Ben Pieratt

UX as Frontier

I gave this presentation in 2011 at D4, or at least that's what the files on my HD tell me. I have no memory of this and can't find anything about D4. It was a crazy year and my memory is exceptionally poor. THAT SAID, reading this now, it's interesting and fun to see what was on the horizon in 2011. Lots of frontiers on my mind, none of them political. Oops. I also note an optimism and naivety that I can't decide if I'm embarrassed by.

I don’t so much want to talk to you about the definition of User Experience, or really any specific methods around good implementation of UX; What I’d like to talk to you about is why User Experience is interesting, and why it is important.

First off, a quick definition.

User Experience is what happens when a person interacts with your product. It’s often used synonymously with “User Interface”, but where a User Interface is static, a User Experience is active.

UX and UI inform and compliment each other in ways that can make them difficult to tell apart, but a good rule of thumb is that while UX is directly dependent on its interface, it generally involves the added elements of time and emotion.

This is my understanding of it, anyway.

That said, I’d like to use the rest of my time to talk about why I find User Experience to be so interesting, and that means I need to talk a little bit about the internet as a whole.

The consumer internet is still incredibly young. Netscape, its first popular browser, came out in 1994, which means that almost no one in the expanse of the internet, in this entire multi-billion dollar industry, has more than 15 years of experience. People who started in the year 2000 are considered seasoned veterans. This is nothing! This is incredible. People with barely more than a decade’s worth of experience are building tools which will eventually connect every human to every other human on the planet.

So you just assume that the internet is a big deal. You assume that as time progresses, the services the internet has to offer will improve, and so our dependency on it will grow.

You assume a future where WiFi follows us around like plumbing. Where Foursquare-style location trackers are the norm, giving me instant access to the habits and locations of my friends and family. Phone, TV, utilities, rent, commerce, social life, its all going to be disrupted and augmented by the web. As entrepreneur and investor Chris Dixon recently said “Predicting the future of the Internet is easy: anything it hasn’t yet dramatically transformed, it will.” (Just look at what is happening in Egypt right now.)

So you think about all this potential, and you think about where we’re at compared to where we’re headed, and you begin to realize how much work there is left to be done. How early we are in our infancy as an industry.

I like to say that people working as internet entrepreneurs today are the new frontiersmen. There is a nation’s worth of opportunity waiting to be explored. A gold rush of personal freedoms and financial opportunity in an otherwise unclaimed expanse.

The projects we launch today online are the potential dynasties of tomorrow. You look at the amount of data Facebook is harvesting, and the rate at which they’re getting third-party services to rely on them parasitically for personal and social information about their users, and you start to see the makings of an entirely new kind of monopoly, no less defensible or valuable than Rockefeller’s railways or Ma Bell’s telephone lines spaghetti’d across the nation.

And so here we are, setting our flags in the dirt, claiming our part of the adventure. This flag says Mobile, that one says Augmented Reality, there’s one in the corner that says Big Data. Our flag at says Social Shopping, but really we’re about rethinking shopping entirely by putting people in direct communication with the brands they love.

So what does this have to do with User Experience?

UX is a fairly new term. It’s only been in the past few years that I’ve really started to adopt it in normal usage, and its only been lately that you see it plastered all over Job Ads and blog headlines.

This is a graph from Google, showing the volume of search queries for the term “’ux’ design” since 2005.

It has taken us a series of moltings, from UseNet to AOL Chatrooms to LiveJournal to MySpace to Facebook, but each iteration of the social web gets us closer to something we can really feel at home with.

I believe that we are just now beginning to become comfortable with the internet’s place in our lives and the benefits that we derive from it. We’ve moved past the base utility of “how does the internet handle video?” or “What’s the definitive source for information on any given topic.” Services like Wikipedia, Tumblr and Vimeo are bringing the internet to cultural maturity, and because of that we’re beginning to expect more from our online experiences. We’re ready to transition more of our lives to the Cloud. You look at a recent startup like, which literally helps you build a memorial to the passing of a recent loved, complete with a comment wall and a taggable photo gallery. Last I heard they were doing pretty well. My own family, my in-laws, we basically relegate all of our family interaction to Facebook.

If you look at that graph of “’UX’ Design” that I showed you earlier, and then you compare it to the rise of the social web through Facebook and Twitter, you notice a direct correlation. Not necessarily causation! But the lines sure do line up nicely.

Because we now invest so much emotion in the web, we want it to reciprocate. We want the internet to be friendlier and easier to use. Ugly design and frustrating experiences are no longer tolerated. The brick-and-mortar industry has had to deal with this for decades, which is why there are entire profession’s worth discipline dedicated to the design of the retail and service industries. If I’m at a point where I can have a meaningful, valuable conversation with my mother-in-law on a website, then that means I’m ready to hold my experiences online to the same standard as the other utilities I use on a daily basis.

So on one hand we have this frontier of opportunity, this unclaimed landscape of potential, and on the other we have whole populations of people who are ready to feel at home online.

As part of a generation that grew up with internet access, you have an inherent understanding of how you would like it to behave. As the industry works out the kinks in the social norms we are establishing online, you have the opportunity to dominate this space because it comes naturally to you.

User Experience is not about pushing pixels or wireframe diagrams. It’s about making these people feel welcome. It’s about educating them and helping them derive value from your service as quickly and enjoyably as possible. If you give your visitors a great experience then they will reward you for it with their attention, if you do not then they will ignore you and find a service who does.

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