6

I find myself trapped by the question if I do ”UX by numbers” or ”UX by feelings”. Sometimes I use scientific tools where web site analytics, card sorting, System Usability Scale and surveys apply where I can prove that 32,2% of users did X and that only 6,8% of users did Y. On other occasions, especially on customer meetings I tend to leap to conclusions without any scientific data just because “it feels right”.

The same happens when I do an interview with a predetermined set of questions. During interviews, which are getting interesting I lose the questions and start elaborating by heart. However, if the interviews runs as expected, I stick to the template and continue all the form through. From the looks of it, I consider UX both a form of art and science. Does this apply to the UX community as well? Is UX art, science or both?

4
  • 2
    I think you've answered your own question - ultimately, it's about gathering research from a broad range of sources to get to the best possible outcome. – TheSaint Sep 11 '14 at 13:54
  • You could ask the same question for bricklaying. It has a scientific background (e.g. the chemical reaction of the water and the cement, or the way the bricks are layed giving the wall structural strength). But is is also an art to be able to make that brick wall. Knowing is not enough. It also takes practice, it requires feeling, passion, expericience,.. So maybe, similar to brick laying, it is just a craft? – Bart Gijssens Sep 12 '14 at 13:55
  • As usually practiced, I'd call it a craft. – keshlam Sep 15 '14 at 5:21
  • What is the difference between art and science?philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/46572/… – Michael Lai Dec 20 '17 at 22:44
5

I'm sorry not to go with the flow, but I'd argue that ux is, largely, neither.

On Science

From Wikipedia (emphasis mine):

Science is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe. In an older and closely related meaning, "science" also refers to a body of knowledge itself, of the type that can be rationally explained and reliably applied.

It then goes on to say:

During the Islamic Golden Age, the foundation for the scientific method was laid, which emphasized experimental data and reproducibility of its results.

And then:

However, "science" has also continued to be used in a broad sense to denote reliable and teachable knowledge about a topic, as reflected in modern terms like library science or computer science.

So, as one would expect, there isn't one strict meaning to the word. Most importantly, there's the distinction between the body of knowledge and the process; and there's also the use of the (relative) term reliable and the more rigorous scientific method.

But I'd argue, that the critical term in all these definitions is the scientific method - without it, we'd live in a world of relative certainty and a very problematic spectrum of reliability, which can also be subjective.

The 'science' of Scottish independence

An example would be appropriate here. The latest poll results of the TNS-BMRB research group with regards to the Scottish independence are presented in the following graph (source):

An image showing poll survey on the Scottish independence, with No getting 39% and Yes getting 38%

Other research groups have produced slightly different results, and there is a dedicated page explaining the methodology employed, including some warnings about the reliability of the results.

Now compared to most UX research activities, all these research groups had in their disposal a larger sample size (1000 people), and they employed a method that is statistically more rigorous. Needless to say, scientific tools were applied in the course of this research.

But can you say with next-to-certainty that had the vote took place on the same day as each poll, the poll would be correct, even within the margin of error defined? The fact is that it often happend in the past that similar polls were well off the mark from the actual vote results.

In other words, despite employing a systematic scientific tools, the results cannot be considered as scientifically valid. What's more, the poll does not allow in any way making predictions.

So despite employing scientific tools (and a more rigorous method than in most UX research), I still wouldn't call this true science.

Flawed Science

As far as UX goes, there is even more to argue that even the application of scientific tools within UX is heavily flawed. I'd spell it out myself had it not been to Jakob Nielsen who has written an excellent article on the topic. The summary goes:

Number fetishism leads usability studies astray by focusing on statistical analyses that are often false, biased, misleading, or overly narrow.

It has to be asserted that while people like me believe that the field of evaluation in UX is flawed to the bone (yet one would be fool to overlook its usefulness), the field of cognition (which is based on real science) and other scientific disciplines (such as mathematical network analysis) could prevail in the future to yield altogether more reliable results. But this is still an application of scientific tools, which I don't think suffice to award a field as scientific in the broader sense (it is in the narrower sense, like the field of political science).

On the science of the God particle

A photo showing professor Peter Higgs at CERN the moment the Higgs boson was considered to have been found

The Scottish independence example is in contrast to the finding of the Higgs boson, where the scientific method was applied with the high certainty threshold of 99.999%. In other words, we know, nearly for certain, that the particle does exist (and while a story for another day, empirical science also has it that there is no way to prove something with 100% certainty, so 99.999% is sufficiently reliable).

This is true science in my view.

When UX is a science

Given the definitions above, there is an exception where UX is a science - and that's when PHD students or researchers in big companies do follow the scientific methods, with an hypothesis, statistically valid results, reproduction by unrelated research groups, etc.

But, that's not what UX practitioners really do in their daily job.

On Art

From Google's define:

The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination... producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.

OK, so on the one hand, when you come to make most design decisions (in IA, for instance) neither creativity skill, nor beauty or emotional power is involved - you want to hit the common denominator and hope to base your decisions on either data or reason. In other words, designing an interface is not quite like composing a song or painting a painting.

On creativity

However, creative skill is required during the (conceptual) design process, but unlike with arts, your creativity only serves to produce options which are then rationally analysed. This is markedly different from artists who are often purely emotionally driven.

On emotional design

But what about emotional design, which is such a big part of UX nowadays?

