A little more human

Part I: Experience is everything

The origin of imagination

Around 70,000 years ago, Sapiens figuratively ate an apple from the Tree of Knowledge, and a mutation occurred that scientists still can’t explain to this day. According to Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, new ways of thinking and communicating suddenly propelled Homo Sapiens to the top of the food chain.

This ‘mutation’ led to the invention of boats, oil lamps, and the bow and arrow. The sewing needle enabled entire tribes to shed the fig leaf and stay warm during harsh winters. Spear technology (circa 45,000 B.C.) was useful for hunting and defense from predators. Shelter gradually improved and gave sanctuary from sabre-toothed tigers and those nasty honey badgers (wretched creatures). This period also saw the birth of religion and commerce.

According to Harari, many archaeologists and researchers attribute these accomplishments to a revolution (or mutation) in Sapien’s cognitive abilities. Specifically the unique ability to transmit information about things that do not exist.

That’s right. The capacity to make things up not only accelerated our development, but fashioned the world in our image. Before the rise of this superpower, anthropologists speculate Sapiens could only communicate about things that were real—like animals, trees, and immediate threats.

Sapien’s ‘creative gene’ kickstarted the collective imagination and led to the birth of storytelling, tools, weapons, and the formation of new social structures. We evolved to the point that many people can no longer tell the difference between fantasy and reality.

Making things up not only saved our species from extinction, but opened the spigots for a new world of makers and users.

Makers and users

There are two roles people take on when it comes to products and services—either you’re the maker or you’re the user. Makers make new things or make things better. And users use something that someone made. Pretty simple, right?

Initially, our species’ survival depended on this relationship. But when survival is pretty much guaranteed, why would people continue to make more things?

It’s simple. Because we can always improve. It’s as if there’s a universal law that rejects perfection, making evolution the natural order of the universe. Perfection teases you like the distant horizon. You can walk toward it till your shoes fall off, but you’ll never get there. Still, many makers commit to the journey of perfection—knowing they’ll never reach it.

Besides, all this making and using over the centuries spawned new sets of problems. Solutions meant to solve critical issues of the day morphed into even bigger headaches later down the road. For makers, it’s difficult to predict how someone will use any given product. How often are products misused or overused by users? The very definition of unintended consequences.

Take the wheel, for example. Sure, the wheel made transportation easier, but what if wheel technology ultimately results in non-stop pollution and uninhabitable environments? Take a look at Beijing.

Still, inventions improved over time, and new tools enabled makers to produce things faster and with less effort. But advancements in technology don’t always translate to a better world to live in.

“When I am working on a problem I never think about beauty. I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.” —Buckminster Fuller

The empathy gap

Maybe you heard some old-timer say, “We made things better back in my day.”

Thanks for the reminder, gramps. But it’s helpful to understand why that is. Perhaps you made things better because you were less dependent on machines to finish the jobs for you. Or maybe you were better craftsmen and women. There could be a number of reasons.

But we do know one contributing factor. Sometime during the Industrial Age (and well into the Information Age) the empathy gap between makers and users widened. In his book, Wired to Care, Dev Patnaik points this out.

Opportunists ran after fast money, ignoring users along the way. While other makers focused on solving real problems for people, including themselves (makers often begin as their primary users). Digital technology disrupted markets to such an extent that a team of 13 people (Instagram) could take on a company of 6,500 (Kodak) and eat their lunch.

The spike in the total number of makers means that users have more options. Users aren’t stuck with a single product or service anymore, and they know it. Today, makers have to rethink the entire process of building things just to remain competitive.

For many, this means getting back to basics.

Everything’s made up

It’s easy to forget in your day-to-day affairs, but it bears repeating: everything’s made up. Well, everything except nature, obviously, and the known universe. Besides those things, humans created everything else.

Phones, computers, apps, and all technology—made up. Companies, nonprofits, and the organizations that shape and move economies—made up. Books are too, and all the ideas within them. The publishing companies, distributors, and Hollywood itself (turning all those books into movies)—all made up.

“Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it… Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.” —Steve Jobs

It doesn’t stop there. Policies, rules, laws, and the governments that enforce those laws—all made up, too. Buildings, houses, streets, neighborhoods, communities, and cities everywhere are the product of zillions of people’s ideas. You get the point.

