UX Isn’t Just for the Web

Think back to your first real “unboxing experience.” Whether it was opening a new Apple product box, a bespoke monthly subscription service, or just your first Amazon order – what was the experience like from beginning to end? How did it feel to slice open the printed cardboard and branded packing tape and pop the air-filled cushions inside? Or holding the slick white Apple box with a soft touch coating while you graze the spot gloss logo with your fingertips? How did you explore the hierarchy of items presented to you in the box along with the “retail cushioning” and any added reading material?

As a designer (or general human), you’ve most likely heard the term UX before. If you’re a web designer, you are probably very well acquainted with the realm of UX. You know that it stands for “user experience” and entails all the interactions that a human being will have with your website design and code. But what does UX really mean in terms of global design practices?

The UX experts at the Nielsen Norman Group actually have a rather broad definition of user experience: all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.

So does this mean that can UX be a part of everyday design, including print and packaging?  Absolutely! Regardless of the end product, as a designer you are ultimately creating a visual experience that another human will interact with at some point. A physical flat or 3D print design concept will find its most successful execution when we as designers think of UX as a global design concept and not just a web concept. In architecture design, there’s a well-known principle coined by architect Louis Sullivan that states “form follows function.” I believe this principle gets to the core of user experience: think of how closely your final design’s elegant form can follow its intended practical function.

Let’s apply global UX thinking to another concrete design experience: if you’ve ever received a fancy event or wedding invite, bring yourself back to that moment of opening the envelope. There are rich textures of paper paired with carefully chosen typefaces and imagery. There’s a distinct order to the individual pieces of paper inside and how they guide you through the process of introducing event information in hierarchy of importance (i.e., you don’t want hotel accomodation info before you know what the event is actually for). The format of the invite, the reply card, and an instructions insert are all clearly different sizes to signal what each piece is. There are checkboxes and blank lines to be filled out, with clear instructions indicating how to do so. You are having a very distinct user experience as you open this invitation, and this gets you excited to be a part of this event! Now if only you’d stop waiting until the day after the deadline to RSVP.

Just as there are memorable good user experiences, a pretty awful user experiences can leave an impression with you. Think of the last time you had a bad night out at a restaurant. What are all the elements that built up that negative experience? A poor street parking situation made you late for your reservation, it took forever to get a table, the interior lighting was too dim to read/see your food and the menu was not well organized for ease of reading and selecting your meal, the server rarely showed up at your table or flat-out ignored you, your orders came back incorrect or cold, you were charged for something you didn’t order, and it took so long to see the server again that you ended up going to the front to pay yourself and left a very modest tip before storming out of that place for good. This bad Yelp-review-in-the-making may have had little to do with design, but had everything to do with user experience. If the restaurant staff had taken just a little more time to train staff and refine their business to create a better user-centered experience, they’d probably be doing more business with you again.

Likewise, a poorly executed user experience in your design will leave a negative impression on your target audience and detract from your intended goal (which is most likely the goal of gaining more business for your client.) If you treat each project like a new user experience, you can ensure that you will have more insight into the needs of the customer and not just woprking to satisfy “what the client wants.” Assert your past experience and personal research – you’re the expert here! Your client is the expert in their line of business, but definitely not an expert in user-centered design.

At Posture Interactive, the agency where I work as a designer, we focus on web but we run a pretty large range of other design projects. Regardless of the end product – whether it’s a website, poster, package, outdoor advertising, or something else – the creative process always starts with the intended use/placement of the creative and how potential customers will interact with it. Sitemaps and wireframes are great tools for setting a strong UX foundation on websites. Why not carry those concepts though to the early stages of print and package design? Designers often start with rough sketches before diving into a project design and hammer out word lists or charts to generate copy ideas. Are these not the “sitemaps” and “wireframes” of the print and package design world? Even if you don’t think the project calls for it, don’t be afraid to give these methods a shot and see how it improves your overall design process.

The whole concept of designing a non-web print or digital piece touches on many other UX principles. I think what makes UX design most interesting is that there is a unique blending of scientific logic with artistic creativity. I don’t consider myself a scientist at all – but I have to admit the process of being presented with a problem from a client and proposing a theory on how to solve this problem based on my own experience and research does sound like an offshoot of the scientific method. On the web design side of things, we can even support our UX design choices with user testing and site analytics. Then the creative side comes to the rescue as we are responsible for devising a way to visually execute this proposed solution and make sure our client succeeds while presenting an aesthetically pleasing design.

Whether you see yourself as a web designer, a package designer, an architect, a restauranteur, or a scientist, UX can touch all aspects of your life and, thus, can touch many aspects of your career. The big cosmic question: how will you create a positive user experience for someone else today?