I'd argue that you have to make a distinction between the emotional effect of artworks, which is attributed to an illusive ability of an artist to plunk the right strings with the audience within a cultural context (and context, in general, plays a massive part in arts as the painting below demonstrates, by one of the greatest 20th century painters Jackson Pollock), and the intentional and calculated attempts of UX designers to incite an emotional response from users by applying knowledge of cognition.

An abstract painting by Jackson Pollock

When UX is an art

If you frequently visit Pinterest or Dribbble, it would be hard to deny the artistic values of many of the designs there. Most of this art is done by graphic designers, a work some consider to fall under the UX umbrella. If such is the nature of the work produced by a UX designer, then it is art indeed.

Some nice interface shown on an iPhone

On "feeling it"

You said you make some decisions "because it feels right", which I believe can be more accurately described as "it is your intuition".

With the dual-process theory (DPT) becoming more an more pivotal to our understanding of the brain, in the world of psychology intuitions are often simply considered as the workings of the unconscious brain (system 1 in DPT).

In essence, substantial experience in a specific field (or situation) results in an automatic decision from the unconscious brain that is so definite that your conscious brain gets it with the tag "No need to reason this one out".

Perhaps the greatest example of this process can be found in an event that ran during February 1996, where Garry Kasparov has beaten IBM's Deep Blue. The former was only capable of consciously processing 3 positions per second, where the latter could process more than 100,000,000. Yet chess grandmasters game is nearly solely based on System 1 - in other words, their game is nearly fully based on intuitions, the result of a neural network capable of far more than 100,000,000 calculation per second. Chess grandmasters often cannot explain their moves (and even if they do it is believed to be retrospective reasoning) - it is a lot of complex unconscious, rather that conscious reason that guides them.

A photo of Garry Kasparov playing chess against deep blue.

This may seem highly impressive, but you are doing the same thing at this very moment. If I'd ask you what you understand from this sentence:

"John had an ice-cream and really liked it"

you'd probably say something very similar to the sentence. But if I'll then start bombarding you with questions like "How do you know John means a person?" or "How do you know what 'likes' mean" or "How do you know 'it' refers to the ice-cream" (and so on), you'd find it hard to answer these - you have little idea why you understand language, it is mostly system 1 process.

You may think that this relates to art - after all, it has already been mentioned that artists are typically guided by intuitions. But you are also guided by intuitions when flicking through TV channels and seeing something that "you feel" could be good. There is nothing artistic about it, nor any creativity or imagination involved.

So being guided by intuitions alone is neither art nor science.

4
  • Even though I disagree with some of your reasoning, this answer is far too good not to up vote and mark as the accepted answer. Thanks for your tremendous effort! – Benny Skogberg Sep 12 '14 at 7:31
  • 3
    I've tried to tailor the answer to concrete UX affairs. No doubt, there's obviously a lot to debate and the argument is nowhere complete. Also, this is somewhat of a philosophical question - I don't think there's a definitive answer. I've intentionally stated that much of this is my own personal views and beliefs, but I hope people will find a few takeaways useful. – Izhaki Sep 12 '14 at 9:15
  • Nice argument, though I think it is flawed due to the comparison with "science". Of course UX isn't science, it is technology, applied science, UX design is applying scientific knowledge and methods for practical purposes. And that came straight out of the dictionary. – Astuanax Oct 2 '14 at 9:34
  • That was pretty much my point. – Izhaki Oct 2 '14 at 9:36
1

i'd go towards both.

I think the "UX by feelings" conclusions you jump to are posited in principles or standards, may they be UX principles, human factors principles, psychological principles, etc. Most of which were either proven through study or surmised from observation. therefore being scientific

As far as UX as art, are you speaking of the UX process or the product from the UX process?

  • if the former, I'm not sure how artful the process is. There are many methods to carry out research, ideation, design, etc., but do the amalgamation of your chosen methods for the project equate to something artful? - we, as the UXer, may feel like it, because the result of whatever part of the process seems to be an "expression of human creative skill" (a dictionary definition of 'art').

  • as far as the product from the UX process, may it be a website, app, interface, new tool, whatever, I think that can be considered art, depending on how the UXers and audience feel about the product. because at the end of the day 'anything can be art', heh.

1

I would lean towards both art and science for the UX process as well, depending on your level of experience and comfort in the domain.

As we (both personally and as a collective whole) gain experience in any field, we are better at improvisation. We leave the script (or the "by the numbers" approach) to elaborate on an idea with the script still available to fall back on. The art is a product of the improvisation, built on a foundation of science.

If that art is repeatable and can be formalized into something concrete, does it then become science (fact) for others to reference as well? For example, was initial research in our perception of color considered artful or highly creative at the time, where today it is considered science?

1

Clearly both. I think one of the most important parts of UX design is to understand that it is interdisciplinary by nature. The field is populated with people from very different backgrounds for a reason.

As I see it, the methods from natural- and social sciences give you the hindsight you need to avoid the mistakes of every designer before you, and the arts and humanities powers the process of creative destruction that is needed to continuously surprise and delight users.

You could probably build a mathematical model that could identify a pattern in terms of what was considered aesthetic and delightful yesterday, but since our attention-span is so short and are influenced by so many micro-trends, trying to model anything but some very generic features is pretty much like trying to predict the stock market (...we've been there haven't we?). So instead we improvise and use our feelings and intuition, which sort of makes sense considering that it is the feelings and intuition of our users we are trying to manipulate.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.