Does User Experience Kill Positioning?

That was the question that popped up during a conversation about the Sang Han thread on the St. Louis Egotist. I was having the conversation with a certain creative director person who shall remain unnamed on account of I expect she wouldn’t want to be in the middle of something like this. We were discussing my post about the post about Sang and she said something like, “Since user experience seems to be so heavily informed by this idea of mental models, how does good UX design differentiate itself?”

Actually, she may have said nothing like that at all, but I heard something like that and since I’m not divulging my source, I suppose it doesn’t really matter. The question is an interesting one I think. So much of the inquiry that informs the UX design process is designed to get at what the user expects based upon their previous experience. The goal then is to give those users what they expect. Now I realize the UX community is not a monolith, so I’d imagine there are many different explications of the “goal of UX design” floating around out there. That said, I haven’t really heard any what you might call “mainstream UX people” saying things what would radically depart from my above formulation.

Perhaps it is easy to see where I’m going with all this. In the pantheon of marketing theories, there is this thing what is known as positioning. In “The International Encyclopedia of Communication,” positioning is described, in part, as follows:

“Positioning is an essential concept in communication management, Public Relations, and Marketing communication. The process of positioning includes identifying, defining, and managing the perception relevant audiences have of a particular organization, product, person, or idea.”

The two men most responsible for the popularization of positioning are Jack Trout and Al Ries. They wrote a book what is generally regarded as a lot seminal, called “Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind.” In it, they define positioning as “an organized system for finding a window in the mind. It is based on the concept that communication can only take place at the right time and under the right circumstances”. As the wikipedia entry for positioning notes, in Mr. Trout’s initial considerations of positioning, he asserts that “the typical consumer is overwhelmed with unwanted advertising, and has a natural tendency to discard all information that does not immediately find a comfortable (and empty) slot in the consumers mind.”

Good positioning helps a brand to stand out so as to occupy an empty slot in the consumer’s mind. Good user experience helps a brand to comply with the consumer’s presuppositions and biases. At first glance, it would seem you could drive a truck through that one. Anyone who has used any of the 37signals tools, in all their usable glory, would probably be willing to cop to the similarity of the experience with that of Facebook, or the WordPress admin interface, or any of a number of other very usable tools. In many ways, my own experiences with these tools do seem to run together in my mind as it were.

So there’s the question: Does the practice of user experience undermine the practice of positioning? I don’t think the answer set is bivalent. I think there are nuanced answers, but I do think the question is worth asking. What do you think?

10 thoughts on “Does User Experience Kill Positioning?

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  3. User experience in the end gives them a memorable interaction with the brand. I don't believe that position and experience can be compared but need to be merged entirely. Brand positioning that leaves a website useless doesn't help the potential customer become a client. Navigating a site and assisting new visitors in accomplishing their goals is vital

  4. I think there's a flaw in understanding UX as it's described here:

    So much of the inquiry that informs the UX design process is designed to get at what the user expects based upon their previous experience. The goal then is to give those users what they expect.

    and

    Good user experience helps a brand to comply with the consumer’s presuppositions and biases.

    Such a limited definition (at least in this case) is problematic at best.

    One of the primary values in UX, or generally in good design, is addressing what the user actually *needs* to accomplish a task, while considering prior design decisions (and not bound to those decisions).

    Giving users what they expect stifles innovation and good design–look at game changing products or software (enter the usual examples as Google, the iPod, the Prius) or look at smaller-scale systems that broke from the status quo (such as Mint, Foursquare, Twitter, etc.).

    While good design and UX can address those existing assumptions, biases, and prior engagements with the service or product, it's almost a cop out to limit a good UX based on what people are used to, either at the service level or brand level.

    After understanding how people understand, interpret, and interact with the current or competitive offerings (all of which would be involved in a design, ux, and/or brand strategy), you can address how to position the new service for that “right time and under the right circumstances”.

    Presuppositions and biases are simply design constraints that should inform the process of creating great design, not strangle the process at birth.

  5. I think the answer is 'it could'… but there's more to the equation, depending on how inclusively you define 'experience'. Facebook and Basecamp may feel similar in the ways you interact with them but they have very little similarity when it comes to what you use them for. “Purpose” is what differentiates them. A semi-truck and a sports car have incredibly similar interfaces, and very similar usage experiences overall, but you sure don't use 'em for the same thing.
    Perhaps a good implementation of a 'standard' UX approach doesn't homogenize the tool… instead it humbly reduces itself in the equation, letting the important stuff (content and function) serve the user more transparently and therefore more effectively.

  6. I second what Chris added.

    One thing that I'd like to add is that the “process” you describe above is more akin to User Centered Design (UCD) rather than User Experience Design(UXD). While some will lump these two concepts into being the same thing, fundamentally they are different.

    UCD relies on looking to the past to fix the problems that exist. This is why there is such a large focus on good tried and true research. Follow people around and watch them work, get them into a “lab” and probe them while they try to complete tasks. While these techniques are great, they only show you what's broken.

    UXD takes all the great stuff about UCD, but plugs in the theories and concepts of Design. Rather than looking at what's broken and finding ways to fix it, UXD's look at what's broken and what's not to create something completely new and different. UXD uses the research to make better design decisions.

    How does this help with positioning? Many of the theories and concepts that UXD gets from traditional design is present in fields that don't have any issue with positioning. I'm talking about architecture, print, film, literature, etc. Fields where context and use dictate how something will not only be built but used. If UX is truly having issues with positioning, then UXD's should look to these fields to understand how they approached that problem. Learn from the lessons of the past, rather than trying to re-invent the wheel again.

  7. I second what Chris added.

    One thing that I'd like to add is that the “process” you describe above is more akin to User Centered Design (UCD) rather than User Experience Design(UXD). While some will lump these two concepts into being the same thing, fundamentally they are different.

    UCD relies on looking to the past to fix the problems that exist. This is why there is such a large focus on good tried and true research. Follow people around and watch them work, get them into a “lab” and probe them while they try to complete tasks. While these techniques are great, they only show you what's broken.

    UXD takes all the great stuff about UCD, but plugs in the theories and concepts of Design. Rather than looking at what's broken and finding ways to fix it, UXD's look at what's broken and what's not to create something completely new and different. UXD uses the research to make better design decisions.

    How does this help with positioning? Many of the theories and concepts that UXD gets from traditional design is present in fields that don't have any issue with positioning. I'm talking about architecture, print, film, literature, etc. Fields where context and use dictate how something will not only be built but used. If UX is truly having issues with positioning, then UXD's should look to these fields to understand how they approached that problem. Learn from the lessons of the past, rather than trying to re-invent the wheel again.

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