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Dr. Marc Hassenzahl

Dr. Marc Hassenzahl is professor of “experience and interaction” in the Design Department at the Folkwang University of the Arts. Having earned his doctorate in psychology, he now joins his background in the science of experiences with his passion for interaction design. Everything revolves around the theory and practice of designing more enjoyable, significant and transformative experiences, conveyed by objects. He is a co-founder of the German Usability Professionals’ Association. At Siemens AG he was active in the “User Interface Design” center from 1998 to 2000, where he was able to take a closer look at user-based approaches in industry.
Copyright photo: Dr. Marc Hassenzahl

“You cannot prescribe wellbeing.”

March 2015


In order to be able to manufacture products appropriate to their users, the company first has to adopt the right attitude, says Marc Hassenzahl, professor of experience design at the Folkwang University in Essen, Germany.

Every company says that the customer is in the spotlight. So why is user experience (UX) necessary at all?

It is not sufficient just to write down the sentence – “The customer is in the spotlight” – on a strategy chart. It is actually a question of an attitude, of genuine interest in the customer. We should see the customer not as someone from whom we earn money, but as a partner we want to understand. In this spirit, “understand” means more than simply defining the needs that the users might have. It is more a matter of understanding their goals, requirements, desires and longings.

That means knowing what the customer actually wants?

Exactly! And we even take that a step further. At the beginning, user experience was dedicated to modifying systems to suit people. But given the development path for this approach, we now want to understand the user’s situation so well that we not only satisfy his wishes. Instead, the systems even make suggestions as to how the user could do something differently and better. For this purpose it is extremely important to apply the right criteria. Thus, in UX, it is not efficiency which is per se at the center of our observations. Instead it is a question of what the customer wants to experience and, indeed, what he feels. One example: If the question is to determine how a family whose members live in different towns can spend more time with each other, then the “usability approach” responds with a functional solution. One example might be to make it easier to call somebody on the telephone. The experience design view would say, however, that here it is not at all a question of communication, but of proximity. A grandmother won’t be reading to her grandchild simply because she finds reading aloud so fascinating, but rather because she wants to experience this moment together with the child. If one considers the question from this perspective, then a different solution results – and it may not always be the most efficient.

The fundamental needs held by human beings do not differ. Is that why UX in B2C is not so far different from UX for B2B?

Here it is necessary to distinguish between requirements and needs. A need is, initially, something deeply psychological: closeness, competence, autonomy, stimulation. The requirement derives from this: I have a need for closeness but live in a situation that makes this difficult. And so there is a requirement – technical aids, for instance – to satisfy this need. In the B2B sector the situation differs. Here there is a business relationship where we will clearly negotiate what we want from each other. This is simply an aspect of the business transaction. All this is made more complex by the fact that in B2B situations you have two “customers”: your purchaser and the final user.

Does this mean that the mechanical engineering sector needs to follow a different UX approach?

In the machine tools context, the formal requirements for operability and efficiency play a major role. The machines, however, are used within a cultural context. In UX we attach greater importance to these informal aspects of work.

A machine operator, for example, also has needs for competency: He wants to do work that appears to be significant and sensible. That is why we question how work has to be represented, so that not only does the work function well at the formal level, but also so that the operator has the feeling that, “This is great work and a beautiful machine. I feel good here!” At the same time we throw up the critical question of whether a properly functioning machine is, always and at the same time, satisfying for its operator. It may be that this approach will result in accepting a little less efficiency – so that more tasks are available for the user and that he is motivated in doing the work. This, in turn, will have a positive retroactive effect on the entire operation.

How can B2B companies best implement UX? Is there a kind of blueprint?

In the context of mechanical engineering, processes enjoy great significance, because one hopes that they will provide reliability in the workflow. Processes, however, are not the right approach when considering user experience. Initially, the attitude has to be right. The most important prerequisite is genuine interest in the people who operate the machines. What do they do all day and how do they feel while doing it? Thus the question has to be: What must a B2B organization observe when developing new components so that the emotional aspects will be taken into account? If the attitude is correct, then you will find the right adjustment levers and knobs.

Once the attitude has been corrected, which models can be utilized?

It is a matter of wellbeing and not of working as fast as possible or achieving the greatest possible output. Wellbeing has something to do with relevancy, with the reason behind an activity. You cannot dictate wellbeing. But one way of doing something makes a person happier than a different way. Finding the way that makes people happier is the task of user experience. In focus here are thus the final user and his wellbeing – and balancing this wellbeing with business goals.

If the focus is clear, then I have to comprehend the situation surrounding the work. I have to be able to describe it, be on site, and to talk with people about how they perceive something. And this is decisive. The subjective view suddenly becomes important. In an engineering context, this is usually difficult to convey. Because normally the person, and his subjective view, will be discounted. User experience takes this aspect seriously and, in so doing, also assumes a more individualized perspective, something that is diametrically opposed to mass production. Thus the mantra can no longer be: “All of our customers need this.” The goal is to find individualized solutions that fit more precisely.

Can “big data” play a role in adopting this subjective point of view?

User experience deals with understanding, not with poking around in mounds of data. We have to concentrate on individual anecdotes, not on averaged statements. In addition, the vector of the observation is different. We work from the individual instance to the generalized situation, which means bottom-up instead of top-down.

Which competitive advantages are offered by individualized products, especially in relationship to the effort that I have to make to achieve them?

It would be incorrect to think that these experiences and needs are overly individualized. Many people share similar needs. The total might not come to 80 million, but certainly enough to make a market. Thus the purpose is not to develop many individual solutions, since every person is so totally different. There is always a substantial group of people who share the same practices.

The nature of competition will also be changing, something already being seen among consumer products. The automotive industry gives us an example. Everyone builds the same thing because they all are afraid of missing out on something. If, ultimately, everyone markets essentially the same product, then only the price or the details can be used for differentiation. That is why this strategy – in my opinion – has to be rounded out by developing more individual offers. Just assuming a different perspective doesn’t mean that I am abandoning my previous conception entirely. The new point of view makes it possible to develop innovations by way of which I can distinguish myself from the competition. And at the present I see great hesitancy on the part of industry. I can not fathom that. Everyone is talking about innovation, but in the best situation they don’t want any change at all.

The connected industry approach provides a suitable, profitable production solution for individualized products.

Yes, the trend in production is toward individualization of products and this is benefited by a connected industry setting. The age of mass-produced merchandise will at some time fade into history. If you can implement this from a technical viewpoint, the question which inevitably follows is: Which products are we to manufacture for individual persons? Processes oriented on mass production provide no answer, but experience design certainly does. In this way the potentials of individualized production can be exploited. Personal fabrication has to be based on personal design.