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(QUICK NOTE/UPDATE: As Rumi pointed out below, that these questions happen to be about 'real world' objects is a red herring. That's not the issue at all. The issue is that they simply aren't UX questions--they just happen to often be about real world objects. I do think that they are real-world objects is perhaps why they tend to become hot-topics, though...people outside of UX are simply drawn to the triviality aspects of these questions in my opinion)

There's seems to be a trend on UX as of late where someone pops in and ask a question about some physical object and then it gets put on the 'hot topic' list on the right of all the SE sites.

Here's a recent example: Why do speedometers (in the US, at least) go so high?

I don't find these to be very good questions most of the time. But what's a bigger issue is that when they become hot questions, they start attracting a lot of non-UX folks. I get the argument for this (get other eyeballs here) but then what happens is that the answers that start getting the most up-votes tend to veer the question even FURTHER away from the field of UX.

As such, we end up with these highly rated questions that a) aren't really UX focused and b) often have a very non-UX answer. (The top-voted answer often has 5+ times the normal up votes, as well as 5+ times normal comments as the answer is often quite inappropriate from a UX standpoint. Not necessarily the case with the above example question, but in general.)

We're often left with a questionable bit of trivia rather than a truly useful question that applies to the UX field.

Do others share this concern? Is it even something to be concerned about? Maybe it's harmless link-bait to get more eyeballs here?

UPDATE:

To be clear, I'm not against 'real world' objects being a topic here. Of course, real world objects should be designed with UX in mind as much as virtual ones.

What bothers me is the questions that are about 'real world' objects that simply aren't framed as UX questions. They're usually along the lines of:

Why is object x designed this way?

But the answer is often "well, because it wasn't really designed" as much as "marketing, engineering, sales, historical anomaly etc." is the reason.

More examples:

These become really popular questions but really don't fit the topic of UX as much as "trivia about the manufacturing and sales behind various consumer products."

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    Yes, I share your concern. Yes, it's something to be concerned about. Link bait on these question is like an ad - gives the wrong picture of the product you're selling. It's good that you brought up this question and I'll come back with an answer a little later. – Benny Skogberg Mar 7 '15 at 6:19
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    I've added the featured tag to this question, since I think it's very essential to the community – Benny Skogberg Mar 7 '15 at 8:08
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    I consider them (mostly) useless trivia. I mostly agree with Benny's answer so won't post oneo f my own unless I think of something to add. They're just something that's always been around, pretty popular, fairly problematic, but there was never a real agreement to do anything about them. – Ben Brocka Mar 8 '15 at 20:34
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    One possible issue with such popular, bikeshed questions that could easily be solved with a quick Google search is just that - a quick Google search returns the results. Now we're one of those links so we'll be bundled into the subconcious of people as thinking we're yet another Yahoo Answers, Quora, answers.com and all those generic sites. We should be aiming to be the only site that provides the answer to a question people have, not just one of a 1,000. For that we need harder, more useful questions. Not generic bikeshed ones. – JonW Mar 9 '15 at 13:43
  • I think its useful to bring out the battles between different departments in an organisatioin as quite often marketing / engineering / UX will be at odds - as the optimum UX solution might not suite other department's cost and sales agendas: However I agree that the UX answer should be the top rated one - and clearly early answers can pick up too many votes as people don't scroll down to look at better, more UX related, later ones. – PhillipW Mar 10 '15 at 10:35
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    I am glad I am not the only one bothered by this. I also noticed these questions and don't think they fit in ux exchange very well. – stefan.s Mar 11 '15 at 16:41
  • i think the question should be better retitled as "Are asking about the design of real-world objects on-topic?". It's shorter and more accurate. – Ooker Jan 21 '17 at 11:36
  • Each of the “quasi” questions is a valid UX question and represents the outcomes of decisions made to enable a desired user experience. For example, QWERTY keyboards are designed to slow typing so people don’t experience typewriter jams and other layouts prioritize difference experiences. Some of the best UX innovations (paddle shifters in cars) have come from asking these questions and rethinking the answers. – Michael Hogan Jan 6 at 21:01
  • What could be very helpful is for community members to help people reword some of these questions. Maybe instead of “are signs printed on the road better than posted signs” we should help people ask “how can road-sign placement impact the user experience of driving”. – Michael Hogan Jan 6 at 21:07
  • @MichaelHogan that's an OK example, but not really comparable to the ones pointed out in the question. – DA01 Jan 7 at 0:03
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Yes, I share your concern. These kind of question are not useful. And I admit, I’ve made some of these myself having only a remote connection to UX where the goal wasn’t a real problem I had. Just a silly thought. I am curious of things that are in a way I don’t expect which sometimes leads to asking questions better suited for Quora than UX.SE. But this is my basecamp, and I tweak questions toward UX (since I know how to make it look like one). Those are in the fifty shades of gray area where well worded question from a high rep user passes under the closing bar but the same question coming from a new user with less words doesn’t. This is social engineering on the UX.SE.

