Phenomenology, for those who haven’t come across it, is essentially a (set of) philosophical method(s) to describe phenomena and can be used to study anything from a cup of coffee to walking in the forest or surfing the web. Edmund Husserl, the German philosopher who coined the term, called it “a new way of looking at things,” and a way to “learn to see what stands before our eyes”¹.
Surprising how much there is that phenomenologists thought about that we can leverage today to improve how we study user experience.
1. Phenomenology relies on minuscule descriptions of ordinary phenomena, and so does UX research.
Perhaps most obviously, both disciplines study how our being is dependent on relationships with others, the things that surround us, and the tools we manipulate. ‘Thick description’ of a user’s experience is what we are all after- ideally without preconceptions — gathered by observing interaction and usage. We ask participants to speak out loud when interacting with a product and describe their actions from our third-party observer position to report what is often omitted, taken for granted or considered insignificant.
Phenomenologists were not the first ones to realize the importance and significance of the repetitive and mundane (so did the American pragmatists and others). However, they excelled at making it their prime object of study. They would encourage us to employ the power of the written word, description, to uncover the more subtle dimensions of ‘ordinary’ activities and the context of these. Though hard to accomplish, describing observations constitutes one of the most powerful tools at our disposal as social scientists.
2. Just like UX research, phenomenology is all about understanding usage — interacting with something ( e.g., a product) — not the nature of an object itself.
I love phenomenology because, unlike most other philosophical traditions, it takes connection — being — as primordial, rather than seeing it as a consequence of some higher form of abstraction such as reflection or consciousness. In stark contrast to Descartes’ famous ‘cogito ergo sum,’ it also constitutes a central premise of UX research. When we successfully use technology, it becomes an extension of our’ being-in-the-world.’ Just like a captivating book, surfing the web intuitively melts out subjectivity into an activity of ‘manipulating something.’
Thanks to these phenomenological observations, we know that seamless interaction can alter an existing conception, say, of a brand or service. We end up liking and enjoying something because it works well, because we recognize it, and master its usage.
Action is a powerful way to inform preference, or, as Merleau-Ponty put it: “We know not through our intellect but through our experience.”
3. Phenomenology, just like UXR, derives its best insights not from measuring success but from describing failure.
Heidegger starts ‘Being in Time’ with the famous example of someone using a hammer to hammer a nail into a cupboard. As long as the hammering works as expected, i.e., smoothly, the hammer remains imperceptible to the person doing the hammering, entirely focused on the nail. However, if something goes wrong -like the nail bending-, the hammer suddenly appears to be a (problematic) object. Heidegger’s Being and Time examines in great detail how the quality of our (user) experience changes depending on how successfully we manipulate our surroundings, including technology.
Examples of this abound in everyday life. As long as typing this essay goes smoothly, I don’t pay attention to the keyboard or the computer I am using. But then, the keyboard suddenly jams, and it stops being ‘invisible’; For the first time, I register it as a discrete object that becomes ‘available,’ as Heidegger puts it. I now perceive it as a concrete item, rather than something that is simply part of my successful intention-pursuit. In UX research, we track these moments with task success metrics by counting clicks, errors, or measuring time.
Phenomenological theory indicates that UX research still has a long way to go to understand, measure, and successfully manipulate the different dimensions of ‘things going wrong.’ Does this bug interrupt the flow of a user’s action to the extent that it could cause significant distress? Could this small keyboard problem make a user doubt the value of the machine as a whole?
As UX researchers, we could also appreciate more the effect usability can have on conditioning preference. Liking and awareness of a brand (positive brand perception), certainly inform the user’s decision. Usability, however, acts inadvertently. Unless we experience failure in our intention-pursuits, we might not even notice the power that a smooth and intuitive user experience has in driving our preferences and how we make decisions online.
Reading old phenomenologists allows us to understand how the meaning of any ‘object’ is intertwined with its context of usage, relatedness to other objects, and to the someone who uses it. Given the practical and goal-oriented underpinnings of UX research, there is still room to incorporate the theoretical knowledge base into our frameworks and benefit from the intellectual heritage that generations of great phenomenological thinkers have left behind.
. Husserl, Ideas I: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, trans. by W. R. Boyce-Gibson (London: Collier-Macmillan, 1969), p. 39.