Our Misguided Focus on Brand and User Experience

How a “total UX” derailed the creative efforts of the Fortune 500

If there is a future for designers and marketers in big business, it lies not in brand, nor in “UX”, nor in any colorful way of framing total control over a consumer, such as “brand equity”, “brand loyalty”, the “end to end customer journey”, or “experience ownership”. It lies instead in encouraging behavioral change and explicitly shaping culture in a positive and lasting way.

Brand is a phenomenon that has emerged over the last century as a method of differentiation and control, with marketing beating a drum of “brand messaging”, “consistent impressions”, and a single “brand value”. User Experience is a more recent unicorn to chase, with designers claiming to drive business success through a focus on a prescriptive customer experience. There is a long history of extremely fragile collaboration between the offices of the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) and the traditional shepherds of behavior-by-design, as designers become enamored with brand embodiment in products, and marketers striving to “own” the product specifications, features and functions. The fragility of the bond is obvious, as both groups frequently disparage the other in both private and public venues. As blanket generalizations, designers describe marketers as less honest then themselves, and disparage the Product Requirement Document as a laundry-list of jargon and nonsense. Marketers, in turn, often view designers (and by proxy, the product itself) as a means to an end; the goal – revenue, market share, and brand equity – will be achieved through business rules, not through creative endeavors.

Both groups are to fault, and both groups are perilously ignoring the huge potential at their fingertips. As members of both groups cling to brand and UX as differentiators, they have mistakenly focused on control as a means of generating revenue. In fact, neither brand nor UX will serve as the driving force behind financial success in the coming decades. “User experience” is just a new name for old thinking, and “User experience practitioners” exhibit the same hubris that has long plagued “brand thinking”: the large name-as-mindshare mentality that a company can own a space, a segment, or even a consumer.

clients struggle with the reality of brand complacency

The Problems of Brand and User Experience
For most of the twentieth century, brand – and the marketing machine that created it – ruled the culture of developed countries. The earliest parts of the 1900s boasted brands built around industrialism and production, and these acted as literal and figurative crests, positioned as major pillars of production. The mid part of the century led to the family-focused brands positioned as domesticated icons of class and consumption. And the late 90’s exposed global brands, dominated by large, faceless and relatively unknown holding companies making profit simply by waiting for an opportune time to offload a company to another company. Yet the rules of the game are in deep flux, due to sustainability, a credit meltdown, and an awareness of humanitarian efforts in developing countries. The basic, fundamental properties of major brands are increasingly questioned, as evidenced by the disparaged and embattled Ford and Citibank, and the questions of these mega-brands are more commonly rhetorical and pejorative.

In spite of this, brand equity facilitated by market share is still a goal of the Fortune 500, and it is common to hear clients – both marketers and UX professionals – speak of “winning” in relationship to the user experience.

Brand complacency indicates a trend towards commoditization

Simultaneously, however, clients struggle with the reality of brand complacency. They describe how their customers have become familiar with a particular brand-purchasing behavior, and continue to perform that rote behavior based on circumstances. This includes placement on the shelf, color of a label, and the realization that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. There is no “relationship” with the customer; this is a fragile connection that is the consumptive equivalent to taking the same route to work each day. This is a scary reality to face, as brand complacency implies a dependency on switching-costs as a means of retaining market-share. Brand complacency indicates a trend towards commoditization.

The Threat of Commoditization
A commodity is something that has no qualitative differentiation. Mass production drives commoditization within a particular product line, while the traditional “bunch and swarm” mentality of the marketplace drives commoditization across product lines. A desire to create a new set of interactions is an urge to escape this push towards sameness. Innovation is a business goal to produce products that have qualitative differentiation, and there are various forms of innovation – such as disruptive innovation – which are intended to produce massive qualitative differentiation.

In western civilization, the artifact is continuing to diminish in relevance and importance. While people continue to consume things, these things are increasingly a means to an end. Our relative wealth has positioned even the lower-middle class in a position where there is time for leisure, entertainment, and emotionally charged experiences.

Interesting, too, is the speed at which the digital artifact has moved from being exclusive and expensive to nearly free and ubiquitous. Software, once priced at hundreds of dollars and appropriately as scarce, is now widely available for no cost; networked services have enabled content feeds across artifacts, rendering even some services as irrelevant in the larger scheme of the competitive landscape. As an example, for many years, Microsoft offered a for-fee product called Outlook, which manages electronic mail. Google then offered a free service called Gmail, which also manages electronic mail. Then, as Google externalized the Google mail feed through a series of APIs, mail can be embedded in unlikely places – including other products, such as an instant messenger client (like Trillian), or even on other websites. The “designed product” has become less interesting and relevant, and no matter the innovations pushed by Google or Microsoft in their products, the data itself has been shifted to a champion position of value.

Behavioral Change: The Goal of Our Work
The focus on brand and control of the user experience is an attempt to avoid the above commoditization and irrelevance of artifact, and it references a dated model of dominance – one where a company produces something for a person to consume. This is the McDonalds approach to production, where an authoritative voice prescribes something and then gains efficiencies by producing it exactly as prescribed, in mass. The supposed new model is to design something for a person to experience, yet the allusion to experience is only an empty gesture. An experience cannot be built for someone. Fundamentally, one has an experience, and that is experience is always unique.

The focus on brand and control of the user experience is an attempt to avoid the above commoditization and irrelevance of artifact

Interaction design is the design of behavior, positioned as dialogue between a person and an artifact. A person commonly doesn’t talk to an object; they use it, touch it, manipulate it, and control it. Usage, touching, manipulation and control are all dialogical acts, unspoken but conversational. Conversation is only a metaphor for interaction, but it’s a useful one. Many of the same ways we “read” an actual, spoken conversation have parallels in describing and discussing interactions between people and things. Consider:

  • Both conversations and interactions have flow, and often have a beginning, middle, and end;
  • Both conversations and interactions act as intertwining of multiple viewpoints. In a conversation, the viewpoints come from people; in an interaction, viewpoints are embedded in an artifact by a designer;
  • Both conversations and interactions act as both methods of communication and methods of comprehension; participants both contribute to, and take from, the activity;
  • Ultimately, both conversations and interactions serve to affect behavioral change in participants.

