We’ve all seen it. That photograph showing a paved path next to a patch of grass where a dirt path has been worn by people taking a short cut. Over the top of the paved path is the word “Design” and on top of the other is the word “User Experience”. This image irked me the moment I saw it, but why? And what does it tell us about the reality of design and user experience?

Sometimes it’s just a path worn over a flat bit of grass in a park, sometimes the worn path skirts around an obstacle like a fence or a gate

The reason for my initial irritation was the fact that the image is a gross over-simplification of two enormous and hugely important aspects of my day to day life. Having worked in these fields for the last 15 or so years I like to think I’ve picked up a few lessons along the way. But then I tell myself it’s only a snapshot meme and I should just calm down and go make a hot drink.

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Then while I’m making myself a hot drink I realise a bigger, darker fact – that while it may be a lighthearted look an one aspect of the design world, people see these things posted on Twitter and shared on Facebook and believe them. They take them as gospel truth and it goes on to inform their view of the world, and while I’m a skilled and talented jaded and opinionated digital designer that knows the difference between the two, there are plenty of other younger, more sprightly (and considerably more optimistic) designers out there who might see it and think to themselves “Oh, I see… I get it now. So that’s the difference.”

When in fact it isn’t. It really isn’t.

Apples & Oranges

The first thing wrong with this image is that it sets the disciplines of UX and design on the wrong footing – comparing them when there really needs to be no comparison. It’s like comparing apples to oranges. Design is not synonymous with user experience, and they don’t exist in the same space or timeline on a project. If you want to do it right, you don’t design first and then let users set the parameters of their experience.

Design is concerned with the object in and of itself. Design can enable seamless, effortless usability experiences (think of the iPhone), or it can be completely and beautifully useless (The Uncomfortable is a series of beautifully designed but ultimately useless objects by Athens based architect Katerina Kamprani). User experience is less about the object in question and more about the user. What should the user expect from their experience of interacting with the object? What information should be conveyed from using the object? What should the user take away with them? What do they bring to the experience?

If I were to chuck in my own over-simplification on this matter it would be this: UX asks questions. Design answers them.

To expand on that, I would go as far as to say that for a design to be successful (What exactly is “successful design“? That’s a whole new blog post in itself!), we should carry out thorough user testing based on the experience they are expecting and anticipate. During user testing processes, common questions are things like “Why did that button take me there?” “How do I get to the home/contact/checkout page?” “Where’s the menu gone?” and these are all very valid and useful things to be asking. Based on this feedback, designers can make changes and create interfaces that meet expectations and make sense.

design-paths

The solution for our picture? I’m guessing there is some kind of planning department involved in building paths like this, and they should be able to monitor commonly accessed routes and pedestrian traffic density. Armed with that data, they can inform the design process and create a path that gets people efficiently from point to point.

There Is No Winner

The second problem here is that the image seems to imply that the user experience is better, or has in some way outwitted the design. This sets fledgling designers down a dangerous path of elitism and snobbery. And massive misunderstanding.

Coming away from that image you could be forgiven for thinking “Yeah, stick it to the man, User Experience – your Design sucks!” Except I wouldn’t forgive you, because all these pictures have put me in a bad mood. UX is not “better” than Design. The only winners here are the people who get the most retweets.

Shortcuts, Shortcuts Everywhere

The final thing I want to draw attention to is how in the picture, people are able to create a new path by repeatedly walking over the same patch of grass. This obviously creates a new route by wearing down the grass underfoot, and gives future walkers (users?) a new option to cross from point A to point B. The same thing doesn’t apply to the world of digital design. Imagine if you regularly visit the BBC news website, and every time you do, you click the same series of links and menu items to get to a certain page or section of the site. Just because you visited that page regularly, it doesn’t mean that all future visitors will find a worn, shortcut path to that same page.

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Granted, sites can customise their UI and navigation elements according to your visit history (think about the recommended products section on Amazon for example), but repeated use in a particular way cannot force the design to change like it has in our picture.

It’s not UX that causes people to walk around objects that slow their progress unnecessarily, or take short cuts that reduce their journey time – it’s human nature. If I can see a shorter route of course I’m going to take it. Maybe a better caption for the image should be “Design vs Human Nature”.

Summing up

If you’re still reading this, then thanks for sticking around. As you can see this is a subject that is close to my heart and one that I have some opinion about! But hopefully you read my passionate ramblings in the manner in which they are felt:

  • Design is important
  • UX is important
  • Let’s not mix them up
  • Let’s not compare them unfairly
  • A good user interface is created by skilled design work that is in turn informed and educated by thorough user experience testing

Agree? Disagree? Fancy showing me some even more glib and poorly thought out infographics? Join the conversation on Twitter.

12 May, 2016
Toby Pestridge

Toby Pestridge Twitter

Toby is the Creative Director at Createful. Hailing from a background in design for both print and digital, Toby has worked for local design agencies in addition to "doing time" as a freelancer. He is notable for introducing proper coffee to the Createful office, and for managing to get static electric shocks from almost anything he touches.