If I were to sketch the miraculous process of stuff-making, it would look something like this:

The process of stuff-making has worked for millennia. As humanity evolves, so does this framework. This ‘old way’ still works, but it’s missing a critical detail. Something that, until recently (say in the past 30 years), is emerging as the primary consideration when designing or building just about anything.

Someone’s experience.

Human-centered design

According to legendary designer Paul Rand, “The public is more familiar with bad design than good design. It is, in effect, conditioned to prefer bad design, because that is what it lives with.”

Brian Reed also chimed in, “Everything’s designed. Few things are designed well.”

In The Design Of Everyday Things, Don Norman was one of the first to coin the term user-centered design, emphasizing the importance of putting experience first. In the early 1990s, Don headed a group at Apple that called itself the User Experience Architect’s Office, one of the pioneers to apply ‘user experience’ in the digital world.

In 2013, Don revised his seminal work, and ‘pivots’ to adopt the term human-centered design, or HCD, (who else but humans are we designing for, anyway?). IDEO, the internationally renowned design firm, founded shortly after Dan’s book was released, also champions human-centered design principles.

Brian Solis, author of X: The Experience When Business Meets Design, calls it “human-centered experience architecture.” Fancy. In his recent blog post 26 Disruptive Tech Trends for 2016-2018, Solis names his number one most disruptive trend: “Experiences are More Important Than Products.”

Imagine that. Creating experiences is the next evolution of makers everywhere. Some makers like Disney understood this early on and continue to thrive, while others never caught on and went the way of the pterodactyl.

With ‘experience’ in mind, the revised, how-we-make-stuff-now process would look more like this:

This subtle addition, prioritizing problems to solve/experiences to create, as obvious as it seems now, forever alters how we make things and conduct business. It’s not ubiquitous yet, but the trend of placing people and their experiences first is spreading fast.

The human experience

Experience gets more play in businesses and organizations, and has slowly creeped into government bureaucracy as well. Traditional products and services aren’t alone in getting the ‘experience’ treatment—even the workplace has gotten a makeover.

It’s obvious, but I’ll say it anyway.

Everything that’s been designed has a corresponding experience. Everything. Look around you. It’s all designed, but whether those things produce the maximum experience for you is another question.

Everyday, you scale Maslow’s Hierarchy. Depending on where you are in life, you may be satisfied with things as they are, resting comfortably. Or maybe you’re striving for a deeper, more fulfilling experience. Or maybe you need something to eat and a warm place to rest your head just to get through the day.

This is life.

Everyday, the products and services all around you act as rope, hooks, and picks to help you climb Maslow’s mountain.

Make no mistake. This is the great opportunity that stands before makers—the understanding that products exist to enhance someone’s life.

The human experience trumps everything, and a product or service that’s designed with a contextual view of someone’s life will dominate the marketplace.

For makers this means creating desired experiences through their products and services that users crave. But user experience always fits somewhere within the great context of one’s life. This is key.

The human-centered design ethos is gaining momentum as context plays a greater role in the design of everyday things. So perhaps it’s time to expand the idea of what a product is to reflect that shift.

New products, new users

Some entrepreneurs realize their workplace is a product. People spend most of their lives working, and this insight gave birth to the destination work experience.

Employees review their workplace experiences just like a product on Amazon. People rate and comment on former bosses, company culture, how things get done (or not), and whether they had a chance to grow professionally. Retaining and engaging quality talent remains a priority, so these reviews could potentially cost a company millions.

Cities and neighborhoods are also products with unique experiences. Cities promote their schools, parks, and low crime rates to woo would-be residents. Even mayors are getting in on the design act and adding a dash of UX love with jaw-dropping results.

Schools and universities are getting ‘productized’ too, as students share experiences of their professors and classes with other students.

As the internet of things (IoT) gains traction and seamlessly integrates with every aspect of our lives, the productization of everything will seem more obvious in the beginning. However, in the near future, IoT will make it harder to distinguish between everyday life and product interaction as design becomes more invisible to users.