Yes, it's something to be concerned about. And I’m thankful for you to bringing the subject to surface. We need to discuss this, and it was also a question for nominees at the last moderator election (How would you handle a situation where…). Real World questions themselves are very much on topic. There are a lot of thing out there having the property user experience. But all Real World questions, aren’t on topic. They need to address a specific UX problem or asking something within the realm of UX. Asking why most cars are black doesn’t do a good question, but asking what effect this may have on users can be good. This is where we (the entire community) need to actively review posts made here.

Link bait on these question is like an ad - gives the wrong picture of the product you're selling. We don’t want to sell UX.SE for something that it isn’t. We get a lot of attention already with good insightful questions on specific UX making our voice heard more than other communities. We’re like “a medium size dog, with a big dog attitude” (Comment stolen from US officials’ internal letters leaked to WikiLeaks and concerned Sweden’s former Minister of Foreign Affair Carl Bildt). Other communities are three times the size of this one, but don’t have near the viral community UX.SE has, and don’t get the attention they deserve. We have more than our fair share of internal ads on hot questions at least twice a month. Let those questions be good ones.

For the particular question, I got a flag for too many comments on an answer, but I didn’t see a flag for off topic question. So I just jumped in, moved the comments on an answer to chat, and went away. Without looking at the question. My bad. I got a second flag for too many comments on the question, jumped in and moved those comments to chat, and read your comment at the top. I left it there because you have an exceptional way of posting great answer in a single sentence. Other comments where moved. Then I saw this post in Meta and thought to myself – you’re right, went back to the question and closed it.

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    I'm honestly having trouble understanding how the questions that the OP linked to are not related to the users experience of an interface. For example a speedometer is an interface for measuring a specific life-critical metric, its design criteria are pure UX. I really can't agree that these have "only a remote connection to UX" – Racheet Mar 12 '15 at 10:55
  • That would be arguing that "dashboard design" is UX when on a web dashboard, but somehow not UX when on a literal dashboard, be that on a car or in a nuclear power-plant control room. Even if you're using literally the same elements (dials, charts, grids, number spinners etc) – Racheet Mar 12 '15 at 10:59
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    @Racheet a speedometer is an interface and is UX centric. But the question is not. The answer to said question has nothing to do with UX. The broad topic of physical objects isn't what is of concern. It's when the question is overly specific about a physical object and is asking why something was designed a certain way when the reason is usually not UX related (budgets, manufacturing issues, marketing, etc.) – DA01 Apr 7 '15 at 5:52
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I'm certainly a minority here, but I'm a fan of these questions for reasons articulated in this controversial SO meta post:

https://meta.stackoverflow.com/questions/285545/narrowing-ourselves-into-irrelevance

As you guys put it, this is an area where there are 50 shades of grey. I don't see why we should be ceding popular, UX related questions to Quora. We have a much better chance to build a meaningful global UX community here than Quora or Reddit, so it seems awfully defeatist to point at a set of rules on question scope and shrug.

Popular questions may fall slightly or outside the scope rules of the site, but they have big systemic benefits to the community. They draw outside audiences into UX, have the ability to inspire and educate lay audiences on design and design thinking, and provide social and viral vectors for the broader community to be aware of ux.

I don't believe that the UX.SE community is particularly viral today btw. A majority of the question volume is oriented at users looking to solve narrow and selfish (in the economic sense) questions rather than contribute to a community. Moreover, I'd posit that the stickiness of UX.SE is driven more today by gamification than by community. There is so much more social potential here.

I know I'm in the minority, but I think it important that SE doesn't fall into the well paved trap of historical communities and religions, where the accretion of rules becomes a quagmire that stops the community from evolving positively instead of narrowing itself into introspective bureaucracy.

