UX as creative tension

Last week, I wrote about Matt Damon Smith’s definition of user experience, which is centered around the journey between where a user is (point A) and where a user wants to be (point B). This journey assumes there’s a gap between the current state and the desired future. All of this reminds me of Peter Senge’s concept of “creative tension”, which he defines as:

The juxtaposition of vision (what we want) and a clear picture of current reality (where we are relative to what we want) generates what we call “creative tension”: a force to bring them together, caused by the natural tendency of tension to seek resolution…

Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline (p. 132)

Elsewhere, he compares this tension to a rubber band:

Senge’s concept of Creative Tension

I love how Senge links this back to “the natural tendency of tension to seek resolution.” Consider the example of music: great musicians build their songs around musical tension and resolution, the idea that certain chords want to “resolve” down to a home chord. Another example is marketing, which is–for better or for worse–about creating tension, prompting a “this is what your life could be like!” moment where the product or service can fill in the gap.

As a user experience designer, at least one of our purposes is helping users resolve the tension between what is, and what ought to be. And ideally, it should be as delightful and pleasing as hearing musical notes “land” in a pleasing place.

the interface makes the experience

For the past several years, whenever the “UX vs UI” debate has come up amongst my designer friends, I’ve held the position that UX is not UI. UI design is one of many skills involved in strong user experience design: a good UX designer needs to be familiar with information architecture, graphic design, requirement writing, copywriting, speaking to programmers, etc, etc. A person who only excels in UI design is a mere pixel pusher.

I still agree with this. But in working through Matt Smith’s shift nudge course on UI design, I realized something. This distinction works if I’m describing things from the perspective of my industry, which is focused on UX designers. In other words, this is a debate about roles, skills, and tasks.

But Matt Smith looks at this debate by talking about digital experiences themselves, rather than describing UX designers’ roles and skills; he’s describing the product, and not the architect. And a person experiences a digital product through the user interface. If a digital experience is about taking a user from where they are (point A) to where they’d like to be (point B), this is principally accomplished through the interface itself.

A drawing of Matt Smith’s conception of UX and UI design; adapted from his Shift Nudge curriculum

To put it another way: when describing the industry, a UX designer is much more than a UI designer. But when describing an actual experience, the interface design is the core that dictates the quality of that experience.

This explains, perhaps, why UX is often seen as interface design. Digital products are experienced by way of an interface! Although many other skills are needed to fashion the right experience, in the end, it is the interface that makes the experience.

This applies mainly to a single digital product or interface. The longue duruee of UX–the plurality of experiences with a brand across a variety of products, touchpoints, and interactions–is usefully described as CX, though even there, digital interfaces of some kind can make up a majority of the interactions.