I took a bit of a long, meandering, and somewhat non-traditional journey to become a UX designer. After I graduated college, I dreamed of being either a lawyer (I know, I know) or a reporter but I wasn’t sold on either. I probably was an alright debater and I was a decent writer, but I knew what I was really great at — and I was great at parties.
So, I followed the path in which I knew I could both succeed and have some fun, and settled into the world of catering and event planning. Granted, my college costume parties where any costume-free party poopers were required to don a little one-size-fits-all number dubbed the “muumuu of shame” were a little different than corporate cocktail parties for 200 people wearing suits and name tags where red wine, not jagerbombs, was the drink of choice.
These parties were less about making sure people didn’t steal your roommate’s DVDs or set any lawn chairs on fire, and more about making sure you estimated correct staffing requirements so food would be served quickly, or once, how to create a historically accurate yet delicious Civil War-era menu (the two are basically mutually exclusive) that could easily be served to 200 people on a muggy July day outside a historic home while cooking under a tent. College parties were easy. This was hard.
It was during this time that I learned what it really took to create an outstanding experience. It was also during this time I learned wine existed in more varieties than Sunset Blush and Delicious Red, which is truly as delicious as it sounds. I’m serious. I learned what are great table wines, what wines pair best with which foods, how to talk like you know a lot of wine (keep these words in your pocket: stone fruits, old world, new world, minerality, red berries, oaky, buttery).
My days of catering and event planning are far behind me but I still consider eating and drinking to be one of life’s greatest pleasures. Since I’m much better at consuming than cooking, when I’m not eating or drinking, I tend to read a lot on the subjects and leave the actual preparation to the real experts.
While reading a book on the wine world, I was reminded of the hundreds of connections between the experience of drinking good wine and great design. The similarities go beyond the fact that I love both.
A FEW THINGS WINE CAN TEACH US ABOUT UX:
The Experience Is Everything
When Gerald Asher, former Wine Editor and writer at Gourmet Magazine was asked, “What is your favorite wine?” he reached back into his memory and recalled a few memorable experiences. The first was a 1791 Chateau Margaux, “a vibrant strawberry color and astonishingly fresh.” Asher admitted this wine probably tasted so wonderful because psychologically he was struck that the solar energy that helped these grapes grow had also warmed the faces of Thomas Jefferson and Marie Antoinette.
He thought back to another wine moment, one in which he recalled drinking a 1981 Barossa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon after helping a friend move.
He finally settled on his most memorable wine. It was a light red wine poured from a pitcher in a mountain inn near the Simpleton pass during a summer in the early 60’s. When he asked the server what wine it was, she replied, “A vino rosso.” Aside from that, he knows nothing else.
This experience was more about the wine. He tasted this “sweetly exotic and perfectly balanced wine” once and never forgot it. Although he’s been searching for the wine for the past 30 years, he has found nothing like it. He finally admitted it was perhaps he who created this special experience in the first place.
Most of us already believe this — that the experience really is everything — since we’re in the business of creating experiences. But we don’t always take it far enough. Wine really highlights this principle. In fact, science tells us, if it’s possible to buy happiness, you’re best off buying experiences, not things. Even a bad experience can become a good story…
A wine experience isn’t about popping a few bottles and tossing it back in Solo cups. Yes, that’s one kind of experience, of course, but it isn’t the experience that really lets the wine do what it was created to do.
Instead, we set the stage — the right glassware, proper temperatures on the wine, perfect food for pairing, and most importantly, the right people to drink it with — because these things matter. In the end, all these little (but significant!) details mean that the user, or in this case wine drinker, gets the most possible bang for this wine’s buck.
It’s about Creating Lasting Relationships (the Better the Relationships, the Better the Experience)
If you want the best wine recommendations, get to know your favorite sommelier, bartender or retailer. Tell them your likes. Sometimes these are rational. Sometimes these aren’t. It could go something like this:
- This really great wine I had on vacation in Italy two years ago. I think it was red but I don’t know the grape.
- Cherries because they remind me of summers growing up.
- Whisky because it makes me feel like I’m in Mad Men.
- I feel like celebrating the end of a long week and this beautiful weather by drinking outside.