This is powerful, as it describes an implicit way of extending a designers reach – and personal point of view, or message – into the masses. It is this mass distribution of dialogue that describes culture; we build culture through our objects, services and systems, as we define behavior through interactions. This is of equal prominence to the claim of “designing experiences”, yet leaves open the potential – the need – for the people (pardon, the consumers) to actually participate and contribute in a meaningful way. The things we do in the design studio have grand significance in the world. Our design decisions – even small, detailed, nuanced design decisions – resonate for years, and usually in a phenomenally large scale. Yet because these design decisions have an impact that is diffused and quiet, our impact is hard to notice and pin down. Culture is something that’s not immediately describable; the question “where does culture come from?” is almost as large a question as “where does life come from”, and is equally as evasive.

Cultural Change: The Implications of Our Work
This is a fundamental point that serves to elevate the importance of a designer, and also serves to articulate the implicit responsibility a designer has to the world around them. It’s such a fundamental point that it’s worth making again, in a more overt manner:

  1. The interaction designer designs various aspects of an artifact;
  2. The designer either explicitly or implicitly hopes to change behavior in a user;
  3. This behavioral change is “baked” into the artifact, and then disseminated, in mass;
  4. The artifact serves as a stimulus to change behavior in society;
  5. This combination of artifacts and behavior describes culture.

Every design decision – from the large and strategic decision to design accounting software, to the small and nuanced decision to use a checkbox instead of a radio button – contributes to the behavior of the masses, and helps define the culture of our society. This describes an enormous opportunity for designers, one that is rarely realized. We are, quite literally, building the culture around us; arguably, our effect is larger and more immediate than even policy decisions of our government. We are responsible for both the positive and negative repercussions of our design decisions, and these decisions have monumental repercussions.

Our Deep Responsibility
For most designers, this responsibility is hidden by the celebratory claims of designing experiences. This claim almost abdicates the long-term responsibility, as “an experience” has an end, at which time the designers’ role seemingly ends. The work is meaningful only on an immediate level of craft and creation, and while designers often take pride in a product once it has launched, they do not frequently make the connection between their creations and the culture that surrounds them. “They’ve stopped using my product – their experience is over.” Convenient – but utterly false. Because emphasis is placed on innovation or brand, designers learn to value their work based on newness or recognition; metrics for success are tied to profit and marketshare, rather than positive and long-term culture change. As the causality is extended over a long period of time, it is diffused as a single product mixes with the rest of the milieu. The individual contribution of a single designer feels muted and insignificant, as there is no feedback loop to indicate the role of an individual design in shaping culture and society.

These negative qualities of our last century’s focus on brand and experience have been forced upon the business of design and the design of business, but it is only interaction and the ability to change behavior that will serve as fundamental pillars upon which to drive successful new endeavors. We must refocus and reposition our work within major companies away from a marketing-driven focus on brand and a design-driven focus on experiential ownership. Instead, it is up to us to emphasize the value a company can provide in changing human behavior – the lasting, nuanced, intellectual, and deep responsibility we have to the culture we are building.

This requires a conscious tradeoff and reprioritization. Instead of control, we must focus on frameworks. Instead of seeking to own and prescribe a singular experience, we must strive to adapt to the peculiarities and nuances of human behavior. And instead of complicity absorbing the corporate drive towards power and brand positioning, we must acknowledge the huge responsibility implicit in our work and constantly vocalize how our work supports humanity and the cultural landscape that surrounds us. We’ve built that cultural landscape, and we owe it to ourselves and to our work to tend to our creation as it morphs, changes and adapts. As you cringe from someone talking into a Bluetooth headset on the subway, or smile as a child and mother look at photos on their phone, realize that this technological culture is ours in the making. Both the bad and good are our ongoing fault and responsibility.

Interaction 10

If you want to meet Jon Kolko in real life: he is one of the keynote speakers at Interaction 10. It is the third annual conference hosted by the Interaction Design Association (IxDA). Each year, IxDA aims to gather the interaction design community to connect, educate, and inspire each other. This year it is held in Savannah, Georgia (USA).

Photos by: hipposrunsuperfast, Lord Jim & arquera

Jon Kolko

Jon Kolko is the Executive Director of Design Strategy at Thinktiv, a venture accelerator in Austin, Texas. Jon is also the Founder and Director of Austin Center for Design, an educational institution teaching interaction design and social entrepreneurship. Prior to joining Thinktiv, Jon has held positions of Principal Designer and Associate Creative Director at frog design, a global innovation firm. He was also a Professor of Interaction and Industrial Design at the Savannah College of Art and Design, where he was instrumental in shaping the Interaction and Industrial Design undergraduate and graduate programs. Jon has also held the role of Director for the Interaction Design Association (IxDA), and Editor-in-Chief of interactions magazine, published by the ACM.

76 comments on this article

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  2. Pingback: Putting people first » Our misguided focus on brand and user experience

  3. “Instead of control, we must focus on frameworks.”

    YES. It’s time for this. In fact, it has been time for this for quite a while. Glad to hear more people echoing the message.

  4. Wow. This might be among the most irresponsible articles I’ve read all year. Jon sets up UX as a boogeyman, but at no time does he define user experience, and his take on it runs totally contrary to how I, and all the other UX practitioners I know, practice it. In a desperate and pathetic attempt to elevate interaction design above and distinct from user experience, he has mischaracterized an entire field and those who work in it.

