Is Good User Experience a Luxury?

Consider the scenario of two tools. Each accomplishes the same task or job. The first tool, though it will complete the task, is frustrating to use and takes a longer time. The second tool, on the other hand, is easy – even fun – to use and accomplishes the task in less time. It is also more beautiful. Which tool is better designed? Which tool is used more? Which tool would you choose if given the choice?

No one would choose to use the first tool if they had the option to use the second. In the real world, however, choice is often dependent on means. Only an ascetic would choose to fly coach if there was no cost difference to fly first-class. Both seats in the airplane go to the same destination, but one is more enjoyable. Higher cost often equals a better experience (assuming that the option of air travel can be afforded in the first place).

Does it follow that good user experience is a luxury? Yes and no. The answer is partly dependent on the task or job at hand. Is that task or job a necessity or a luxury to complete? What constitutes a necessary task? In moments of true necessity – when need is present and options are scarce – user experience doesn’t matter. Anything that will meet the need will be used. As the Proverbs say: “to one who is hungry everything bitter is sweet.” 1

But what constitutes true necessity? Food, shelter and water are certainly the most basic of human needs. Beyond survival, is all else luxury? Perhaps the answer is yes in the strictest of senses. However, there is a difference between mere human survival and human flourishing. What does it take for a human being to flourish? Is it intrinsically human to need experiences of joy and beauty?

As designers in affluent western society, where does the responsibility of our design rest? Is it to design necessities or luxuries? We certainly have designed a lot of toys, but is this wrong? I’m uncertain of the answers. However, I do have a deep conviction that designing for the joy, beauty and good experience of our fellow human beings is a worthwhile endeavor. When the goal of our efforts is to see other people flourish – even if only in some small way – it’s effort well spent. It’s an effort of love.