not hold ourselves within any one specific definition or way of doing things.


So, there it is. So many topics that require so much more research to be able to write an essay like this! If nothing else, I hope that I’ve dragged you over to a new perspective that you didn’t realize existed or made you think of things you do in a new way. After all, that is kind of the point of this essay. A form of enlightenment that exists at such a low level it’s likely overlooked. When you’re driving down the road through traffic and you see that one person driving the 1990 Miata that’s fourteen different colors, remember that might be the most enjoyable experience they’ve had all day. And for reasons only they can explain, so ask.

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