Online Engineering Programs Home

What Elements Shape User Experience (UX)? The Perspective of a Microsoft Researcher

Find schools

What is User Experience (UX)?

User experience refers to how a person feels and behaves when using a system, service, or product. Specifically, the international standard on ergonomics of human-system interaction (ISO 9241-201) defines user experience as, “a person’s perceptions and responses that result from the use or anticipated use of a product, system or service.”

Moreover, the ISO indicates that the user’s experience encompasses everything from their emotions, beliefs, preferences, and perceptions to their physical and psychological responses and behaviors both before and after the actual interaction.

Henry Dreyfuss, an industrial engineer and pioneer in the evolution of UX, argues that a successful UX designer removes friction between the experience and the user. He has been quoted saying:

“When the point of contact between the product and the people becomes a point of friction, then the [designer] has failed. On the other hand, if people are made safer, more comfortable, more eager to purchase, more efficient—or just plain happier—by contact with the product, then the designer has succeeded.”

History of User Experience (UX)

Thoughtfulness around the user’s experience is thought to have begun 4000 BCE when the Chinese philosopher Feng Shui emphasized the importance of making your surroundings the most optimal, harmonious, and “user-friendly.” The ancient Greek civilizations were also known for designing their workplaces and tools using key ergonomic principles.

A formal focus on user experience began during the early 20th century as Frederick Winslow Taylor and Henry Ford were evaluating ways to streamline and improve production. Taylor, for example, focused his research on enhancing the efficiency of interactions between his workers and the tools they used to get their job done. Likewise, Ford focused on streamlining assembly processes to increase output quality and quantity.

It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the term user experience was popularized. Donald Norman of the Nielsen Norman Group started his career as a cognitive scientist at Apple as their User Experience Architect, making him the first known person to have UX in his job title.

Over the past two decades, due to the advances in mobile, ubiquitous, and social computing, Norman asserts that the field of user research has expanded and extended past mere usability of an interface to include a person’s feelings, motivations, and satisfaction while using it.

Elements that Shape User Experience (UX)

There are three core traits which are instrumental in UX: valuable, useful, and usable. To achieve a valuable experience, UX practitioners focus on creating an experience that is useful to people. Does it solve a problem or fulfill a need? And an experience that is usable is accessible to people.

Different professionals have illustrated and expanded upon these three concepts; these form the foundation of all elements that shape UX.

Central Tenets of UX

The central tenet of user experience is ensuring that humans find value in the experience. Peter Morville of Semantic Studios, uses a honeycomb to illustrate this concept, and he states that in order for an experience to be valuable, it must also be:

  • Useful: Does this experience fulfill an unmet or unarticulated need for the user?
  • Usable: Can the user successfully use the experience?
  • Desirable: Does the experience evoke emotion and appreciation from the user?
  • Findable: Is the experience discoverable, navigable, and locatable?
  • Accessible: Is the experience accessible to all people?
  • Credible: Does the user find the experience trustworthy and believable?

Some user experience practitioners liken UX to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. They consider the key elements in relation to the user’s actual needs, which begin with the experience functionality, progressing up to more subjective concepts like enjoyment and love. The user experience pyramid includes (top to bottom):

  • Significant: Do users love the experience and derive a deep sense of value?
  • Enjoyable: Do users find happiness and pleasure when using it?
  • Convenient: Do users find it easy to integrate this experience into their life?
  • Usable: Can users successfully use the experience?
  • Reliable: Does the experience work consistently, accurately, and predictably every time?
  • Functional: Does the experience work the way it was intended?

User Experience (UX) Heuristics

A heuristic is a mental shortcut that someone uses to make a decision. UX practitioners employ heuristics when crafting experiences with software or web interfaces, virtual reality, and video games. While some of the heuristics overlap, there are unique considerations for each of these experiences.

Usability Heuristics

Usability heuristics are broad rules of thumb that UX practitioners use when optimizing for the most usable experience. These are typically applied to software or web interfaces.

Those defined by Jakob Nielsen in collaboration with Rolf Molich in 1990 are the most widely applied today. Derived from a factor analysis of 249 usability problems, these usability heuristics are summarized in the table below.

Table 1: Jakob Neilsen’s Usability Heuristics

Heuristic Definition
Visibility of system status The experience should keep users informed about what is going on through appropriate feedback within a reasonable time.
Match between system and the real world The experience should speak the users’ language, with words, phrases and concepts familiar to the user, rather than system-oriented terms.
User control and freedom Support undo and redo.
Consistency and standards Users should not have to wonder whether different words, situations, or actions mean the same thing.
Error prevention Either eliminate error-prone conditions or check for them and present users with a confirmation option before they commit to the action.
Recognition rather than recall Minimize the user’s memory load by making objects, actions, and options visible. The user should not have to remember information from one part of the dialogue to another.
Flexibility and efficiency of use The interaction should be streamlined and non-redundant, and frequented actions should be tailorable.
Aesthetic and minimalist design Dialogues should not contain information which is irrelevant or rarely needed.
Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors Error messages should be expressed in plain language, precisely indicate the problem, and constructively suggest a solution.


