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Differentiated UX: Expression of an Emerging UI Design Trend?

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Differentiated UX (a.k.a. Differentiated User Experience) was initially introduced as a new benefit/capability that Vista and Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) offer. Since then, the term has lacked a clear definition; Brian Noyes recently attempted to shed some light behind the meaning of the concept. Noyes starts by describing the context in which the new term is being introduced:

A new buzzword that I hear more and more these days, particularly from Microsoft evangelists, is "differentiated user experience" or "differentiated UI". I'm even guilty of using this occasionally myself. And yet, it is one of those terms that often makes people cock their head like a dog that heard a human-inaudible screech.

So what does Differentiated UX mean? Given the context of most recent discussions on the subject, one would have to think that a non-differentiated UX would have to mean any kind of UI that came before WPF or Silverlight. But that is not really the case. In fact, it may not even exist now given that a quick search in Live or Google yields almost nothing for the search term "differentiated UX" or "differentiated UI".

Acknowledging the difficulty of providing a clear definition to a term that "amounts to dynamic graphical behaviors that cannot be statically captured with any fidelity in a written document", Noyes tries to get to the heart of the concept by using a colloquial, real-life analogy:

When I think of a differentiated UX application, I can’t help thinking of a quote I have heard a couple of times when visiting my father-in-law in Kentucky - "Y’all ain’t from around here, is ya?" (delivered with a wide variety of grammatical crimes against humanity). This quote captures that visceral sense that something is different about your experience than what you were expecting or what you are used to. I think that captures the essence of differentiated UX. It should not be a completely alien user experience. The user still needs to know or easily figure out how to get done what they need to get done. But the look, feel, and interaction may be considerably different than the way the same task would have been presented with preceding UI technologies. Usually that difference is that it is more dynamic in some way, including visual effects such as fading, highlighting, scaling, moving, etc.

Noyes continues by saying that a differentiated UX "exploits new UI technology to allow experienced or novice users to discover how to complete a particular task with greater ease" and "has a unique visual theme or branding that makes it really stand out, but in a non-obtrusive way, from other applications designed to perform the same tasks, and that makes it somehow more pleasant to look at or use". A few sample application built with WPF are provided and described by Noyes as examples featuring a Differentiated UX; to run these sample applications the installation of the .NET Framework 3.0 is required: Familiy.Show, Woodgrove Finance Application and Cine.View. An observation of one of Noyes' students captures in his opinion another aspect of a Differentiated UX:

He observed that for years we have had design standards which dictated that menus and toolbars and status bars and grids and such were supposed to look a particular way and be in a particular place in your UI. And it was always a battle to get developers to conform to those, but eventually the tools started to make it easier to do those things out of the box. Now it seems the trend is to go in the other direction and to seek a differentiated UI - one that at least looks and feels different (and presumably better) than another app that does exactly the same thing. I think part of this is due to the realization that previous rigid design standards didn’t really make any applications considerably easier to use.

In a dialog related to Brian Noyes' post, Dax Pandhi agrees with the basic definition of the term: "a good - differentiated - UX would use a new way of doing the same tasks" and qualifies it further more by saying that "task oriented means creating a UI that makes sense for a particular task rather than commonly used UI patterns."

Pandhi also believes that the old menu/toolbar/grid recipe is overused and considers that the grid makes "the developers lazy and end-users unproductive at best" as the ease of binding the grid to the data and coding it, leads developers to focus less on providing a more graphical and comprehensible UI. Pandhi believes that at the core of sub-optimal user interfaces is a shortage of good UI designers who understand the basics of both graphics and software:

Of course, the root of the problem is that developers should not be doing the UI any longer. A designer has to be involved if good UX is a target...there aren’t enough designers out there. Not for this kind of work. A good majority of them are trained for eye candy - not usability. Designers also need to understand some basic precepts of software development so as not make the developers’ job too hard because of their designs.

An argument could be made that a quest for improved user experience has been at play for sometime already, as observed in developments and enhancements (many of them consisting of new and different ways of accomplishing the same tasks) in user interfaces over the years. Apple technologies are another good example of a successful story in improving user experience through innovative/differentiated ways. So, does the new "Differentiated UX" term capture an emerging UI design trend, enabled by newer and more powerful UI technologies, or will it fade away as just another buzzword used to promote technologies?

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