User experience design definition

User experience (UX), as a part of the field of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), was first mentioned by Dan Norman (Norman et al., 1995), who proposed adding a qualitative perspective to HCI products and put the product’s user in focus.

UX is defined as perceptions and responses of users that result from the use (or anticipated use) of a system, product, or service (ISO 9241-210:2019), ranging from a person’s experiences in the supermarket to reading a book, using a faucet or a mobile application.

Designing for this experience is the field of user experience design (UXD), where creators of the product try to anticipate the best experience for users. This is usually done by research and/or having previous experience in designing high-quality products, which are intuitive for users to use. Even though the term UXD is, following the ISO definition, found in many fields (such as the above-mentioned market experience design or book experience design), the term is mostly used in connection to digital artifacts, i.e., mobile applications, desktop software, and websites. These products, and their implications for ethics are the focus of this project.
User Experience Example
A simple example of user experience is the way a person uses a door. This experience can be user-friendly if, for example, the door is clearly signposted with a direction to ‘Pull’ (or ‘Push’). If there is no clear direction on the door, opening it is a process of trial and error, which might seem trivial when it comes to doors, but is an example of how poor user design can be an annoyance that takes up people’s time.
User Experience Design Example
Based on the previous example, UXD is how the designer will think about making the door easy to use and how they will execute it. That is, by creating a well visible and universally readable sticker that will direct the user to pull or push the door.

Beneficial and harmful effects of UXD

UXD artifacts (websites, mobile applications, software) have become part of our daily lives, and are deeply ingrained in how we perceive the world, communicate with each other,  organize our lives, and how we enjoy and entertain ourselves, among other experiences. While some people may interact with digital artifacts more than others, it is almost impossible for any of us to completely avoid them, as mobile phones and computers have become ubiquitous. We are often presented with solutions that should supposedly make our lives easier, such as writing a scientific paper in a ‘user-friendly’ interface or using an ‘easy-to-use’ calendar, so we do not forget our appointments. But unfortunately, we are often confronted also with a more negative and exploitative side of UXD, as artifacts may abuse our privacy, track us, and manipulate us through the knowledge of how our mind works. There is thus a pressing need to talk about ethics in the field.

The following sections will describe some of the benefits the field of UXD brings to people and some of the harmful effects it can have.
Examples of beneficial UXD
Cognitive offloadingOne of the beneficial functions of UXD is cognitive offloading. In cognitive science, this term relates to “the use of physical action to alter the information processing requirements of a task to reduce cognitive demand” (Risko & Gilbert, 2016, p. 677). Physical action in UXD would be using an application or software to ease the cognitive demand on a person. Examples include calendar applications, reminder applications, and websites that store information, among others. It is a way to offload cognition into-the-world to eliminate the need for an internal representation (Risko & Gilbert, 2016). For example, by storing an appointment in the calendar application, one could rely on it remembering and reminding about the event, leading to less potential anxiety (that one could forget an event) and no need to have to remember it oneself.

The possibility of cognitive offloading could be beneficial especially for people with impaired cognitive abilities. It also has important practical implications in education, where students could benefit from UXD artifacts to alleviate their cognitive load (Risko & Gilbert, 2016).

Offloading – Prospective memory
Prospective memory involves carrying out an intended action(s) at an appropriate time or circumstance in the future. If a person needs to remember to perform a particular action at a given time, such as having a meeting at a certain time in the future, this is referred to as time-based prospective memory; if a person needs to remember to perform a specific task or set of tasks in appropriate circumstances in the future, this is called event-based prospective memory (McDaniel & Einstein, 2007). Both versions are referred to as intention offloading; a person offloads the responsibility onto the environment to create triggers for delayed intentions (Gilbert, 2015). UXD artifacts such as reminder mobile or desktop applications, where users can write down tasks they have to perform at a certain point in the future, or calendars where people write down future appointments, could help users retain more information than is possible by their human memory. More examples of artifacts that act as these kinds of extensions are navigational applications, timers, alarm clock applications, and task management applications, among others. The more prominent advantages of offloading parts of one’s cognition to external artifacts could be easing the load on the limited capacity of human memory and representations being more durable and less prone to distortions than those stored internally (Gilbert, 2015).

Offloading – Transactive memory
In transactive memory systems, knowledge is distributed across two or more individuals in a way that a system as a whole knows more than any individual (Peltokorpi, 2008). Recent research extends this notion to human-technology transactive systems (Risko & Gilbert, 2016), which takes into account UXD artifacts such as websites of knowledge or search engines. Through these artifacts, knowledge is easily accessible, and these platforms act like an external memory source that one can access at any time.