    My company, Adaptive Path, is a user experience firm. We’ve been talking about frameworks and giving up control since 2001 (http://www.adaptivepath.com/ideas/essays/archives/000501.php), and many of us have been doing so since before then.

    What’s more telling is that it has taken this long for the interaction design field, or at least, John Kolko, to come to understand what many of us have been propounding and practicing for at least a decade. So, for that, I welcome you into the pool. But please stop pissing in it.

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  6. Quick thought since you mention McDonalds as a commodity producer; prescribing a product and delivering. Wasn’t one of the big ways McDonalds initially won the fast food wars was to develop the children’s playground and combine that with a brand strategy of connecting their meals with kids (Happy Meal, toys, etc), knowing the combination of brand + [child] behavior would force a change of behavior in parents, as the kids would demand it. Later when they tried to change behavior in adults with the Arch Deluxe, instead of focusing on kids behavior, they failed miserably because it wasn’t rooted in their core values and they tried to break into a different market, but that’s a somewhat separate discussion. Anyway, I thought it was worth mentioning as I don’t believe they won only on brand or prescriptive product, but on some of the principles you mention in this article.

  7. Cennydd on

    There’s plenty of this article I applaud wholeheartedly, but I take serious issue with the straw men Jon uses to attack user experience. No UX designer I know “focuses on control as a means of generating revenue”. We do precisely the opposite. By recognising the diversity and variability of users, we build frameworks, systems and companies that put them first. Far from imposing design totalitarianism, good user experience offers its antidote.

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  9. I have to say that I agree with Peter. (That doesn’t happen that often, so note this day in your diary.)

    Jon has put forward a very distorted notion of user experience. If you look at the companies at the forefront of great experience design, none of them take the approach that they are designing something “for a person to experience” as Jon asserts. Neither Virgin America, Disney, Cirque du Soliel, Apple, nor Starbucks is about designing exact experiences.

    Instead, they ask an important question: what’s missing from the experiences of today’s products, services, and event? Then they start their design process by innovating in those areas — taking new perspectives and approaches to change the nature of the problem.

    The iPhone is a great example. The experience of a cell phone user was pretty cemented at the moment the iPhone appeared on the scene. It’s new approach to the problems of handheld smart communications technology changed the game. Now every competitor has an iPhone-like offering.

    Apple’s designers created a new experience for customers in that market. But they didn’t dictate the experience. They just added innovations that changed the behaviors and raised the bar.

    The problem with this article is that people will believe Jon’s definition of experience design and those of us who work as experience designers will now have to spend precious moments correcting the misconceptions instead of moving the conversation forward.


  10. Jon Kolko on


    Having worked with several of the companies you mentioned, I respectfully disagree with you. There is, in fact, a goal to be prescriptive and design exact experiences coming from within the Fortune 500, and it’s articulated to consultants like myself a lot. A great deal of our work is in helping clients see the value of a much more fluid approach to interaction design. When they buy into this more flexible approach, they tend to be much happier with the results (and reap much more of a financial benefit).


  11. Paul May on

    Wow. This is nonense.

  12. Paul May on

    Or rather, nonsense.

  13. Unlike some commenters, I’m proceeding with the assumption that the article is not a sekrit IxD plot to defame the UX community.
    Every time a label gets tossed around, people who have a strong sense of affinity with that label as part of their identity get bent out of shape. Especially if it may also affect their livelihood.
    I’m all for calling sacred cows into question, and questioning our assumptions: otherwise, what sort of designers would we be? That said, I suspect Jon has a different experience of the UX community than I do.
    For me, user experience design has always been about designing with an understanding of and respect for the user’s experience. But it’s never been about thinking I was actually designing the experience someone is having, through and through.
    In my 10+ years of this work, we’ve always focused on understanding the user’s context and the mental model they bring, and making sure interaction and architecture accommodate those expectations, and nudge people in one way or another by encouraging particular behaviors.
    That’s not to say that clients (including business leads, engineers & the traditional advertising/marketing culture) don’t do their best to engineer the user’s entire experience according to their assumptions and whims. But I’ve always thought the UX mission was to disabuse them of that notion — to create the right environment that hopefully suits everyone’s needs & desires in the best possible (possibly compromised) mixture of capabilities. Controlling the user, however, is precisely what I’ve always educated my clients against — because it’s not possible.
    The ideas in the article feel both too big for the article’s length, and too raw for public consumption — some further refinement is certainly due here. If it were a blog post saying “hey folks, here’s where my head is, what do you think” that would be one thing, but it comes across as a general pronouncement of TRUTH … hence the backlash.
    I look forward to seeing Jon push the rigor further here, and bring some genuine challenges for the UX perspective (if one could say there is single UX perspective) that really will help us evolve.

  14. @jon (particularly the response to @jared)
    Ah… so I think the distinction that needs making is that *clients* misunderstand UX, not that UX designers are the ones pushing this worldview. Or, at least, if you think UX designers are in league with their misguided clients, it’s worth pointing out these are the UX designers you have had personal contact with, but not necessarily all UX practitioners. (And, really, UX is still such a nascent, proto-meme in many ways, I’m not sure if it’s possible to paint it with even the broadest brush?)

  15. Jon Kolko on


    I don’t see a backlash – some people agree, and some disagree. I certainly don’t see the need to disagree with such vehemence as Peter’s tweet (calling the post both ignorant and idiotic), but to each his own.

    That said, I completely agree – the articles on the site are purposefully constrained to a small word count, and this is a larger topic than can be addressed in under 2000 words. However, it’s a topic that is not unique to me, and I can hardly claim it as my own.

