User Experience

Design The User Not The Experience

Published January 17, 2015 ⚡ Updated on October 2, 2023 by Stefan Rössler
design the user not the UX

Help people become better versions of themselves. That’s in a nutshell what I believe to be the secret of any great design. It’s not about the user interface or the user experience or anything like this – it’s all about the user.

But hey, what do I mean with designing the user? How can you possibly design someone? Turns out it’s not about designing someone but influencing someone by designing something for them.

Design is how it works.
—Steve Jobs

When I talk about designing the user I don’t care about visual design or anything else that meets the eye. I talk about the underlying mechanics that define the way a design works. I talk about structure, not content. Forces that are so fundamental that you’d normally not even recognize them as a part of the design.

Behavior is what I’m talking about. And while it’s way too complex for me to understand exactly how human behavior works, I certainly know it can be influenced. I mean it can be corrupted, as we’ve seen throughout the centuries, so there must also be a way to improve it – by design.

Here’s an example to illustrate my thoughts: Think about Google Search. Does it offer a great user experience?

Well, I think it does but it really depends on who is using it, under what circumstances and to achieve which kinds of goals. All of these questions are unknowns that have way more impact on the actual experience than any designer could ever have. Good for us it’s not important.

What’s important is not the user experience of Google Search or any other product, it’s the way these tools have shaped the people using it. And products like Google Search have definitely changed the people in this world a lot.

We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.
—Marshall McLuhan

I believe there’s a subtle yet important difference between designing the user experience and designing for user behavior. I think that UX design is way too complicated to be of much practical use. Designing the user’s behavior on the other hand is a comparably straightforward thing to do.

An extreme example shows the difference: Think about an interface that only consists of one button. Guess what the user experience will look like. You have no chance. The user may feel entertained or bored or maybe curious to push the button or maybe the user is chatting over skype while looking at the interface. Anything is possible. Maybe the user is performing a usability test which is again a completely different kind of experience.

Now think about the user’s behavior in the above scenario. What will a user do with this interface? Regardless of the experience, there are only two possible behaviors:

  • Push the button or
  • Don’t push the button.

Now that’s an easy thing to predict. The question then is – what behavior do we want for our users? What tools do we provide? By thinking about every feature and predicting the possible behaviors we can envision a way of how to shape our users to become better versions of themselves.

We are what we repeatedly do.

As designers we have a lot of impact on our user’s lives. Every word, every graphic, everything that’s in our design has an enormous power to influence what people repeatedly do. We provide our users with a spectrum of potentiality that’s confined only by our design decisions, which serve as a stage for them having these often mentioned user experiences.

Of course we want our users to feel great while using our designs. I think that’s the premise of UX anyway. But like weather, UX is extremely hard to predict and depends on so many butterfly wings that practically anything can happen.

Behavior on the other hand can be predicted. It’s determined by opportunities and if, for example, a UI offers no way for searching, the user simply won’t search. That’s a fact and we don’t have to speculate about it for a second. Yet we want to know how our users feel about the fact that they can’t search. That’s where research and support will be of great value.

Maybe professionals are already aware of this difference and have adapted their understanding of UX to this idea. Maybe user experience is the right term to describe exactly what I’ve mentioned in this article but it’s really not about the word, it’s about the way we think about it. Do we think it’s our job to make our users feel entertained, excited, effective, etc. or do we think it’s our job to change their behavior so they can become a better version of themselves?

I think the latter is more desirable and will ultimately improve the user experience. Not by improving (designing) it directly, but by improving our users because better users will have better experiences.

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