Creating Experiences

It’s taken me a shockingly long time to become clear about what my twin passions—music and web design—have in common that makes me so passionate about them. But I’ve thought a lot lately about a couple of sub-disciplines of web design: User Interface/Interaction (UI) design, and User Experience (UX). Gradually, associations mixed and matched in my mind, until something finally clicked.

I love creating experiences.

I’ve claimed before that I’m a craftsman, and no artist. That’s only mostly true. I feel there’s some degree of art to my music-making practice, along with a whole lot of craftsmanship. As for web design, it’s clear to me that my work is all about doing tried-and-true things, and doing them well.

But at its root, the impulse to make music is about communicating something, to another human, using extra-lingual means of expression—tools including language, but also beyond it as well. And, hey presto, the same is true of UI and UX. Let’s have a look.

Interfaces and Experiences

Briefly, what are UI and UX? There’s a lot of overlap between what one would call a Front-End Developer, a UI Designer, and a UX Designer. Here’s what these distinctions mean.

The phrase “Front-End Developer” can apply to anyone who designs and writes code for the stuff that an end-user—such as a visitor to a website—might see. Anything that needs HTML, CSS, and/or JavaScript written, from a flat and static page design to a sophisticated web application.

UI is a tad more specific: if the user has to interact with the stuff, there will be various interfacing bits-and-bobs for the user to use. One example that can be easily found is the e-commerce website. The thing you use to filter search results; the Shopping Cart screen you use to adjust the quantities of items you’re buying, and enter your coupon code; the Checkout screens. A UI Designer wrote the code to make all those things look like they do, perhaps consulting a pattern book, and perhaps helping to decide which interfaces were needed.

But that last part—deciding on interfaces and the “flow” of an application—is a big part of the UX Designer’s job. When it’s done well, UX Design also takes a broader view, taking into consideration things such as who the potential users are, where they are likely to be while using the application, and what users hope to get out of the interaction. UX uses this information to plan an experience that works for everyone involved.

Perception and Cognition

It’s rare that good UI requires avant-garde creativity and originality. Like type design, interface design relies on convention and self-evident pattern recognition. If the visitor to your e-commerce site needs instruction on how to remove a particular item from their Shopping Cart—if it’s not immediately intuitive—you’re in great danger of losing an entire sale.

For this reason, UI/UX relies heavily on an understanding of the mechanics of perception—how we get, interpret, select, and organize sensory information—and cognition—how attention, memory, judgment, reasoning, decision making, and comprehension of language all works.

Good UI/UX takes advantage of the ways that humans naturally sense and understand things, primarily visually but also employing other senses when possible. Nearly anyone can doodle. Creating an intuitive and engaging experience with a website or an app takes a certain amount of visual fluency and an understanding of what “clicks” with most people.

Similarly, good music takes advantage of the ways that humans naturally sense and understand things, primarily sound but also (when it’s done right) visual cues, tactile cues, and proprioception (dance, people, dance!), when possible. I believe (somewhat controversially) that nearly anyone can sing. But if you’re going to make up a piece of music that’s any more sophisticated than a schoolyard taunt (nah nah, nah nah, boo boo), it takes a certain amount of musical fluency and an understanding of how sound works for most people.

Web Magician, Voice Musician

That’s my gig. I love—love—intentionally shaping the non-verbal cues that we humans understand intuitively and, for the most part, take for granted. It does, in fact, feel a little bit like performing real magic.

When I’m doing it right, whether it’s a website or a song, I’m appealing to someone’s senses in such a way that information is imbued with more meaning. The result in either case should be an experience that somebody—even if only in the smallest of ways—finds enriching.

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