    Eleven years ago, when I was learning about interaction design at Carnegie Mellon, I learned an empathetic approach to design that describes ecosystems, and services, and systems. It’s taken me at least this long to truly understand what that means – it’s one thing to say “I’m trying to help the user”, and then go about making products, systems and services that are generally easy to use. It’s another thing completely to truly empathize with someone’s situation, and it is this empathetic point of view that is negated by a focus on prescriptive experience creation.

    Frequently, the empathetic point of view leads to a true clash between consultant and client, and I’m proud to have clients that, more often than not, embrace and appreciate the debate that occurs due to this clash. They are using words of “experience design” and “UX” because they’ve been trained to, but they don’t really think about the substance that backs the terminology we use in design. And the way they use them IS prescriptive, and IS about control, and they DO say things like “I need to win on the customer experience front” and “I want customers to have this experience” and “When the customers have my experience…”

    Yet at the same time, I’m now having the same clients demand to hear more about the backing, and philosophy, and psychological underpinnings, and discourse around our work; what was previously deemed too “academic” for client work is now in demand. And so when these clashes occur, it can be an opportunity to describe in greater detail what empathy means in the context of design, and why it’s important.

    So in a roundabout way, I agree with you that this work is incomplete. I’m working these thoughts out too, and continue to on a daily basis. I don’t consider any medium relating to design to require a caveat of “truth” vs. “my aggregate experiences”, but please, append one here if you see fit.


  16. Jon, with all due respect, Fortune 500 companies are hardly a great measure for the quality of user experiences or the effectiveness of the profession. Perusing just the Fortune 10 alone, there are oil companies, American car companies, big banks, and, well, Wall-mart. These are not companies known for being great, but rather for delivering middle-of-the-road, homogenized experiences that work for the masses by riding the me-too rails of mediocrity. *Of course* you’ll find within these companies a desire for prescriptive experiences. It’s what makes them safe, and reliable.

    As a designer, you don’t go to Fortune 500s for your chance to do great work, you go there for big accounts.

    If you’re finding a tendency for prescriptive experiences permeating the ranks of the Fortune 500, consider for a moment who you’re working with rather than slamming a profession you clearly don’t understand.

  17. Jon Kolko on

    (And yes, I think you are partially right, that clients misunderstand design. But that misunderstanding is our own fault. We may ‘know what we mean’ if we say “I design experiences”, and we may completely mean “I design a framework to encourage people to have freedom to have meaningful relationships with my products”. But that’s not being translated to both clients and some “UX People”, and worse, it’s being absorbed as the prior, not the latter).

  18. Jon Kolko on


    Your first point is certainly valid, and the entire article is based on experiences as a consultant who works with big accounts in the F500. But to claim that these companies are irrelevant is pretty shortsighted. Arguably, these are the companies that can actually do massive things (good AND bad), simply due to their size.


  19. @jon I only meant that the medium and tone can give an impression one way vs another … context is tricky on the intertubes 😉 (I have to mention context online at least once a day; it’s an illness)

    As for the empathy thing, I agree there too. I wrote about that at B&A a while back: http://www.boxesandarrows.com/view/personas-and-the

    Now that I’ve read your responses, I think your ultimate point is quite valid — and what is really needed is a redoubled effort to educate the business world about how UX actually works, and re-frame it for them. Otherwise, they’re just taking a hatchet to the goose to dig out those golden eggs.

    It’s just semantics, really … UX as villain vs UX as misunderstood champion of empathy … but semantics is, alas, all we have in the ether.

    UX is good stuff, when done right. The same could be said of the more specific practice of interaction design, which is just as prone to corrupt perception as UX or anything else.

    And … thanks for putting your neck on the block for the rest of us to critique and take shots at 🙂

  20. Jon Kolko on


    Thanks for talking about it 🙂 It is indeed a great deal about semantic, but I don’t think it’s “just” semantics. I think the language choice is important, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which coincides with a goal Jared explicitly has – to get the profession of design respected in all walks of life, including business.


  21. @jon Ah… I should never say “just” before the word “semantics” — semantics are, indeed, pretty much everything.

  22. This is really insightful and interesting. I am not following where the perspective of User Experiencing \owning\ is coming from, however. This is not my experience as a professional and I have not seen evidence of this practice of UX in product development across my peer group. Am I alone?

  23. Ah, I had this article open since morning and had not seen all the other comments. I am not alone.

  24. Carolyn Snyder on

    As a longtime UX consultant, I don’t feel at all dissed by this article. The larger point is that the things we work on shape our culture, whether we like it or even recognize it, so the “deep responsibility” concept resonates with me. For each prospective project, I need to ask myself whether it will shape our culture in a way I agree with. As someone who’s ambivalent about most technology, I wrestle with this question.

    As us old farts have seen over and over, new technology often goes through a period of rampant misuse while we figure out what it’s actually good for. Back in the era of word processors and spreadsheets, the damage was slow to spread (via events called “releases”) and relatively confined, and egregious offenders could be reeled back in by their creators. That’s no longer the case – everything moves much faster, with many more people involved, some of whom haven’t paused to consider the implications of what they’re doing.

    Take the iPhone. It’s merely a platform, and as with all its predecessors it’s not inherently good or evil. Apps do change our behavior, but in ways that can be subtle. If I spend 10 minutes using my phone to keep up with my social network when I could have called my sister, is that good or bad? Out of context – and sometimes even within it – it’s nearly an impossible question.

