Good user experience design is like chicken-sexing

23 July 2006

To paraphrase Jared Spool, who gave the closing keynote at webvisions (2006), designing compelling user experience is something that can be learned, but there's no good understanding of how it works. To illustrate this phenomenon, Jared refers to chicken-sexing. You can read up on it, but the basic idea is that to run a cost-effective chicken farm, you need to know the gender of the chicks about 2-3 weeks before any known mechanized process can successfully do so. The solution is to rely on professionals that watch the chicks go by and identify them as male or female.

Consider the ipod and netflix as two examples of compelling user experience despite, according to Jared, the former having inferior technology compared to competitor offerings and the latter not having any brick-and-mortar storefronts or any customer service other than through their website. Even so, the ipod is wildly more popular than any other portable music player, and Netflix membership dwarfs that of Blockbusters recent through-the-mail dvd rental service.

Obviously, there is great advantage to being able to learn good user experience design. And that was one of Jared's main points. It can be learned. This is supported by current research. Consider an article in the August 2006 issue of Scientific American, "The Expert Mind". Research into chess masters indicates that there is little actual contribution by "talent". Rather these folks' mastery consists primarily of categorizing a huge amount of knowledge of fruitful moves given the configuration of piece on the board.

Effortful study is the key to achieving success in chess, classical music, soccer and many other fields. New research has indicated that motivation is a more important factor than innate ability.

One key to effortful study is constantly pushing yourself to reach just beyond your current abilities. This is good news for those of us who have never felt we are natural born chicken-sexers.