The Science of UX Design


Safe Graf

Some of you may not know this, I come from a formal science background, I trained as a scientist.  However, I don’t consider myself to be one, by any stretch of the imagination. I feel more at home in the design space.

Still all that background in the science arena has allowed me to apply it to the area of User Experience design. A guess it’s like a Science of UX Design.

To often we say that the area of User Experience is not so much a science but an art. Yes this is true. However it’s also a little wrong. UX Design is very much a science, or should be. As we are applying the basis of the scientific method to it.

To understand this you have to understand a little about backbone of science (science peeps you can go make a coffee now) and the scientific method.

Science and the Art of Observation

In science you are taught from day one to question. Yes question everything. This questioning helps you think creativity, build on previous ideas, observe, experiment and document. The key is to take nothing on face value. You are always asking , “nice, but show me the evidence..”.

Everything, you see, must come with evidence to support it. Any hypothesis has to have some evidence. And even then it’s going to have to be collaborated evidence so it can graduate to a theory.

You see a theory is the best you can get, its the ultimate statement.  Still you have to remember that a theory is not written in stone, it’s still open to change.  It should still be questioned, if the evidence stacks up against it.

A theory is just in a holding status, as the series of rules or an explanation of how something works as far as we know. The key here is the bit “as far as we know”.   At any time it can to shot down and a new theory can replace it.  Often the new theory is build upon the bones of the old theory, but not all the time, something a complete change of viewpoint is required.

Scientific Method

The important part in science in the use of the Scientific Method. The basis of the scientific method is a way to use the principles of scientific inquiry.  It’s the cycle of taking a hypotheses, testing it , analysing the results and then iterating,

The key to the scientific method is the use of the researchers intelligence, imagination, and creativity; its not like baking a cake,  there is no quick recipe to follow.  A bit like UX design in a way.

If we compare the two, the scientific method and UX design

UX Design verses Science

UX Design verses Scientific Method

  • Scientific Method:

    1. Define a question or problem,
    2. Gather information or observe,
    3. Form a hypothesis,
    4. Experiment and test,
    5. Analyse output,
    6. Interpret results (form new hypothesis),
    7. Document and publish,
    8. Peer review
  • UX Design:

    1. Define a question or problem,
    2. Observe and research,
    3. Develop a design,
    4. User test and prototype,
    5. Analyse and interpret results,
    6. Document,
    7. Implement

As you can see they are very similar. All we are lacking is the formation of the initial hypothesis.

Science isn’t Creative?

Okay I can guess you are nodding your heads now as you see the comparison. However it’s not that simple is it?

Yes true design has all these principles and rules that can be applied. Same with UX design there are a number of for an interface design and psychological based principle that we can apply.   These rules are like the foundation theorems in science.

However design has that creative element. The innovative spark, the creation of something based on previous experience and the environment around us. Something that is gauged as being outstanding by our community. The process of that creativity and what it is can be always up for debate. However the key here is that design is a creative process not an analytical one.

And science isn’t!? …  Hang on let’s stop and think for a moment.

Okay design stimulates the senses and it’s this stimulation that we often use to measure creativity by.

However in science you still get that moment of innovation, the moment of thinking outside the square, the  moment of creativity, it’s just it’s not applied often to something that is traditionally thought of being creative. 

Looking at a physics equation a new way, or experimenting with a variations in compounds are the sexy creative elements but they can be creative in there approaches.

So yes science is creative.  Just not sexy creative, as is commonly known.

Science is Design

In UX design we prototype and experiment, observe the results, iterate and modify the prototypes using the test results and previous designs to find the new killer design. As you can see above, this is so close to the iterative experimental process of scientific method  it’s a little frightening. 

Mind you lets just stop for moment again.  If you think about it, it’s not surprising,  given that many of the principles of UX design are stolen from engineering which in turn stole them from basis of the scientific method.

So in reality UX design is a Science.  And maybe even Science is just Design.

Now tell me do you think UX design is more a science or do you still think its going with the gut and is an art form?

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