Whose experience is it, anyway?

The question of ownership of the user experience has been coming up quite a bit in my work recently. I haven’t seen a lot written about this (references would be welcome), but it strikes me as being a fairly important subject with tangible implications for UI design.

I’m inclined to say that under most circumstances, the experience is best understood as being owned by the user.  But designs will often box people in, limiting their freedom to do as they like.

Comparison interfaces are a good example.  Cars.com has what I think is a remarkably well-conceived tool for comparing any make and model of car across various criteria.  I’ll write a bit more about why I think it’s so great in a future posting, but the glaring error is that it sets a hard limit on how many cars you can view at one time.  If I wanted to look at more than four cars at once, shouldn’t I be able to?  Yes, it’ll result in horizontal scrolling, but wasn’t it my choice to allow that by adding so many cars in the first place?  The website’s limitation seem to intrude on my ownership of the experience.

Compare this with BlueNile’s interface, which I think is even more brilliant (ha!) , and another subject for that forthcoming post.  Here, I can add all of the criteria I want to the table: polish, symmetry, depth %, table %, and so on.  The table  just scales right off the edge on the screen.  And there’s a secondary (nearly redundant) comparison interface where I can add just as many diamonds as I please.  Sure, it scrolls and you lose the row headings, but I understood the implications of what I was doing and chose to do it anyway.  Why shouldn’t I have that ability, and judge for myself whether or not it’s the best way of working?  BlueNile’s philosophy is, properly, “You asked for it, here it is.”

This is what I mean when I talk about ownership.  I think that at various times, designers can take too much control of the user experience.  This is good only insofar as it helps me to do what I want; the hard limits set by Cars.com and many other comparison engines reduce that capacity.  I think that sometimes it’s best for the designers to let go a bit, and acknowledge that in the end the experience just doesn’t belong to them.

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