Video Gaming Design Heuristics

Heuristics for gaming differ in that to make a game a game, you might want to have some challenges and friction for the user to overcome. This friction is essential to making the game entertaining but at first, it seems antithetical to core usability heuristics.

In their 2008 article published at the premier user experience conference CHI, David Pinelle, Nelson Wong, and Tadeusz Stach outlined a new set of heuristics to be applied to gaming development. The table below defines these video gaming heuristics.

Table 2: Video Gaming Design Heuristics

Heuristic Definition
Consistency Games should respond to users’ actions in a predictable manner. They should provide consistent input mappings so that users’ actions always lead to the expected outcome.
Customizability The system should allow people to customize a range of settings (e.g. video, audio, and difficulty) so that the game accommodates their individual needs.
Predictability The game should control units so that pathfinding and other behaviors are reasonable for in-game situations.
Proper views The game should provide views that allow the user to have a clear, unobstructed view of the area, and of all visual information that is tied to the location.
Skip non-playable content Many games include lengthy audio and video sequences, or other types of non-interactive content. Games should allow users to skip non-playable content so that it does not interfere with gameplay.
Input mappings Input mappings should be easy to learn and should be intuitive to use, leveraging spatial relationships and other natural pairings. They should also adopt input conventions that are common in other similar games.
Controls When controls are based on real world interactions, such as steering a car or using a control stick in an airplane, the game should respond to input in a way that mirrors the real world.
Game status Provide users enough information to allow them to make proper decisions while playing the game. For example, users should be able to track the status of their character include health and location.
Training and help Provide users complete documentation on the game, including how to interpret visual representations and how to interact with game elements.
Visual representations Provide visual representations, such as radar views, maps, icons, and avatars, which are frequently used to convey information about
the current status of the game.

Source: Penn State College of Information Sciences and Technology

Virtual Reality Design Heuristics

Similar to video gaming, the design of virtual reality experiences comes with its own unique considerations. In their 2017 paper published by the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, Rabia Murtza, Stephen Monroe, and Robert Youmans identified eight key virtual reality heuristics. These are outlined in the table below.

Table 3: Virtual Reality Design Heuristics

Heuristic Definition
Synchronous body movements The experience and interface should stay in synchrony with human head and body movements in real time to prevent lag.
Physical space constraints Experience designers should try to account for the real-world physical space users will occupy when interacting with the
Immersion The experience should immerse the user in virtual reality, specific to visual realism.
Glitchiness The experience keeps systematic glitches, crashes, and errors low.
Switch between the actual and virtual world The experience should be able to rely on itself for all usage; that is, keep all necessary user tasks and information within VR instead of creating tasks that the user may only be able to execute when VR headset is taken off.
Cord design The cord of the system should be designed to require minimal maintenance. For example, it should offer adequate cord length
and mobility to keep entanglement to a minimum.
Headset comfort The headset of the system should be designed to be comfortable for prolonged wear. It should be lightweight and accommodate individuals who wear glasses.
Mental comfort The system should be designed to prevent sensations of physical illness during use by preventing jarring movement and lag.


Related Features

Women in Engineering: Degree Programs & Opportunities

Why are women underrepresented in engineering, the top-paying undergraduate major in the country? Why does a disproportionate amount of engineering research funding go to men? Which schools are actively creating opportunities for women? Which female engineers are leading the way? Find out here.

Automotive Cybersecurity: Connected & Self-Driving Vehicles

This guide, intended for students and working professionals interested in entering the nascent field of automotive cybersecurity, describes some of the challenges involved in securing web-enabled vehicles, and features a growing number of university programs, companies, and people who are rising to meet those challenges.

Software Engineering for Good: Benevolent Careers for Engineers

Discover the humanitarian applications of artificial intelligence, robotics, virtual reality, and big data, including exclusive interviews with industry predictions and a discussion of current advances across these sectors of software engineering.

Heroes in Engineering: The Architects of Benevolent VR

From developing VR programs and environments to designing more affordable VR technology, engineers have given other experts a means of improving our lives and environment.

Heroes in Engineering: A Spotlight on Artificial Intelligence

When is a computer more than a machine? One person’s concept of artificial intelligence (AI) can be quite different from the next person’s. In its most basic form, artificial intelligence is a process in which machines take cues from their environment and act responsively to achieve a goal.