The Limits of UI for UX

One of the advantages of being a professional designer for many years is that I’ve seen a lot of changes to the field over time. Some good—I haven’t had to wax a galley of phototype for a layout since the 80s—and some not. The industry today talks a lot about user experience and user interaction on digital devices as if the two were a manifestation of the digital realm. That’s not true though we didn’t call them that back in the day, we simply designed with the user in mind.

Today, UX and UI are design terms for digital screens—how elements are navigated, presented, and used in a digital world. While they’re crucial to developing useful digital products, they’re limited as to their scope. Colors, fonts, sizes, navigation all are important but, ultimately, the user is interacting on a single, slick, rigid rectangular glass surface. While the size and weight of the device will change, ultimately, the experience is the same on many levels. On an iPad, reading a copy of War and Peace and watching Fox News is, in many ways, a similar experience.

In the past, the physical heft of War and Peace, the turning of the pages, the density of the type, the feel of the book in hand all added to the experience. Designers chose their fonts with care for legibility, historical significance, economy, among other reasons. The paper needed to be thick enough to block show-through yet not so thick that the book becomes too weighty. How a page flexed was considered an art. Covers—particularly for hard-bound books—were especially important. A dust jacket, used to promote the book in a bookstore, often hid unique cloth-bound spines that were simple and elegant but felt perfect in hand.

Even the smell of a book was special, whether it was fresh ink from a new printing or a slightly musty classic from the local library. All of these added to the user experience but, sadly, today’s UX and UI designers don’t have these tools to work with.

As for watching the news, it used to be a family ritual, not a private one. We’d sit in our living rooms with others watching the news, discussing our opinions as the small and grainy screen flickered the broadcast. These were authoritative figures, real journalists, not entertainers telling us what our network wants us to hear to make us buy the advertisers’ products. These were honest people, trusted, telling facts to Americans in their living rooms. The interface was a rotary dial to change channels or a primitive remote control. The console was a piece of furniture across the room. At night, the lights were dim and, in winter, a fire would burn. These were part of our collective user experiences, not all of which could be designed, of course.

Today, when we speak of UI, we often talk of pixel density, nomenclature, color, architecture, and the elements that can be displayed on a glass-fronted tablet. But from a user experience perspective, that’s really very limited. While I’m not suggesting a return to 640x480 broadcast resolution on a cathode-ray screen, I hope one day our user experiences can include a broader engagement of our senses.

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