Reflections on UX from a low-vision designer

Last week, I was digging through notes and assignments from my time spent at the University Washington, where I learned Human Centered Design and Engineering from some of the best UX practitioners and researchers in the Pacific Northwest. In one of the folders, named “User Experience Design”, I found a final reflection paper that I will never forget.

The essay was written and submitted during a difficult time of my life. During the quarter, I found out that I had lost most of my peripheral vision to glaucoma. After an amazing group project, months of diligent research, and a significant surgery, I learned what User Experience Design really means to me and the people who are affected by my work.

I’d like to share this reflection with you here.

During my undergraduate education, I have become enveloped in the study of human-computer interaction. Through my studies in mathematics, software development, and design, I have found that ubiquitous computing will lead to success in art, science, and education. People use artifacts every day. Those that are significant are ones that provide practical and navigable solutions to problems provided by their users.

As a Human Experience Designer, I generate such solutions.

My established experience in technical support has given me a user-oriented perspective to design and communication. By continuing to investigate users of technology, I have become better able to create user-focused solutions in my academic, artistic, and professional careers. Since returning from my study abroad program in Budapest, Hungary, I have exited the realm of enterprise IT — focusing on design and development part-time at a Seattle startup. My work as the sole User Experience Designer of this company, along with my experience in this class has led me to following definition:

User Experience (UX) is the compilation of moments which comprise a human interaction during the time spent in a given space.

In this definition, I use the word “space” by its formal definition in scientific terms — “the dimensions of height, depth, and width within which all things exist and move.” This general description provides a basis for understanding the coherence between a human experience and a user experience. It is within this space that I will establish my vocation as a Human Experience Designer and relate it to the field of UX as a whole.

I consider myself to be a creative individual. My music, writing, and software applications provide me with alternative ways to communicate my understanding of the world. I have developed these interests during my time spent at the University of Washington and continue to pursue them as I enter the startup and corporate world. My abilities to manage projects at a high-level, along with my studies of human cognition, have led me to a deeper understanding of the functions and flow of human technical systems. These systems are comprised of people, interacting with artifacts in the real and digital world, in order to reach a particular goal or accomplish a specific task.

It is within these goal-oriented constraints that I design. For instance, in the project that my team worked on this quarter, we developed a system to help people gain access to their home. In the past, this system was based around the reliance on a key, which had to be kept with the person at all times. After identifying our stakeholders and personas, our team decided that the manipulation of the key itself was a significant pain-point in the user’s flow of reaching their goal. In our designs and iterations, we carefully balanced the familiar and trusted approach of the current key-and-lock system with the novel and unfamiliar approach of an electronically-available method of access. I believe that we developed within these constraints well — ensuring that our system brought peace-of-mind to our users through descriptive access management, a series of familiar interactions, and a workflow which eliminated the pain of using a physical key to protect our user’s belongings.

Designing based on user goals is not a new concept for me; but, since taking the time to reflect on what I have learned throughout this course, the idea has been cemented into my mind as a highly useful approach to all facets of design. Along with garnering a deeper understanding for the design process, this course has taught me how to become more aware of the problems that exist within everyday life. As designers, it is our responsibility to look at the world and see the pains that others suffer. We have the ability to alleviate these pains through our work and, with the help of a notebook or a computer, we can use our practice to build a better world for all.

On my website I state, “Every experience can be designed from the workflows of a business to the paths of a forest.” In this lofty statement, I believe I have displayed what User Experience Design means to me. In essence, a user experience is simply a human experience that we are able to manipulate with our current technology. Every moment we exist comprises our human experience, but those moments which can be controlled using a particular technology is, what I believe to be, the focus of this field. Therefore, in order to extend my work outside of this field and into the realm of endless possibilities, I define myself as a Human Experience Designer. I do this not to separate myself from other UX professionals, but rather to allow myself to think outside of the constraints of today’s vision of a “user experience.”

Along with what I have learned about my aspirations, I have also come to understand my limitations throughout this quarter. Before leaving for Budapest, I had a minor operation on my right eye to reduce the inflammation that was obscuring my vision. Since returning from the program, I have consulted with American doctors to continue investigating my unclear vision. Since then, I was diagnosed with glaucoma along with a significant loss of my peripheral vision. Unfortunately, there is no way to recover the vision I have lost and, to reduce the amount I may lose in the future, I will be undergoing surgery. As a digital native with an eye for document, web, and user interface design, I am deeply saddened at my loss of one of my most valuable senses.

Throughout the quarter, I have been dealing with the physical and emotional pain that comes with this diagnosis. I now cherish the small amount of clear vision I still have and take the time to care for my eyes — just like any other muscle in my body. In the times when I let them rest, I practice my empathy. I allow myself to be blind and go throughout my life without the sense of my vision. These practices have taught me the many challenges that the vision-impaired face throughout the day, allowing me to take note of them and design solutions given my current ability to see. These appear as sketches in my design journal, a book I have carried with me since my time in Europe.

I would like to thank Katie for requiring us to generate three designs per week. I will continue to this practice as I move forward with my work as it allows me to be mindful of the world and how I can change it for the better. This course was difficult yet satisfying, and I am happy to have learned as much as I did during my time spent in the classroom and designing “in the wild.

It’s been a few years since I wrote this essay. I have learned a lot since leaving academia and joining the ranks of UX professionals… but I have never lost the feeling that what is important is what we have been tasked to understand, the users of our technology.

Do you agree? Feel free to chime-in in the comments.