Learning & motivationAnother area where UXD artifacts can be beneficial is in learning and motivation. For example, language learning mobile and web applications can have a positive effect on vocabulary acquisition and listening comprehension skills (Rosell-Aguilar, 2016). Generally, learning mobile and web applications have been shown to have great potential in augmenting traditional learning, e.g., medical students use them to search for complex information such as drug guides, or they can be used to support trainee doctors to provide information when a senior doctor is not available and thus potentially providing enhanced patient care (Kamel Boulos et al., 2014). To further expand the possibilities of traditional learning, UXD products such as online learning platforms provide easily accessible databases and enable students to learn at any time or anywhere and easily communicate with peers and instructors, all of which are shown to enhance studies (Shuib et al., 2015a). Online learning platforms and online video applications have also proven useful, for example, when the global pandemic forced people to study and work from home.

To additionally motivate users, designers have commonly used techniques of gamification, which is a design approach that introduces game elements such as achievement badges, levels, and competitive elements to attract and create a game-like experience (Hamari et al., 2014). This approach has been shown to make some tasks more enjoyable and support certain human needs, such as the need for competition and a sense of achievement and thus potentially increase motivation (Tang & Zhang, 2018).

HealthUXD artifacts in the healthcare area are thought to have positive benefits for people who struggle with health issues. Research shows that mobile applications could help people with obesity to lose weight by playing games in augmented reality (Cicció & Quesada, 2017) or simply by helping them track and monitor their food intake (Kamel Boulos et al., 2014). The latter function could also help people with diet restrictions, such as ketogenic diets for people with epilepsy.

Mobile applications also show potential in supporting people with addictions by providing emotional and instrumental support (McTavish et al., 2012) and it is suggested that they could generally improve treatment and motivation (Kamel Boulos et al., 2014). Other areas of health where UXD artifacts are thought to be supportive are mental health issues (Sucala et al., 2017; Zhang et al., 2015), dementia, asthma (Kamel Boulos et al., 2014), autism (Fabri & Andrews, 2016), rehabilitation (Wang & Zheng, 2018). They can also help track a person's daily activity levels, keep track of women’s menstrual cycles, track sleep, noise exposure or maintain clinical documents.

CommunicationCommunication artifacts have become essential parts of our lives, and new ways of communication have changed the way we communicate (Margolis, 2015). The increased speed and ease of communication has brought many potential advantages. Products such as email and messaging applications are not only beneficial in day-to-day communication, but also support the optimization of the processes in fields like medicine. For example, one study has shown how hospital communication through an encrypted message application contributed to the reduction in outpatient visits and unnecessary referrals as well as improved care of major burn injuries through more effective prehospital communication (Martinez et al., 2018).

Interpersonal relationshipsSocial media applications and other websites facilitate connections among people with health issues, such as anxiety, schizophrenia, depression, diabetes, chronic pain, and autism spectrum disorders (Kuo et al., 2014; Merolli et al., 2013, 2014; Välimäki et al., 2016). Because of the potentially stigmatizing nature of their disease, they may find it easier to share concerns about their disease and support each other online rather than in person as interacting online gives them a layer of confidentiality (Primack & Escobar-Viera, 2017). Social media also has the potential to form bonds, especially around emotional concerns, and it is also used for forming peer to peer relationships in young adults, an important task in their development (Primack & Escobar-Viera, 2017).
Examples of harmful UXD
Addictive behavior and mental healthIt has been suggested that using UXD artifacts could result in addictive behavior and dependence, which could lead to problems such as emotional stress, damaged relationships, and attention deficit disorder (Shuib et al., 2015b). Further, stimulating experiences can sometimes lead to uncontrolled use, despite negative repercussions on one’s personal and social life (Noë et al., 2019). Good examples of stimulation from UXD are social media applications that are designed to make users prolong their usage. For example, some designs include infinite scrolling interfaces that lack any stopping cues while others encourage users to return via notifications to check who liked their picture or see the latest news (Noë et al., 2019). This and other functions of UXD artifacts could lead to excessive attention to artifacts, uncontrolled dedication, and a preoccupation with them, which are all factors of possible addictive behavior (Coyne et al., 2019). Although the APA (American Psychiatric Association) has not yet included smartphone or internet addiction in their official list of mental disorders (in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-5), the phenomena have been highly researched and suggested correlations between addiction and excessive and uncontrolled use of smartphones and UXD artifacts (Coyne et al., 2019; Trowbridge et al., 2018). Furthermore, it has been suggested that artifacts like social media could contribute to or worsen mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, sleep, and eating disorders (Coyne et al., 2019). Fear of missing out or need for a physical touch could result in excessive use of mobile phones and thus worsen pre-existing mental disorder conditions (Elhai et al., 2016).

