UX in the physical world

Individual user experience in the physical world. Custom built surfboards.
This project from 2009 allowed me to work on interactions with a different kind of digital – gripping fingers and thumbs, … taking me back to my surfboard building days.

A kiwi company was developing a new type of mouse. I’used UX methods to help refine the design, starting off with some user research to understand how people will use it.

Working with a physical object so closely tied to the task at hand is a challenge. Asking people how they’d use it can be misleading as they often struggle to articulate what they want from a product they aren’t always conscious of using.

This really takes me back to my first encounter with User Centred Design – making custom surfboards in the early 90’s.

My first customers would fill out an order form with their height, weight and suggested measurements for the board. These were often based on their vision of riding in a certain way, on waves which often only happened twice a year, or in their dreams.

When viewed through the right lens, observing people use a product can convert directly into design requirements to improve the user experience.

Wherever possible, I’d go surfing with my customers, to get a feel for their riding style and the conditions they most often rode in.  Watching them ride provided a more reliable brief of what they needed from a board than they’d written on the order form.

When you’re riding the right board, you forget it’s there; it’s like an extension of your body. Making the board ‘disappear’ was my measure of whether I’d made it right for the rider. (As well as the smile on their face at the end of a session)

Using a mouse with your computer is similarly sub-conscious but it’s not a sport, and doesn’t need to make you smile.

… but there’s a first time for everything.

6 thoughts on “UX in the physical world

  1. Simon Johnson

    I can’t wait to see what comes out of your research Nick.

    The mouse idea looks awesome, but will users take to it?

    Holding breath…..

  2. Ken Beatson

    Nice example Nick. I guess its a bit like usability testing. There’s nothing like direct observation and its better than trying to turn users into analysts by asking them to articulate their own functional requirements. Look forward to seeing the end result with the new mouse …

  3. Nick

    Hi Ken, You’re right that observation is the key.
    With website usability you need one eye on the screen – one on the participant.
    … with the mouse thrown into the mix, you need a third eye focussed on the hand and finger movements.

  4. Nick

    Thanks Andrew. I guess riding a surfboard is one of the most dynamic and interactive experiences on earth, so there’s a lot to learn when it comes to designing such a personalised tool for an infinitely variable environment.

    Surfboards have always been designed by surfers. This year a new kind of board has been launched by an ex-Apple designer.

    It took courage as well as curiosity to challenge the fundamental and accepted teardrop shape which has existed since day one, but this guy spent many years studying the way people rode long surfboards and has come up with a completely new approach.

    I’m not sure whether there’s a book, but you can watch the movie here:


  5. Pingback: Getting a Grip. Prodesign Magazine showcases my approach to UX | User Experience NZ

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