    One thing that’s clear is that technology gives us many more choices about how we spend our time and money. The human animal is notoriously bad at making those choices in a rational way. Finding out what people need is great, but only a first step – we also have to think about the behaviors that could result from our solutions and even (this gets hard) what those behaviors might replace. But even if you only take it to the first level, once a designer recognizes that their work has an effect on people’s behavior, the responsibility sets in.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking article and comments – much more interesting than the work I should have been doing…

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  28. nice post Jon, a couple of things spring to mind beyond (and in response to) the comments above

    I like your ref to conversation – and the comments here certainly attest to the fact that you’re also building a conversation around this topic. One possibly useful way of thinking about conversation could be to borrow from Pask and frame conversation as:

    “coming to an agreement over an understanding”

    this resonates with me wrt the way you’re framing design as a behaviour changing practice, and also seems to describe the kind of response above (and just about any discussion I’ve seen with more than one designer when the UX unicorn/pinata gets raised)

    thinking about conversation thus, I’m moved to disagree with you on the topic of brand – but not quite as vehemently as some. Dialogue, conversation, opening up, reframing, shifting placements, these are all parts of the designers kit. If we take a longer view we can see that brands were invented to make tangible those aspects of a product that were ephemeral, fleeting, and hard to differentiate in the marketplace. In many ways brand is one early prototype for experience informed design, albeit hegemonic – or totally non-user-centered.

    But as Robert points out, that’s just the LOUDEST part of the brand discourse – there are aspects of the discourse around brand (particularly when you look at recent approaches to experience & service informed brand) that still carry the thread of “trying to make tangible that which otherwise is fleeting”.

    I’ll also think you’re trying to say at least two things in this article that are related but really deserve their own space:

    The UX conversation (here framed by brand) is one that I’d really like to see the community discuss more deeply than it currently does. Semantics can be seen as picky and irrelevant, and imho tend to bog these discussions down in spotting differences (or death by definition) but semantics are important as the means to help a community and profession understand what they do, learn to do it better and, in turn, better the world it helps create.

    the second thing I think you’re discussing here (Krippendorf would say designing, but more on that later) is one around artifacts and their role in changing behaviour. Of course the two are connected, but I (and others) believe this behaviour/artifact discourse is one that helps a community describe commonalities, and generate a wider sense of affinity with the practices of different professional cousins.

    I really feel that the gold in your discourse (both at a theoretical and practical level) is in discussing what it is we *do* rather than how we do it differently. Kinda like turning the design eye on the problem, and designing for the behaviour change you (and I) believe is needed in this weirdly immaterial yet strangely more physical century

  29. Ditto Peter and Jared. I think the view of UX in this article is fairly narrow, drawing a rough equivalence to simple interaction design. Though his article characterizes the central mission of UX as experience control and brand uniformity, open architectures are something UX specialists have been thinking about for a long time. A lot of the work in UX (as opposed to, say, marketing or visual design) has been towards taking the broader context of a user’s life and culture into account. The assertion that UX designers don’t “make the connection between their creations and the culture that surrounds them” simply isn’t true.

    The company I work for (= Bolt | Peters) recently did a remote user study for Sony, the findings of which showed the impressive extent to which users relied on external info sources while shopping online: dozens of review sites, other websites, comparison sites, and so on. As a result, we were able to convince their design team to incorporate 3rd party data from review sites into their own, which they had initially resisted since they *didn’t* have control over that external content. Once they saw how important it was for users to have a second opinion, however, they were more amenable to opening up the design. (Finding out this contextual info, incidentally, is the whole reason my company does remote user research, so we can see how people are using interfaces in a natural context.)

    UX design isn’t always trying to change or invent behavior; often, it’s simply accomodating an existing need that isn’t going fulfilled otherwise. And even the UX design that is trying to influence behavior isn’t necessarily trying to control it.

    The idea that UX as a field is somehow beholden to marketing and branding, while often *pragmatically* true in some corporate contexts, doesn’t mean that UX professionals are complicit in those efforts. I’ve written a bit about these issues here: http://boltpeters.com/blog/ten-ux-mistakes/

    This article also severely minimizes the role that the designed interface plays in shaping what users’ behaviors and expectations will be. The fact is, even if you *can* get your email through Trillian, most people still use the web client, and their familiarity with the way that interface works will shape their expectations about how other similar interfaces work. Think of all the search engines whose design has had to take Google and Yahoo’s original blueprints into account. Interaction is a conversation, sure, but so is the design process.

  30. I like the article even if it could use some further elaboration in some sections. I liked being reminded of the fact that our choices as designers in the end potentially can have huge cultural effects.

    To follow up on previous brainfarters words: http://twitter.threadless.com/product/1868/Having_an_iPhone_has_completely_changed_the_way_I_poop

    …and when we’re on the subject: I wonder if the crowd in a lukewarm jacuzzi would even take notice that someone else stepped in and took a piss in it?

  31. Jon,

    Thank you an interesting look at the politics and ethics of design. Whilst I mostly agree with your characterisation of interaction design and the importance of the practice in influencing behaviour, I disagree with your characterisation of UX – and brand for that matter – and it’s these that I’d like to discuss further.

    I’ll start with the caveat that I’m speaking partly based on experience, and partly based on theory. Your own experience – being different to my own – will provide you with a different perspective on these topics, which I respect. Having said that…

    I find your definition of both brand and experience design to be inconsistent with what I see in practice, and with what is taught in business schools today. The notion of control, and the notion of brand as an exercise in power, are not in line with what you would read in business publications such as Harvard Business Review, McKinsey Quarterly, or Strategy & Business. This is not uniformly the case: there are certainly still many articles writeen which speak to the power & control view of brand that you put forward. But I believe it is a partial and biased perspective: not the only, or even most prevalent view.

    Talking four weeks ago to an executive at a large financial services firm, he interrupted a colleague to object to the phrase “drive customer loyalty”. “No, that’s wrong. We don’t drive customer loyalty; we earn it.” That same message is repeated throughout the organisation.

    From the designer’s perspective you talk about ‘experiential ownership’, and we’ve spoken in the past of your dislike of the notion of ‘experience design’ as a conceit (you call it hubris above). I have not found this to be the case in my own practice, or as a dominant view amongst UX practitioners. There is a general humility – as far as the practice of design is concerned; God knows we have egos – in designing for an experience, rather than believing in our ability to prescribe one.