As the definition of a product evolves, so do its users. The empowered consumer shapes a product’s trajectory with reviews, online activism, customer feedback, and focus groups. The empowered user remains your traditional customer, but they’re also your employees, a city’s residents, and a political party’s constituents.

Users are slowly realizing they have power to change these institutions. This happens with big companies (Taylor Swift and Apple), the toppling of dictators (hello, Arab Spring), and influencing how big government operates (Obama’s geeks).

Forward-thinking makers are collaborating with their power users more and more on mutually beneficial projects. This exchange results in products and services that are not only relevant, but higher in quality.

The feedback loop between maker and user shortens each and every day, sometimes producing real-time on the spot results. Which begs the question—who’s the real maker?

Part II: The HX

The UX Spectrum

Imagine that a product experience rests on some invisible UX Spectrum, like the one below:

On one side of the UX Spectrum, we have SX (sucky experience or sh*tty, you decide). You know that experience, right? It makes you want to switch banks, exercise your Twitter power when your gym overcharges you again, or scream at your (once) favorite laptop as it eats your data away.

On the other side of the UX Spectrum, we have HX (human experience). Because a more human experience means a product is some combination of useful, beneficial, convenient, fast, worthwhile, easy, entertaining, and memorable for a user.

The ultimate UX of a product is HX. It’s the highest experience of what a product, company or organization, or brand can bring to its users. The HX hooks every user because, in the end, there’s one thing most humans want more than anything:

To feel more alive.

Think about it. Why do you check your phone so often? Perhaps you’re excited to meet someone later. Maybe you need a break from the monotony of work, so you fire up a Youtube video that makes you lol.

It’s not rocket science. We want to feel more significant, more connected to one another, and more purposeful in life. We also want to be entertained. We want life to be fun and enjoyable.

This is HX. It’s the unspoken moonshot of every maker. It’s what a user seeks in every product, even if they can’t articulate it. Every review, comment, and completed survey informs how well you hit the mark or not. All that feedback helps a maker inch their product closer to being memorable, talked-about, and happily shared.

“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.” —Eleanor Roosevelt

HX planet

A better planet begins with better life experiences—for everybody. However, a better life experience starts with a single person. But creating a better world begins with a single user who wants a solution to their problem—and it starts with your product or service. If your product is worthy, it spreads—first through communities (offline or online), then beyond borders to other countries and continents.

HX products

To evaluate a product or service is a subjective effort. Everything depends on what the user perceives and experiences. Let’s start with the UX Spectrum again:

Where a product falls on this spectrum depends on two simple scales:

Let’s begin with utility. How useful is a given product? Does it solve a problem or offer an alternative solution that brings the user more value? How frequently is it used? Is it difficult or easy to apply? Is it simple to understand? Does it solve the problem quickly or slowly, in comparison to similar products?

For example, designing a user interface a certain way could make total sense to the designer, but what if the user thinks it’s useless, unusable, or slow? Utility is mandatory.

If a product passes the utility test, then it will elicit an appropriate emotional response. How does it make you feel? Do you feel wonder or confusion? Are you inspired or afraid? Are you relieved or sad? Are you confident or embarrassed? Or do you feel nothing? Neutral?

Products always leave experience in their wake—some are forgettable and others more memorable, even if they’re negative (the worst kind of memorable). Forgettable experiences are forgotten products.

Utility and emotion are simple measures to evaluate any product on. Their combined total ends up somewhere on the UX Spectrum.

Consider everyday products.

  • Shoes
  • Pen and paper
  • Books
  • Laptops and phones
  • Subway or metro systems
  • Facebook or LinkedIn
  • A chair

A chair may have high utility, but a low emotional experience, unless you’re sitting in a Herman Miller. You think a pen is a pen? Some pen connoisseurs argue that Jetstream makes the best pen for everyday use.

As makers build better products and tell better stories, they continue to challenge the traditional notion of what everyday products can be. Though products are one way to impact people’s lives, the HX organization has the potential for even greater influence, thus making it the ultimate design challenge for makers.

HX organizations

We can create a better world faster through collaboration, open communication, and exposure to  feedback and criticism. Organizations play an important role in how people experience life, positively or negatively, because they are collaborative by nature and concentrate power and resources to get things done.