At least at UX.SE I see a more open-minded disposition towards considering the alternatives. For example, (not?) coincidentally the 3 currently active questions on UX meta are all clustered around this issue:

enter image description here

  • Note that material design is very much a UX question. Material design is not about physical objects, but actual user interface design. The other two topics, I think, are where we simply disagree. UX has scope. It's not overly narrow, but it's important to define it. Marketing and industrial design are simply not primarily UX centric. There's overlap, but it's thin. – DA01 Mar 8 '15 at 0:41
  • Yes we disagree on this point. Interaction design certainly covers something as ubiquitous as a speedometer. Here in Silicon Valley there's a lot of hubris around digital design, and designers forget that there is much deeper experience and thoughtfulness in objects like speedometers than objects like input fields. I thought the speedometer question was excellent because it shows the difference between user experience design and usability. I think it's sloppy to turn this over to marketing: that represents a failure to understand deeply what really drives user experience. – tohster Mar 8 '15 at 1:05
  • Oh, I completely agree that there's a UX aspect to a speedometer (and the car's entire dash, for that matter). That's not my concern...it's that the question wasn't a UX question. The answer is, truly, marketing in this situation...or, to a lesser extent, supply chain optimization. That the speedo actually exceeds the physical capabilities of the car, I would argue, is an example of a lack of UX design. – DA01 Mar 8 '15 at 2:29
  • Yes. I think we have different perspectives on that. I believe it was a great UX question because user experience is the precise reason speedometers are designed aspirationally. Otherwise it would be mere functional or industrial design: the design for user experience is what drives the outcome here. – tohster Mar 8 '15 at 2:40
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    @downvoters rather than just downvote, please comment on why. This is a question tagged as a discussion and this is a reasoned answer even if you disagree with the opinion (which was expressly qualified as a minority one). So it's rather poor form to just downvote. Be aware that there is self selection with the moderator/privileged user base because folks are highly invested in the existing system. That shouldn't be a reason not to value or consider reasonable minority opinions. Otherwise meta becomes an echo chamber. – tohster Mar 8 '15 at 20:52
  • I didn't downvote, but note that in meta, votes are used a bit differently. They're not necessarily a judgement on the quality your answer, but rather whether people agree or disagree. – DA01 Mar 8 '15 at 23:22
  • @DA01 of course, but it isn't much of a tag:discussion if this is a Hyde Park style platform where several speakers deliver monologues and there is no actual discussion. – tohster Mar 8 '15 at 23:47
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    Downvoting without stating why or how you disagree is entirely unproductive in meta. It means the downvoter is either too lazy or is unable to articulate a counter point that demonstrates the clarity and quality of the OP's contribution to the conversation. – Charles Wesley Mar 11 '15 at 15:55
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    @CharlesWesley thanks for saying that, it gave me the kick I needed to go and actually justify my downvote on another answer. – Racheet Mar 12 '15 at 11:05
  • Not every answer needs a counterpoint. In meta, sometimes a vote is nothing more than an 'I agree' or 'I disagree'. – DA01 Apr 17 '15 at 6:01
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Too often UX gets caught up in digital interface design and leaves out an enormous part of UX that deals with real world objects and design decisions. In addition, even thinking about real world objects for many UX fans gets them to think about UX in a way that they haven't before, and let's them learn about the processes that go into it.

The downside for many real world UX questions is that they aren't as simple as "should the button be on the left or the right", and so tend to be somewhat broader. The effect is that they often cultivate poor answers as everyone wants to have their 2 cents of input. However, to me, that is a moderation issue, and as mods, we should simply be strict on removing poor answers to questions if it would be possible to answer the question well. Closing the question in cases like that seems unfair to both the person asking the question, and the entire UX community.

Then lastly, real world questions are of interest to a broader range of people, and tends to expose UX.SE to a greater number of new members. The downside is that the new members tend to not be aware of the style of answers that are acceptable, and cause a flood of poor answers - which once again I would argue is a moderation problem. However, the new members also bring in some long term users who stay and add to the site. Just as in many business cases, we need to balance the needs of sometimes conflicting interests.

In my opinion, UX.SE needs to be exposed to a broader audience, and real-world questions tend to do that better than UX specialist questions about the latest research into affordance and skeumorphism are likely to do. We need to be a site that feeds the UX interests of a range of UX fans, from the new to the experienced. To do this better, I would personally like to see more real world questions on UX.SE.

Looking at all the 'quasi' real world questions on this site, I don't see one that couldn't be answered well. Our challenge is to answer them well, and in those answers demonstrate the value of UX to some new eyes.