    But I would also argue that design is an exercise in intent, and that having an intended experience in mind should be distinguished from attempting to prescribe one for the person interacting with our design. This is necessarily the case even when designing frameworks within which an experience can occur: in order to design the framework we must have a destination in mind for which the framework exists. Frameworks are also – to a lesser extent – an exercise in control; they are just less tightly constraining than the designed experience you assign to UXD practitioners.

    Finally, I would argue that the illusion of control is just as present in other design endeavours – even that of interaction design – as you accuse UX design of displaying. Can behaviour be designed? Dialogue? Does not the person contribute to both in an unique way? Like UX, there will be some within the field of interaction design who do not recognise the illusion; and like UX it would be a disservice to the practice as a whole to tar all practitioners with the same brush.

    In all fields, to the extent that attempts at power and control are made through design – I agree with your proposition that the greater value comes through a more humble and service-oriented perspective. I think that, in our various roles within the design of artefacts, this is something we can all work at improving – through our practice and the education of our clients.


  32. Murray on


    In reading this article, I was agreeing with most of your statements but I was confused when I kept seeing UX thrown in there on the ‘side of evil’. Except for the ‘bad UX’ statements, in my experience UX folks are quite in alignment with the points you are making… and thus the heated, perhaps now cooling a bit, debate over the article so far.

    Some people definitely still hold onto the antiquated idea of a brand, and along with it attempt to control people’s experiences. It sounds like you’ve run into a few of them, as many of us have. But with all the people I’ve met calling themselves variants of ‘Interaction Designer’ or ‘User Experience Practitioner’, they’ve all basically been on the same page.

    Although I may be newer to the game than many, I feel a bond with both the IxD and UX communities, and I’ve never liked it when my friends fight.

    There’s been talk in the past about the semantics of ‘User Experience’ and ‘Interaction Design’. As Jeremy mentioned, semantics are important in defining a community and practice. Yet I believe it was a panelist in an Interaction ’09 session who said that people outside our little group really don’t care what we call ourselves. They just want things to work.

    So we should let each of us call ourselves what we want to call ourselves and set up whatever communities we like. This is going to keep changing. But let’s also realize where each of us is coming from and where we’re going is often very similar, and work together with that in mind.

    As with the article’s portrayal of UX, I’m finding that we (IxD and UX communities) also lump marketing into one ‘evil basket’. It hasn’t been mentioned yet, but would caution against this, too. Although there still seems to be more marketing folks still stuck in the ‘twentieth century marketing machine’, there are also some who are coming onto the same page as us. Instead of working for the dark side, in time marketing could prove to be our allies as well.

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  34. Jon Kolko on


    Your comment about your experience at the financial institution is dead-on in line with my experiences, and one of the most pressing issues I think I’m reacting against. The people at the very top of these large companies, generally, DO get it – they talk about earning customer loyalty, as you describe, as they’ve read Gary Hamel and Michael Schrage and all the other management books that seem to resonate as obvious with designers – to realize that people aren’t pawns to be moved around to suit their needs in a larger game of consumption.

    And I even think the large tiers of middle managers and individual contributors and UX designers and SMEs in these large companies realize realize it too, and are well intentioned. But again, in my experience, their language gives away the drastic bias you describe above.

    Driving customer loyalty. Owning the customer experience. Aligning customer touchpoints. This stuff isn’t just corporate jargon, as if it is repeated enough, people start to really believe it. And well intentioned or not, it starts to manifest itself in some pretty strange, often silly, and sometimes downright creepy ways.

    Visit Dell’s headquarters in Round Rock, Texas, outside of Austin, and you can’t miss them. Nearly every bulletin board in every office has a sign that reads “The Customer Experience: Own It.” Hanging above a set of cubicles — home to employees who sell computers to government accounts — is a gift-wrapped box labeled “the ‘Customer Experience.’ ” That label serves as a reminder that at Dell, bonuses and profit sharing are tied to what those three words signify. Thousands of employees wear a laminated photo ID around their neck that spells out the Dell mission: “To be the most successful computer company in the world at delivering the best customer experience in markets we serve.”

    Again – likely well intentioned at the level where strategic imperatives are penned, but I don’t want my experiences delivered. I want to have them, and I want to claim them for myself, along with my family and friends. I think most people do, too.

    http://informationarchitects.jp/can-experience-be-designed/ has a great take on this.

    Incidentally, Deloitte published a whitepaper called “Owning the Customer Experience” at http://www.deloitte.com/dtt/cda/doc/content/us_fsi_Customer%20ExperienceMay06(3).pdf but seems to have given the middle finger to the entire internet by taking the .pdf down and replacing it with a “legacy page – not found” 404. If anyone has it, I would love to read it.

    Thanks for the thoughtful response,

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  37. I’m going to skirt the ux/ixd debate here, which as interesting as it is, frustrates me. There are some interesting claims made in this article that I don’t fully understand. Big picture-wise, I’m confused about the power attributed to the object — especially in light of the focus we place on user experience. And I don’t get behavior change.

    Strikes me, and perhaps I’m missing something, that behavior change is attributed to the object designed and not to the user. Am I an extension of the object, and by extension, of the designer’s intent to influence, shape, structure or provoke my behavior? What is behavior change? Everything I do is behavior, and everything I do is change. If I buy an iPod, have I behaved, changed, changed my behavior? If I hadn’t bought it, would I then be behaving the same as before? I don’t see the logic here.

    And it seems to me that the opposition of commodity and branded experience is a false opposition. Commodities are defined here by their means of manufacture and production. And then branded experiences are distinct — but what’s the relation between manufacturing process and the user’s experience of an object well designed? That would suggest to me that there’s a world of commodities whose value lies in their utility but which are indistinct from one another because they’re just commodities. But the meaning we attribute to objects comes from many places — personal, social, contextual, signifying, tradition, and on and on. I attribute that meaning. It doesn’t issue forth from the product nor is it an extension of the designer’s intent.