Makers understandably apply the user experience concept within their organizations. It’s a logical progression. An employee is arguably just as important as the customer. Sure, without a customer, you don’t have a business, but without a dedicated, working employee, you don’t have scale or repeat business. Today, effective leaders are learning to engage and retain workers.

There are two primary strategies for doing that:

  1. Develop a strong workplace culture
  2. Get mission-driven

Workplace culture

The first place to start is right under your nose. Without a strong workplace culture, your organization is a revolving door of talent. Even worse, disgruntled staff will stick around and bring down morale and shoo off customers. No bueno.

If you think about it, staff are the most important customers within an organization. If they don’t believe in what you’re doing, they’ll drive more customers away than your worst customer ever could. They’ll even scare off future talent. Can you picture an insider spreading hateful tweets and resentful Glassdoor reviews? It’s happening.

If makers are going to develop a world-class organization, then develop something that’s great for morale, productivity, and customer success. The right environment, culture, and systems will support employees to weather the toughest storms the market can throw at you.

Mission-driven

Some companies, nonprofits, and individuals are making products and services to solve humanity’s greatest (and not so greatest) challenges. Others are adopting mission-driven practices to extend their impact beyond the end user.

Why? Because makers believe their work can go beyond profits. Besides, being mission-driven is profitable as consumers become more conscious of where their money goes. Before the Connection Age, makers “targeted” consumers. Now, consumers are targeting makers, shifting their dollars to products that align with their values.

For example, take bottled water. Individually, it does the job well and quenches my thirst, but what about its effect on the ecosystem? The plastic waste is bad enough, but recent reports in the news state that 45% of the water used in bottled water is tap water. That’s called a PR disaster.

Contrast those practices with Patagonia, a clothing company. They prefer you recycle and reuse your old clothes than buy new ones from them. They take great pride in those stories, their conservation practices, and being a sustainable company.

Baron Fig makes beautifully crafted notebooks for paper aficionados. Using more paper is not a popular talking point with environmentalists, but Baron Fig prioritizes planting a tree for every notebook sold. Do you care? Will knowing that impact your buying decision?

I’m wearing Warby Parker glasses as I write this. Not only do they look good, but the impact of my purchase goes far beyond my own needs. When you buy a pair from Warby Parker, that purchase directly supports communities that lack basic eye care with affordable, even stylish glasses. Since Warby Parker began, they’ve helped distribute over a million pair of glasses to communities in need.

HX-focused products or companies have a tremendous impact beyond the business bottom line. They can take better care of their own people, as Netflix is famous for. Or they can contribute to a global cause, like Alphabet or The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is known to do.

Imagine an axis, with the horizontal line representing scale of impact (from the individual to whole planet), and the vertical line representing a given product or company’s positive or negative effect.

We can measure an organization’s ‘ripple effect’ on a simple axis:

My office chair from Staples makes my back happy, so I’d give it a high rating on positive effect. On the horizontal line is scale, and let’s face it, the chair is not going beyond my personal use.

Organizations such as Patagonia offer great products (high positive effect) AND sustainable business practices that enables their organizational impact to go beyond profitability.

Bottom line: HX-driven organizations can affect the world in ways rarely seen in our relative short history. There are leaders, products, and organizations that are making a difference everywhere. Their stories inspire present and future makers to bring their A game, and those are the stories we’d like to share with the world.

In search of HX

At Typeform, we continue to make great UX a foundation in everything we do, not just in product but in workplace culture. We’re working towards something bigger everyday, and look forward to sharing our progress.

Our company vision is to make things a little more human.

And that leads us to why. Why are we obsessed with HX?

It’s simple. We believe makers and users can aspire to something greater. The maker can create something profitable AND meaningful. The user can be a more conscientious consumer. Together, we can build remarkable things that does less harm and maximum good in the world.

Even more, we want to identify and align ourselves with the people, products, and organizations that lean toward the HX side of the UX Spectrum. We want to feature and share those stories with you. We hope this inspires you to do great things.

You and I are collectively creating the future anyway, so why not make our journey the ultimate experience imaginable?

Stay tuned.