The Essential Characteristics of User Experience

The Essential Characteristics of User ExperienceThere has been some discussion in the past few months about establishing a “language of critique” for user experience design. Jesse James Garrett may have started it with his closing plenary at the 2009 IA Summit in Memphis, it filled the IAI and IxDA mailing lists for a while and Erin Malone and James Melzer, among others, have blogged about it.

Here is my contribution (see the pdf), yes its a diagram. Its the first half of a two part diagram called “The Characteristics of User Experience”, this first part being the essential characteristics – the second part, coming soon, will be the secondary (or auxiliary, or periphery, I haven’t decided yet) characteristics.

Useful, Usable and Desirable have been touted for a long time as the hallmarks of a “good” user experience but they’re too generic and abstract. I think the five characteristics in this diagram are essential to any user experience being “good”. I’d love comments to stress test this!

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20 Responses to “The Essential Characteristics of User Experience”


  1. 1 Graham July 3, 2009 at 1:23 am

    I would change the term and location of AESTHETIC to ENGAGEMENT and mover the box to the top or change the structure of the diagram into five interlocking circles. The purpose of aesthetics is to get one engaged into the subject or situation. Also aesthetics tends to become interpreted as fashionable eye candy and in some cases may be appropriated for that target user but very often is is off target.

  2. 2 anti1869 July 3, 2009 at 2:24 am

    It think it would be interesting task to try to apply this diagram to several ordinary websites. Google and Amazon is great as illustrations of good UX, but I think there must be negative examples also to help UX designers discover problems with help of this diagram.

  3. 3 Jerome July 3, 2009 at 10:53 am

    You asked for feedback, so here are a few questions.
    Is the Connected box where social media and the semantic web fit in? If so, then there’s overlap between the top “row” and the entire bottom row — separated by the middle “row”. (In this version of the diagram, is proximity intended to convey anything?) If not, then do those fit in the re-named Aesthetic box, as proposed in Graham’s comment?

  4. 4 Richard July 3, 2009 at 12:03 pm

    Jerome – yes the “connected” characteristic is exactly what I had in mind to cover things like social media and the semantic web (the internet itself really!). I’m not sure I understand your “overlap” point though, could you elaborate?

    – Richard

  5. 5 Richard July 3, 2009 at 12:06 pm

    Graham, I think “engagement” is something you get as a result – not something you can directly control. If I want to achieve an engaging experience then I can improve the aesthetic (amongst other things). I’m trying to keep the characteristics to things that can be directly influenced and critiqued, hence why i’m shying away from “Useful, Usable and Desirable”.

    – Richard

    • 6 Graham July 3, 2009 at 1:16 pm

      Richard, What do we mean by improving the aesthetics? I think the term aesthetics is problematic in that is is a top down value judgement and very subjective both for the creator and user. Too often we confuse fashion with aesthetics. Aesthetic is a result not something you can directly control for all audiences. I would agree with you Useful, Usable, and Desirable are very plastic and not very descriptive of what is to be achieved and there is a need to find clear alternatives.

      • 7 Richard July 3, 2009 at 3:48 pm

        Graham, my definition of “improving the aesthetics” would be to change the sensory aspects of the experience (look, feel, touch, audio, etc) to encourage a different/more desirable emotional connection with the user. So for example – if gamespot.com was visually designed like the wedding site theknot.com it would completely fail to emotionally connect with its users (generally young, male, tech savvy, etc) for which a much more bold, futuristic, hard aesthetic would be appropriate.

  6. 8 Graham July 3, 2009 at 4:14 pm

    Richard, Yes I think we are on the same page with your definition. My use of engagement is also based on the user example that you used. I guess my quibble is just the word aesthetics seems to take the focus away from the users experience. Because of the importance of the sensory aspects of the experience I felt that the aesthetic or engagement aspect of a site should be at the top of your list and that functionality is derived and supported from the Look & feel.

  7. 9 Richard July 3, 2009 at 6:01 pm

    Graham, we’re definitely on the same page. I struggled for quite a while about whether to even put the 5 characteristics into a hierarchy or leave them all equal. I eventually decided on the arrangement with aesthetics in the foundational layer (it moved around a lot!) because my reasoning went something like this:

    Before even ‘controlling’ or leveraging the ‘connections’ of an experience a user must a) feel like its doing something for them (relevant) b) understand it (understandable) and c) be willing to give it a chance (aesthetics). My justification for (c) was mainly based on the research done by BJ Fogg at Standford which shows that the visual aspect of a web experience is the biggest driver of credibility for the user.

    Then I reasoned that the ability to ‘control’ an experience (interact with it) was probably necessary in order to truly appreciate the ‘connections’ within it.

    Of course, this could all be complete crap ;-)

    – Richard

    • 10 Graham July 4, 2009 at 11:36 pm

      Richard, I have not read any of Fogg work but I am not surprised at his findings. As a designer from way back prior to the internet whenever I had to design for print context and the visual layout helped to established credibility of the client in the users minds.

      Comments on a, b, and c, or why I still think that aesthetics is the doorway into the interface. When the right aesthetic is developed the user is naturally attracted to the screen and engaged to use it. It is in the actions of a & b that the user is ready to give the site their acceptance of its relevance and understandability. The visual presence when down right sets us up to intuitively understand how we will interact with the screens. A wrinkle in the a & b is the feed back we do or don’t get fits our expectation of how it should operate.It is through the engagement the user will find out if it is a. relevant or b.”I don’t care” if they do not perceive the relevance to them. So it will little matter if they understand it.