    The designer’s work constrains and enables my experience with a product. Meanings associated with the brand can be attributed to too many points of origin for them to be in the control of a designer, marketer, or even brand manager. Senate hearings with US car manufacturers did more damage to the industry than any ad, design, price point, or even government subsidy program could rectify. Culture produces cultural meanings, media help to propagate social meanings, messages, images, and other associations. Social groups add their own class of social significations to the product or brand’s meaning and equity among peer groups. Utility has its place, too, as does performance/price ratio, functionality, reliability, and so on. The list is endless — and none of these attributes seem to me located within a product, nor directly expressed by design (in any stable way).

    In fact, it seems to me that products change often based on user behavior. Entire product lines and brands have developed to reflect their changing use and adoption by consumers. Consumers right now are changing the behavior of the music industry, the print journalism industry, mass media, and if we’re lucky, the natural resource industry. So I don’t get the causality assigned to the object.

    In my view, behavior change is not baked into an artifact, artifacts do not disseminate behavior change, and objects do not describe culture. Culture (whatever that is) disseminates objects, assigns significations, creates uses, contexts of use, and the possibilities for new and different uses, meanings, and objects. Culture is the demand for new products and experiences, and the designer, if she or he is perceptive, skilled, and talented, embeds those market perceptions into the next shiny new thing. Brand equity may then accrue on the basis of adoption, distribution, use, reputation, even desire. All mediated by communication and interactions among users and their peers, mediated by impressions and talk in which the product/brand are reflected. This is a dynamic that smart brands can participate in but which is far beyond any professional’s control.

    Culture describes artifacts and not the other way around. Smart brands participate in that dialog, but woe to those who think they know best. Better, I think, to side with the user than with the product. That’s the core value both interaction and user experience designers bring to the table.

    Just my two cents.

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  39. Thomas on

    You can’t change behavior without changing perception. I will adopt products and services if there is a perceived benefit over the existing product or service I am using. I’ll alter my behavior to take advantage of the benefits of the new behavior. To make the leap, the benefits must exceed the costs. If something is more expensive, I expect it to be faster, easier to use, or more reliable. The problem is that we have traditionally excluded issues like sustainability and empathy from the list of benefits. Only recently are people beginning to understand true cost economics. The only way to change perception is to change the dialog and stories around design. Conversations are shifting from form factors to issues or identity, purpose, and meaning. How we solve the problem is ultimately less important than what problems we are solving. Are we designing the fishing pole or are we creating the framework in which someone can learn to fish. My favorite example of this is the story of the tin-can radio designed by Victor Papanek. To keep costs to a minimum, Papanek allowed economics to play a greater role than aesthetics. The result was ridicule from his industry peers but empowerment for the impoverished communities he designed it for. Ultimately, the design found its power in the hands of the user beyond the mechanics of the designed object.

  40. Jon Kolko on


    You said “In my view, behavior change is not baked into an artifact, artifacts do not disseminate behavior change, and objects do not describe culture.” While obviously not as black and white as “it is” or “it isn’t”, I generally disagree, and I cite some great thinkers before me that have argued these points more eloquently than I can. Herb Simon touches on this in The Sciences of the Artificial, and Victor Margolin plays off the same theme in his The Politics of the Artificial. But the most poignant description of this, albeit fairly difficult to plow through, comes from an essay by Maurizio Vitta in Design Discourse, where he references Jean Baudrillard’s idea that “objects.. have lost all of their functional identity and are transformed into simulacra of themselves. They are reduced to empty forms.. they become merely informative instruments that constitute the language through which the social mechanism that produces them is expressed.”

    All of these are, of course, theories, as we are talking about the complexity of life – and so I would assume disagreement and shades of agreement run rampant.

    This exact discourse is the one designers should be having, even if it’s at the expense of a discussion around experiences or revenue.

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  43. xian on

    ok, so I guess my “brainfart” (what a clever site this is) would be to reflect on this comment from the author: “…the articles on the site are purposefully constrained to a small word count, and this is a larger topic than can be addressed in under 2000 words….” and wonder if there isn’t an inherent problem then with shoehorning a too-big topic into a too-small design constraint.

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  46. “The supposed new model is to design something for a person to experience, yet the allusion to experience is only an empty gesture. An experience cannot be built for someone.”

    I don’t think this is the new model Jon, it was perhaps. I agree that there are still lots of products that claim to elicit great experiences and all they actually do is add experiential layers that don’t match a user’s true values, attitudes or context. Nevertheless, I think most of us that are in this field, are trying to design specific interventions or product characteristics FOR experiences. So, yes, you cannot design an experience for someone, indeed not. This is all in the conversation/interaction you talk about. Therefore I do not really see the gap nor the big differences between UX and IxD that are claimed in the article and discussion.

    Love the discussion below the article btw.

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  48. Yes right now people are going crazy about branded products, Right from the needle to what they drive. But i the near future things will be different. Un-branded companies are coming up fast with products of great quality. So my suggestion is branded companies watch out.

  49. Norman on

    What is this? Frameworkers Guide to the Galaxy?

    Ironically, the author has masterfully controlled and colorfully framed (or is it “frameworked”) a very unpleasant reading experience. Perhaps if he would tend more to the rules of proper English prose and well-reasoned argument, he would better “adapt to the pecularities and nuances of human behavior.” As it is, he has chopped a forest of jargon and specious ideas, only to replant it with the finest example of equivocating mumbo-jumbo I’ve read in very long time.