MemoryWith the ongoing development of UXD artifacts such as search engines and other databases, we have constant access to information, and in just a few short steps, we can get solutions to complex mathematical tasks or answers to natural phenomena we are curious about. Offloading transactive memory into this human-technology relation nowadays enables us to offload much more of what we were storing internally before the invention of the internet. Although digital databases help us alleviate our cognitive load because we do not have to remember everything, there are also, arguably, potential downsides to overuse and reliance on them. Research shows that people are more prone to remember where to find specific information rather than knowing it, or that they tend to forget items that they think will be available externally and remember those  they think are not (Sparrow et al., 2011). One could say that these are positive effects of offloading transactive memory, however concerns could be raised that our relationships with technology are becoming overly symbiotic to the extent that our own cognition, such as memory and attention, is being altered by them. It has been suggested that people who grew up with internet technology, also known as ‘digital natives,’ display different cognitive profiles to ones that adopted it later in life, called ‘digital immigrants.’ Digital natives were shown to gravitate towards shallow information processing, have increased distractibility and poor executive control abilities, which could lead to structural changes in the brain (Loh & Kanai, 2016).

Distraction and attentionResearch has suggested that UXD artifacts could affect attention; they can act as a distraction from daily tasks like working, studying, or simply living and even become hazardous, creating potential collisions while walking or driving. Social media tends to provide interruptions (especially because of its mobility) and could therefore be associated with multitasking (Primack & Escobar-Viera, 2017), i.e., divided attention. This kind of interrupted attention has been associated with negative cognitive outcomes, e.g., where two or more tasks are performed simultaneously, performance on the tasks is worse when they are performed together versus when they are performed separately (Farmer et al., 2018). Furthermore, multitasking has been related to decreased ability to sustain attention, poor academic performance, decreased subjective well-being, a higher level of depression and anxiety (Primack & Escobar-Viera, 2017), and deficient self-regulation that could lead to addictive behavior (David et al., 2015).

When it comes to artifacts affecting drivers, it has been shown that if a driver is checking their phone apps while driving, their visual information processing is delayed, which could be a great contributor to car accidents (Ishida & Matsuura, 2001). It has also been shown that drivers who used mobile phones missed more red lights than drivers without distractions (Strayer & Johnston, 2001). Besides drivers, accidents caused because of distractions are shown to be very high also among pedestrians, causing injuries like concussions, fractions, or sprains (Nasar & Troyer, 2013).

Privacy, tracking, and psychological targetingUXD can affect a person's privacy by, for example,  creating artifacts that track their activity while using it or collecting digital footprints, such as comments and likes, or even performing background experiments based on user’s behavior. It is known that private companies generate a lot of money from the collection, use and sale of personal data and data brokers collect user information gathered from social media and other footprints to sell for marketing purposes (Beake, 2014). If one knows the unique psychological characteristics and motivations of a person, this can be used for psychological persuasion, such as influencing a person to vote for a specific candidate, buy a certain product more often or click on advertisements tailored to them (Matz et al., 2017). Therefore, creators can design their artifacts in a way that takes advantage of this kind of knowledge. To further make UXD artifacts more attractive and usable, user experience designers experiment with techniques such as A/B testing, where different versions of an artifact are shown to different people and their behaviour is then tracked to see which variation is more effective at transforming them into customers. These experiments usually take place in the background without a user’s knowledge and have been shown as successful in political campaigns, using images or buttons that were, after testing, shown to have the greatest success (Siroker & Koomen, 2013).

Malicious user experience and user interfaceThe benefits of user experience design are often directed towards someone else’s end than the users’ (e.g., artifact originator).. In this section, I will describe some of the malicious techniques where user experience designers (or other agents) implement deceptive functionality that is not in the best interest of users.

Exploiting pre-attentive processing by distraction
This refers to attracting the user’s attention away from their current task by exploiting perception, particularly pre-attentive processing (Conti & Sobiesk, 2010).  In a user interface, this can be achieved by using movement (blinking or moving content, especially advertisements), distracting audio, intense hues, colors, and size (tricking users into clicking a prominent red button), to name a few (Gray et al., 2018).