  8. 11 Bradley Hebdon July 4, 2009 at 1:36 pm

    Interesting post. Experts have been trying to define this model for years now. It’s starting to feel very similar to the age-old, “what is art” debate. In short, what ever model is presented, it will be to some degre subjective, just like User Experience.

    Another thing to consider. Who is the audience for this? Are we talking about defining a model for UX folks, or business-types? You might define/present it in two completely different ways.

    Please stop by my blog at http://www.uxbydesign.org – I’ve love to hear your guys thoughts.

  9. 12 Bradley Hebdon July 4, 2009 at 11:56 pm

    I forgot to add one major contributing factor. That is, what expectations a user has coming to the experience. Have they been exposed to the brand offline, or elsewhere online? Having preconceptions and expectations will ultimately impact the experience in a different way to someone who has not been exposed to the brand.

  10. 13 Graham July 4, 2009 at 11:58 pm

    Bradley you’re right it is all subjective and as you pointed out it does recreate that “What is Art” debate precisely because we use a language loaded with preconceived emotional baggage. I prefer to use E. Dissanayake expression of Making Special for art as its opens for far more objectivity in my understanding of what I am seeing in the visual aspects of the web. —graham

  11. 14 Richard July 5, 2009 at 7:50 am

    Bradley, user expectations are huge, and not just when talking about the brand. I covered expectations a little in my diagram “The Context of User Experience” http://mauvyrusset.com/2008/04/22/the-context-of-user-experience/

    – Richard

  12. 15 Andrew Hinton July 6, 2009 at 9:48 am

    I wondered about the Aesthetic label too — and was leaning toward “engagement.” But now I see you’re taking the old “desirable” category and breaking it up between more functionally specific elements. (So, “engaging” might mean playful, responsive, etc … but these are very bound up in “controllable” whereas “aesthetic” leans more toward considering the fit & finish, proportion of form, etc, on its own).

    The fact is, no matter how you try dicing all this, there’s no way to come up with mutually exclusive, pure categories. So the way to go, it seems to me, is what you’re doing: what model will help us think more clearly about design, and better evaluate the work we’re doing? For example: Lumping so much under “desirable” allows too much room to weasel out of some major elements that lend themselves to desirability. It allows a market test to declare “75% of customers liked it!” without breaking that down with more rigor. So I’m liking the break-down more as I think about it.

    Also, I take it this is a practitioner-focused model, not an academic exercise. In which case, the workability of it in the field, by designers, is more important than its theoretical soundness. (And making a theoretically sound, pure model for design is probably impossible, which is why we don’t have one.)

    I do think it could use more clarity around why it’s stacked the way it is … how the foundational elements are, indeed, foundational. And I can imagine a lot of old-school designers wondering why “connectedness” is considered essential, rather than an add-on feature. (“My toaster isn’t connected, but does everything else well — does that mean it’s not a good design?”)

    Some of the comments above take the “it’s all subjective” stance, but I don’t think that gets us anywhere. I’m all for having some rigor (while managing to avoid dogma) and this feels like a good start!

  13. 16 Nick Finck July 6, 2009 at 3:46 pm

    I think this is very reminiscent of Peter Morville’s Honeycomb diagram that illustrates the facets of user experience:

    http://semanticstudios.com/publications/semantics/000029.php

    The same concept can be applied to critiquing the user experience at large.

    Furthermore, you state that Useful, Usable and Desirable are too generic and abstract. On the contrary I do feel they are very valid for identifying a good user experience.

    Please do not undervalue them simply because they are challenging to qualify. The very nature of critiquing should be challenging and not just a snap judgment.

    – Nick

  14. 17 Richard July 6, 2009 at 4:29 pm

    Nick, i’m not trying to disparage Useful, Usable and Desirable, i’m saying they’re good end results – but that the 5 characteristics i’ve shown are more useful analytical lenses to examine a user experience through because they’re more granular and actionable (although – by no means are they the lowest level of granularity!)

  15. 18 James Kelway July 7, 2009 at 4:38 am

    Hi Richard, its been a while!

    Please check out this post about defining UX where I drew a staircase to describe the process of building a product, and what UX steps there were involved. As I now work agency side, we are more product focused, than my previous publishing job.

    http://userpathways.com/2008/11/14/defining-ux/

    I think your model works well in combination and I have also written a part about how to make it visible in any organisation (from bitter experience!).

    As I say in my post useful, desirable and usable are basic requirements of design, so they should be implicit – see Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – any design of anything can be aligned to it…

    Which brings me to a language of critique – we can use established design principles as a framework for this. I really think it should be the basis of what we do as so many other disciplines (Marketing included) know of these already.

  16. 19 adrian chan July 23, 2009 at 2:56 pm

    to apply this to social media and social interaction design, it’s interesting to substitute the word “communication” in the place of “user experience.” some criteria remain valid, some are valid but need more fleshing out, and some may be wrong while others are missing.

    it struck me that there was overlap between communication (as social interaction) and a good user experience.

    what’s different of course is that in social interaction this question is applied to one or more users simultaneously, at which point it becomes clear that there’s a different interaction dynamic involved in communication.


  1. 1 The Characteristics & Principles of User Experience « A More Mauvy Shade of Pinky Russet Trackback on July 22, 2009 at 8:26 pm

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