    Although the article is chock-full of contradictory statements, equivocations, and outright nonsense, I will note only the absurdity of his main theme, which is this: that the future for designers and marketers lies not in “framing total control over a consumer” but in “emphasiz[ing] the value a company can provide in changing human behavior – the lasting, nuanced, intellectual, and deep responsibility we have to the culture we are building.” So, it’s not enough to control the experience of a consumer, we are responsible for building humanity!

  50. Jared on

    Good luck changing the world.

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  53. Jon,

    I totally agree with the thrust of your argument, but I think you’re overly harsh on brands as a structure of context (which is what they are). Brands are agents of culture far more than they are agents of commerce. They’re fundamental connections between producers who want to do good work and the end users who want to take those products and run with them. Brands were the original signs of product integrity. They pre-date marketing and mass-market advertising and were effectively hijacked by these two forces to serve their mass persuasion and mass manipulation agendas.

    What you want to happen in terms of positive behavioral outcomes can efficiently and elegantly be delivered by brands, once we liberate brands from the monetizing hand that has crippled them.

    I totally agree with you that any discussion of brands must be about behavioral outcomes, not brands as symbols, myths, messages, “mindshare” or “experiences.” Brands have the power to generate highly positive customer outcomes, but the conventional brand approach typically reduces brands to stylized sales stimulants. Instead of being a means to create customers, brands are rolled into a persuasion package where the only desired outcome is a sale. This approach treats customers as commodities, purely “to be sold to.” (Code name: “consumer.”) Result: low-value outcomes and brands of mediocrity.

    We can, however, define positive behavioral outcomes for brands, within a strategic brand model.

    I’d suggest the following as a basic brand outcome: a brand must make the customer “better off” than if the customer purchased a mere commodity. Otherwise, what good is the brand? What value does it deliver? “Better off” means that the customer is further empowered, able to be more proactive, and further advanced along his/her desired path via the brand. A quality guarantee is a simple brand step that enhances product value. More powerful steps create behavioral outcomes. The iPod and iTunes brands enable us to lead more musical lives.GarageBand goes even futher. A customer should be able to be more, and to do more, through the brand. Brands should be springboards for customer growth, discovery, expression and opportunity.

    Instead of a persuasion model of brands we can use an enabling model. In an enabling framework the “brand” is a set of creative, intellectual, aesthetic and sensory layers that advance the customer beyond what the product proper can deliver. (And beyond what competitors can offer.) Buy a Weber barbecue and you get a multi-year warranty, loads of recipes, a website full of outdoor living ideas, and a long list of the spare parts to keep the product functional in years to come. The brand brings the product to life, in the fullest sense.

    This enabling model of brand is also a co-creation model of brand. The brand creatively teams with customers to develop better products that 1) move customers forward and 2) advance the business in ways that competitors can’t match.

    All this means that we can now envision brands in a new light, where the brand is Company Potential X Customer Potential. The brand mission is to unlock value, not to persuade or control. The controlling model of brand only helps those companies who can’t (or won’t) innovate. (Brands belong in the innovation department, not the marketing department).

    This new vision of brands is not goody-goody fluff stuff. It’s strategic to the core. It creates the customers who can drive the business forward. These are customers who can add value back to the brand as market-creating allies. They’re part of a brand ecosystem, helping the brand create competitive advantage over other brands myopically focused on “selling.”

    Strategically, the brand team adds the power of culture to a company, creating new ways to add value and advance customers. This is one reason why Apple can run rings around PC makers, Microsoft, the music industry, telcos and handset makers. All those are dedicated marketing companies that aim to control or contain their customers. In contrast, Apple products incarnate a superior culture that enables customers to jump containment and make deeper connections with the world around them.

    So where does all this leave brands? I’d argue that we have to stand back and look at the really big picture, to wit: Brands are tools that enable customers to interoperate with the universe. The genius of brands is that they have no limits. The value of brands is that through them, customers have no limits.

    My takeaway from your post is that in this vision it’s designers–rather than marketers or manipulators–who will be called upon to lead. I would certainly agree.

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  55. Jon Kolko on


    You said, “Brands are agents of culture far more than they are agents of commerce. They’re fundamental connections between producers who want to do good work and the end users who want to take those products and run with them.”

    I’ve never thought of a brand that way, and it’s a great way of framing the phenomenon – as an agent of culture, or as a result of and definition of cultural norms. Completely agree with your entire post, particularly the line that says “a brand must make the customer “better off” than if the customer purchased a mere commodity”. I would rephrase and perhaps extent that to say that a brand must make the customer better off than if they hadn’t purchase the branded thing in the first place – that would obviously define the value of the brand and the artifact, service, or item.

    It seems as if we’ve come far enough that we can start to define, categorize, and better rationalize value – and hold branded offerings up to a higher set of standards. As an example, a brand may strive to provide utilitarian value of “clean clothes”. Another brand may strive to provide a brand promise (yuck) of “an interconnected you”. And a final might provide cleaner water. A great deal of business training would claim that we shouldn’t judge one against another, as we would be comparing apples and oranges.

    I think we should start to judge one against another. I think we should start to call bullshit on a brand that offers incremental value, as compared to a more fundamental improvement.

    I love my Weber grill, by the way. I love it because it was my dad’s, and he had it in college. It’s rusty, falling apart, didn’t come with any recipes, and I have no lasting connection with the Weber brand. But it’s a damn good grill.

    Thanks for a really thoughtful response.

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  61. Having worked with several of the companies you mentioned, I respectfully disagree with you. There is, in fact, a goal to be prescriptive and design exact experiences coming from within the Fortune 500, and it’s articulated to consultants like myself a lot. A great deal of our work is in helping clients see the value of a much more fluid approach to interaction design. When they buy into this more flexible approach, they tend to be much happier with the results (and reap much more of a financial benefit).

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  74. Matt Reiswig on

    This is still a great article. Relevant, insightful, thought-provoking. I’m just sayin’.