Manipulative navigation
Information architecture that is supposed to guide the user towards the designer’s goals (Conti & Sobiesk, 2010). For example, paid subscription screens that appear in freshly installed applications, even though a free version is available.

Sneaking and lying
Hiding or disguising important information from the user. The intention is to make users perform an action that they might object to if they had knowledge of it (Gray et al., 2018). The most common example is continuing a subscription without informing the user, or presenting users with free trials and not informing them when the subscription will start. Another example is disingenuous behavior, such as sneaking things into the basket, installing additional software one did not ask for, or advertising a monthly price for a product while switching to a yearly price at the checkout (Conti & Sobiesk, 2010; Gray et al., 2018).

Hiding desired information (Conti & Sobiesk, 2010); for example, when one tries to cancel a subscription or delete the account, the user’s desired options are light grey, and the button for continuing the subscription is red and big.

Infinite scrolling
Presenting content as ‘never-ending,’ i.e., lacking any stopping cues, which could lead to prolonged usage of the artifact (Noë et al., 2019).

Spreading false informationSearch engines and social media allow us to find information quickly and easily. However, there’s no guarantee this information will be true. Serious examples of this include the spreading of false beliefs on the way vaccinations work and their effects on people, stating false facts on certain health risks, or generally nurturing false beliefs about diseases, symptoms, treatment, and prevention (Wu & McCormick, 2018). |There are also many false news reports in media with fabricated, misleading, or negligently written content; reasons for false reporting could be simple accidental mistakes, negligent reporting, or planned, strategic manipulation (Vos et al., 2019).

CyberbullyingWhile UXD has given users the ability to exercise their freedom of speech, this ability is a double-edge sword. The ability to be anonymous or partially hidden means that there is a heightened opportunity for harmful action.  The phenomenon of cyberbullying can include posting derogatory comments, posting humiliating pictures, or threatening someone electronically. Cyberbullying goes one step further from regular bullying because it can reach an  unlimited audience, and visible actions can remain in place for long periods of time (Kowalski et al., 2014; Nixon, 2014). The most affected groups are adolescents (Craig et al., 2020), and there have been reported increased depressive effects, loneliness, suicidal behavior, anxiety, and other somatic symptoms (Nixon, 2014).

Thin line between beneficial vs. harmful user experience design

Sometimes it appears that a certain feature of UXD can be both beneficial and harmful. For example, having an option to offload part of one’s memory could help a person be reminded of things but it could make them addicted to some of the functions. Therefore, it is difficult to draw a strict line between the beneficial and harmful parts of UXD. It is also difficult to predict what effects some functions have on people before the artifact is present on the market for some time. However, as there are reactions to one’s product that appear to be consistent (such as adverse effects of infinite scrolling) among people, one can say that certain products are potentially harmful, which implies an obligation to act responsibly.

The need for ethics in the field

As a graphic designer and a user experience designer myself, I observed that designers often could not be very picky about which projects they want to work on. Because of monetary reasons and the need to gain experience, they sometimes (and very often at the beginning of their career) need to accept projects that are not necessarily in line with their moral values. Design can often  serve a manipulative function by attracting people with pleasing aesthetics but this does not necessarily mean the product itself is good or is without (intentionally) harmful effects. Design and marketing agencies often appear, in my experience, to preserve themselves with repetitive and overly manipulative designs, and I often felt that questions about morality or ethics were missing from the process. The same lack of ethical inquiry also goes for certain clients that hire freelance designers and treat them as a tool of the client’s commands, putting the look of a product above anything else. This mode of work often fails to appreciate the designers’ experience and professional opinion when it comes to design.

It has become almost a cliche among designers that they are told by their clients to ‘make my logo bigger’ or ‘what you did isn’t interesting for users’. The problem comes when this obsession with aesthetics comes at the expense of a carefully curated design that doesn’t unnecessarily expose users to any harm.

It is crucial that the process of design, from both the client and designer side, become more aware of these issues and move away from the current paradigm which often rewards ignorance, especially in markets that reach millions of people and products that affect people’s daily lives and routines. As I described in detail in this subpage, in addition to being manipulative, artifacts can often contribute to addictive behavior and violate privacy if it means that their creators may gain financially. This kind of disregard for people’s well-being would be prohibited and punished in many other fields such as medicine or psychotherapy where practitioners might lose their licence if they knowingly put clients in harm's way. Unfortunately, we cannot say the same for the field of UXD or design in general.