Chef of user experience

Authors: Tek-Jin Nam
Posted: Tue, January 29, 2013 - 1:41:15

Preparing a meal is an analogy that I use to explain the roles and expertise involved when designing and collaborating in a user experience (UX)-oriented product or system development team. I think the relationship between foods and eating experience is similar to that between products and associated user experience.

Preparing a delicious meal requires several steps. The first is to choose a menu. Good menus vary depending on for whom and the conditions under which the meal is being prepared. Once the menu is decided, we get the ingredients for the main course. Freshness and quality is critical for good taste. If we don’t produce the ingredients ourselves, we purchase them in the market. In that case, we should carefully evaluate their quality. Cooking the main course is next. We also prepare side dishes that blend with the main course. The total harmony is critically important, along with the taste of each dish. Once the main course and side dishes are done, we set the dining table and arrange tableware, light, furniture, and music for the best holistic experience that will allow us to fully enjoy our delicious meal.

In the past, eating was mainly for survival. Consuming enough food to eliminate feelings of hunger was more important than the tastes and the experience of eating. Meal preparation was done by one person (often a housewife). Menus were limited, as most of the food came from local farms. Today’s meal preparation is much more convenient. Many food materials and processed foods are available in nearby supermarkets. We can make many dishes through simple processes. A good menu selection and coordinated purchase of ready-to-eat dishes from supermarkets or take-out restaurants are sometimes sufficient for preparing a meal. 

A similar change seems to be happening in the world of technology. In the past, the complexity of products or systems was not high. Product development was done by a small team who took charge of all the steps necessary to produce products (main course and side dishes) and delivered service along with them. Core technological components or applications were the most critical part, so people focused on these. The people who built the core technical components were technology experts, and they played a key role in deciding how people used the products.

Recently, the ability to implement hardware and software technologies has become widespread. Even non experts (like designers and artists) can build functional products with intelligent software tools and knowledge from open-source communities. We are facing a supermarket era of technology applications, thanks to an explosion in ready-to-process hardware and software technologies. Therefore, integration expertise is becoming more important for building a holistic system and providing an enjoyable user experience. Today’s technology is not simply for accomplishing tasks, but for providing an enjoyable experience. We do not simply eat food for survival but for a delightful meal. Emotional satisfaction, such as fun, pleasure, and meaningfulness, is also emphasized, in addition to usefulness, accuracy, and efficiency.

Expertise can also be explained with the cooking analogy. In a restaurant, we need diverse expertise. The cooks (engineers, technology developers) are in charge of preparing the main course dishes. Before this, we need a good farmer (scientists, developer of new materials) who produces and supplies fresh, high-quality raw ingredients that will be transformed into the dishes (core products or technology applications). Like a restaurant team, a technology development team should also have the expertise to harmoniously integrate all the initial applications and to deliver the service to consumers. Above all, there should be someone with enough expertise to choose a good menu for the consumers.

I think designers are the experts at choosing the menu, deciding the combination of the main and the side dishes, and setting the table in the meal-preparation process. They seem to have the most influence in the first and the last steps. Although they don’t cook by themselves, they choose a menu based on their knowledge of and concern for people. They search for a good combination of main and side dishes and are able to appropriately set the dining atmosphere by choosing appropriate tableware, lighting, and music. They think about the holistic experience all the time. This may not be understood as professional expertise, as we tend to think of eating as mostly associated with the taste of food.

Due to the ubiquity of technology, there are many technology menus to choose from in everyday life. The importance of the selection and coordination of technological applications is getting higher. I think this is why design is getting more attention these days. Designers have been doing these tasks for some time. They use human-centered approaches, intuition, as well as synthetic and aesthetic skills. When we include designers in an interdisciplinary team to develop systems that will provide a good user experience, this perspective is useful. Consider a designer not as a cook, but as a coordinator of the menu and table setting.

Since I work in a technical university, I often have a chance to collaborate with other researchers in engineering departments on large-scale research projects. The expected outcome of such projects is often the technical (hardware or software) components or applications, which can be understood as a one dish—which, on its own, does not constitute a full meal. It is often necessary to process the results to show how we meaningfully experience them in everyday living. This often leads to a growing awareness of the designer’s role as part of a collaboration team.

Nevertheless, situations still arise where an interdisciplinary team doesn’t know how to use design expertise. The team assigns cooking tasks, instead of coordination tasks, to designers. Designers don’t have room to show their expertise when all the menus have already been decided. They can only contribute to a small part—the table setting—in the whole meal preparation process. The failure to understand the designers’ areas of expertise and the potential role of design in a team makes the collaboration process difficult.

We should also understand that meal preparation can be done in multiple ways. Sometimes the menu is decided before procuring the materials. If we don’t know the menus that people like, nobody will order. The menu selector, coordinator, cook, and material supplier should closely collaborate. Other times, the menu is decided by the materials at hand. In a small restaurant, the cook does all the tasks, while a big restaurant has many professionals with different types of expertise that require good coordination.

Designers in a UX-oriented system development team are specialized in understanding what people want to eat in every situation and context. They are responsible for deciding a good menu for people and in achieving harmony among all the components. If designers are not fully confident with this expertise, they should increase their knowledge. Designers should also be those who can recommend the best menu when people don’t know what to eat. If the restaurant is small, the coordinator should be able to make some core foods, or the cook should be good at table setting and coordination. In the past, a small family cooked all the main and the side dishes all by themselves. If a designer has technical expertise or the “cook” of technology has design expertise, they can be an excellent addition to a cross-functional team. They can be the multidisciplinary professionals who lead the future of UX-oriented system development teams.

Posted in: on Tue, January 29, 2013 - 1:41:15

Tek-Jin Nam

Tek-Jin Nam is an associate professor in the Industrial Design Department at KAIST.
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