The Dark matter of UX

The universe, it turns out, is far stranger than we first thought.

Thanks to Einstein, decades of study and a lot of people so smart I look like an amoeba by comparison, we know that the stars, planets, moons and every bit of matter that we see (otherwise known as baryonic matter) makes up around 4% of everything that makes up the universe. Just 4%.

Bizarre, no? One day we think we know what the universe is made of, the next we realise we're only seeing tiny pieces of the puzzle - dark matter and dark energy make up the whopping 96% that's missing - and we know almost nothing about them.

It's bizarre to think of it but what we see is a tiny slice of the pie - everything else is hidden from us.

UX knowledge can sometimes be very similar.

We used to think that UX knowledge fell into a few core buckets: Needs, desires, requirements, issues, emotions. We knew that there was more to know but we mostly believed we were closing in on a full map of what was important. Various models flew about, all purporting to be full and complete models of UX knowledge. I can distinctly remember a conversation with a UXer who had decided to leave the field, because in his words "We know it all now - what's to learn? Why would anyone pay for a consultant five years from now?". That was in 1997. Oh, how the world has changed since then; mobile-first was an instruction to cot-building new parents, the iPad was a sci-fi device we never thought we'd see, only Dick Tracy had a smart watch, Google was a baby startup and we all bought our music in physical music stores. 

In 2017 we have a healthy global UX field with tools and methodologies and an ever increasing army of advocates and experts. In 1997 user testing was only for the leading edge projects, today it's a routine step. Back then we had our opinions of what made a good site and a few insights, today we have standardised scorecards, rating tools and expert review templates.

But just as with dark matter, we miss so much.

In the universe, the suns and planets are fireflies against a darkened sky, 4% fragments of the whole, supported by an invisible network we know little about.

In UX research we have the same; we ask questions and we receive an audible response with a single data point - but it's supported by a vastly larger network of thoughts, perceptions, misconceptions and processing that we never see or know anything about. When we observe users at work we can see issues or behaviour, we have visibility on single data points but again they are supported by the same invisible 'dark knowledge' of decisional processing.

We know that dark knowledge exists. We know it makes up a vast chunk of what's going on - and just like dark matter and dark energy, we may never get a full and complete understanding of what it is and how it works. 

I see this every day. People say and do things that seem, on our level of understanding, to make little or no sense. People will say one thing and then do something different. I see people confidently talk of how they prefer to search for everything, and then choose to navigate instead. I see people spot a control and talk about it, before they completely fail to see it when they need to use it. I hear people make statements that seem to be completely at odds with the way they act within the interface.

They aren't crazy, as it can be tempting to think. They aren't possessed and they aren't connected to an alternative universe. They are simply acting logically and consistently with the web of dark knowledge within them.

Knowing how dark matter and dark energy work, what they are and how they interrelate with baryonic matter is going to be the key for us to understand how the universe works. Once we know how the pieces fit together we'll be able to predict the movement of elements within it and understand our own future.

In much the same way, understanding the dark knowledge of UX will help us to predict decisions and actions and understand the future of any design or interface.

With dark matter we're on the case; China's DAMPE satellite and the upcoming Euclid spacecraft project will both help us look further and understand more. One day we will understand the complete picture, even if we have to reshape our thinking to do it. 

When it comes to UX knowledge, we are reliant on models of understanding of how the brain works. These help us to understand how we make decisions and how we react to inputs - but they don't help us to understand the complex context of decisions made whilst the user interacts with any set environment. We can understand how someone reacts in general to a problem, but we can't yet see how they react to this specific problem in this specific interface.

One day, perhaps we will. Until then, I think we should remember that everything we do, touch and work on as UXers is just a firefly against the darkened sky, a 4% fragment of what we'll one-day know.