- Anything with a cutesy name
- The Kardashians. I know, it has nothing to do with this, I just don’t get it.
- Anything too sweet. Reminds me of Strawberry Boone’s Farm. Long story.
- I tried a wine once that tasted like drinking dirt. I think they described it as “mineraly.” None of that, please.
And by using a mixture of science and art (accompanied by trust and an open mind), this person makes a suggestion that’s spot-on.
While wine is a product, people are a part of that product at every stage of the game. The relationships we build around wine, for example, can help us get the best products, teach us valuable information or share the experience — nothing makes great wine taste greater than the company. As the winemaker is producing the wine, he or she is thinking about the people who will one day be drinking it, even if the two parties never meet.
And as designers, our work is all about the relationships, too. Like the winemaker, we may never meet the end user, but he or she is always on our mind. One of the wonderful parts about design, like wine, is that it creates connections, builds rapport and brings people together. We can use a product’s voice and tone to connect with the right people. Then use a thoughtfully designed and delightful interface to show the user we’re trustworthy, smart and sometimes a little fun.
And we’re not afraid to tap into the expertise of our users either—that only means a greater experience in the end.
Make your Experience a Destination
Robert Mondavi, pioneer of American winemaking, and a key player in making Napa Valley and American wine into what it is today, said
“Wine, food, and the arts are the keys to a gracious way of life.”
He believed this way of life was something worth working for, and he wanted others to share in these experiences as they drank his wine on the way to a gracious life. This, and his astute business mind led him to take a different approach to marketing the Mondavi brand. Instead of placing ads in magazine, he found it was more economical and effective to bring tourists to the vineyards in Napa Valley. As he said,
“People remember visits, not ads.”
Thus his priority was a great, luxurious experience.
As Designer Louis Xavier wrote, luxury isn’t about the price, it all comes back to spending time with those most important to you or creating treasured memories. Wine can most certainly be classified as a “luxurious” experience. But this can be experienced just as easily with a $10 bottle of wine picked up at the grocery store if you are in the right setting.
In fact, one of my favorite wine moments was drinking white sangria I made from a thermos on the beach with some of my best friends. Not only was I proud I was able to make something so delicious (I’m not exactly known for my skills in the kitchen), but I enjoyed it with wonderful people in a wonderful place. Talk about luxury.
Design has that same potential to be a destination, a little trip a world away, an escape from the ordinary. The app is more than a tool or a resource, we can make the product someplace special to transport your user to another place, make their lives a little easier, or even just provide a welcome distraction from the ordinary.
Create Something People Are Passionate About
“Penicillin cures, but wine makes people happy.” Alexander Fleming
Get winemakers, sommeliers, wine lovers (including me) talking about wine and you’re going to watch their eyes light up. Most people aren’t in the industry because it’s lucrative or prestigious. Wine, from the planting of the grapes, to production, to the popping of the cork, is all about passion. In fact, some people insist it’s actually possible to taste the passion of the producers in the quality of the wine.
I know that I, if not most designers, want work that brings that same passion. And in turn, we want our users to be as passionate about our designs and creations as they are about drinking fabulous wine. “Indifferent,” “neutral,” and “interested” aren’t good enough when it comes to user reactions. We want them delighted.
Take It All Seriously, but Not Too Seriously
“What is the definition of a good wine? It should start and end with a smile. “ William Sokolin
Some of the best wines come from really great winemakers who refuse to take themselves too seriously. That goes for sophisticated drinkers and wine professionals as well. It’s rare, but when you find that mix of talent, humility and humor, the result is magical. Wine snobs are no fun and they can kill a good experience.
The wise words of from one winemaker apply perfectly to design and designers:
“Don’t take wine, or yourself, too seriously. Even those of us who make wine as our day job need to remember that wine is, at its core, supposed to be fun. Whether it’s touring wine country with your sweetheart, watching Lucy and Ethel stomping messily away or bringing out a bottle of your finest for the backyard bocce ball team, wine heightens our enjoyment of everyday life, links us to the past and connects us to the natural world in a very tangible way.”
Great advice. By all, means take your product/users/business seriously, because excellence really counts. But remember, this is all supposed to be fun; mistakes happen and laughter is good.