Table XI

The UX of Scandinavia

Or, how a vacation taught my family what I do at work.

Do your grandparents squint when you refer to usability testing? Is your roommate nonplussed when you name drop the great Don Norman?  Are you passionate about what you do but have trouble explaining it? If so, you and I might share a similar user issue.

Whether I refer to my profession as UX/UI, solution design, content strategy, information architecture, or innovation and  disruption, I’m met with blank stares. These descriptions and definitions are just part of what it means to work in my specialized (and insular) industry, but they offer no help to my target audience of one, sitting across from me at the Thanksgiving table.

I try to be patient when people outside of the tech world ask me what I do, but I find this lack of clarity alienating and largely unnecessary. To help bridge the “jargon gap”, I keep an eye out for simple examples of user experience design to help me communicate what I do to those less technically-inclined. Something unexpectedly delightful or particularly well thought out, a small detail to point and say, "This, this is what I try to find on behalf of users. This is the sort of thing I aim to offer people."

I'm currently on a family vacation, and I’m here to tell you there's a magical place where all will be made clear. That place is Scandinavia.

Here are a few examples that particularly resonated with my mom and sisters. I offer them to you to tide you over until you travel here with your own team of uninitiated UX enthusiasts:

Understand and support user’s contexts/motivations

"Is there wi-fi here?" - Everyone, all the time. 

Having smartphones but no international data plan has turned my family into a band of free internet junkies. Sit down at any cafe (or ferry, or fjord) and someone will check for wi-fi in less than five minutes.

As it turns out plenty of restaurants (and a surprising number castles) do offer wi-fi. This in itself is a good example of UX design: It helps users accomplish their goals. But perhaps the best example is the buses in Copenhagen offering “Free Internet.” Public transportation with free wireless internet was such a revelation--such a perfect combination of satisfying user’s goals while supporting business objectives--that all I needed to do was point to the bus and say, “That’s user experience design.”

Anticipate common edge cases

The fact that it gets cold outside will not be news to anyone familiar with the meteorological inconsistencies of outdoor dining. If only these unknowns were taken into account by the dining establishment itself. If only your needs (namely, the ability to react to changing weather patterns) were anticipated by the system. Heaters are a good start, but they can be difficult to transport and inflexible. Luckily, Scandinavia agrees and provides blankets at outdoor restaurants. This physical comfort and convenience is matched by the psychic relief of knowing someone is looking out for you.

When possible, provide an unexpected element of delight

Travel is always a balance between diligent commitment to a pre-determined itinerary vs spontaneous exploration. UX designers strive to achieve a similar balance, though it can be tricky to make, say, an interface simple and intuitive for users to accomplish a given task while still offering them something unexpected and hopefully awesome. The best offline example of this I’ve come across is that time we were walking back from dinner and saw a fancy yacht by the water and a group of people standing a by a fence with cameras. What’s this? Someone famous? Oh it’s Queen Sonja of Norway? Thanks, Universe!

Free wi-fi on public transport, complimentary blankets, and spontaneous monarchy sightings are but a few examples of Scandinavia’s formidable design thinking. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that creating a more friendly atmosphere is, in fact, a “fundamental aspect of Danish culture”. Therefore I recommend a fact-finding excursion posthaste. And if you’re wondering, now's the time to go: Oslo’s looking at an average 18 hours of daylight this month. Turns out even the Scandinavian sun is a user advocate.