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    I don't disagree with this in general. Yes, design of physical objects can very much be a UX centric question. Perhaps my title was poor. My beef is with poorly written real-world object questions that don't actually address UX thinking. – DA01 Mar 9 '15 at 14:31
  • @DA01 Could you link a few more examples so that I can be clearer on which types of questions you're referring? – JohnGB Mar 9 '15 at 15:34
  • I added a few examples to the question. – DA01 Mar 9 '15 at 16:26
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    @DA01 It's clearly a subjective issue then as I quite like the examples that you've given. Granted, each question could be improved, and there are quite a few poor answers, however imho the overall gist of it is positive. – JohnGB Mar 10 '15 at 7:22
  • UX is about designing 'stuff' (not just screens) to make them easier to use - as is illustrated by the examples in Don Norman's seminal book on the subject: from 1988: amazon.co.uk/Design-Everyday-Things-revised-expanded/dp/… However there are more jobs designing screens - which is why there are more people discussing screen design not stuff design... – PhillipW Mar 10 '15 at 10:27
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    @PhillipW My beef isn't so much about 'stuff' as it is about 'questions about stuff that aren't really UX-focused'. – DA01 Mar 10 '15 at 21:59
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    Which of course then begs the question of 'what is UX' ? - I, for example, would argue that UX encompasses 'Behavioural Economics' - which is a scientific approach to looking at what people actually do in their purchasing decisions: However once we step into this territory then we start to rub up against what the marketing people will argue is 'their bit' – PhillipW Mar 11 '15 at 9:55
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    @PhillipW I agree completely. Moreover, UX is a multidisciplinary so I think it's more productive to define it inclusively (e.g. Dan Saffer's diagram: i.stack.imgur.com/Ox6PY.jpg) rather than exclusively ("it's not marketing"). I've found that UX.SE overrepresents traditional UI and really underrepresents and frankly undervalues experience design. It's one of the areas where digital design lags behind physical design in maturity. – tohster Mar 11 '15 at 22:35
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But the answer is often "well, because it wasn't really designed" as much as "marketing, engineering, sales, etc." is the reason.

All of those are part of what leads to a particular user experience. We might wish such constraints didn't exist, but for every realistic UX question, they do.

Understanding the role of these constraints is part of the process of learning how to do UX. How can you design, despite these constraints?

That being said, they might not be a fit for SE format. These questions usually ask for a definitive "WHY", however, which is not something we can answer. What we can do is point out the pressures that might have led to such a design. In the past we've sometimes edited the questions to ask an answerable version--e.g., turning "Why are lights red?" into "What impact results from lights being red?" or "What factors should I consider when designing a light to be red?" (though that last one sounds like the 'call for opinions' pattern SE tries to avoid).

We often pretend that UX questions can be answered in some Platonic fashion, but every user experience is embedded in the real world. Hence, real world examples often bring up the dirty truth that every deployed UX is a compromise. Let's make that visible, instead of hiding it.

  • I don't necessarily disagree with this. The catch is that these are often the most popular questions on the site. So we end up with the most popular questions essentially saying "yea, that wasn't really a UX decision...". Maybe that exonerates us. :) – DA01 Mar 17 '15 at 19:29
  • I guess it's a philosophical question: is there UX without context? Or are we just fooling ourselves to think that the design should be our idea, the platonic UX we imagine free of constraint? – Alex Feinman Mar 23 '15 at 14:27
  • There's always constraint and I agree context is key. Still, if the answer is outside the scope of UX, I don't know that it's a question that makes sense to highlight on UX.se – DA01 Mar 23 '15 at 14:33
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I am concerned about these questions too, but I also think the "real world" part is a red herring.

The problem is with questions which ask "Why is X the way it is?" and even worse, "Why is Y not made in the way Z", with the assumption that Z is the one and only good way to design Y. These are bad questions regardless of whether they are about physical or digital products.

Sure, we've all read the cute stories how a tiny clever design change propelled a small company into market dominion, or saved human lives. Or simply reading anecdotes about the improbable circumstances in which some good designs came to be. But just because we want to hear such a story behind each product we see, it does not mean that it exists. And if it exists, it does not mean that the world knows about it.

The desire for these stories drives the questions. Were we to remain with the questions only, that wouldn't have been too bad. We don't seem to have many journalists or historians willing to research the origins of common product design here, so the questions could just gather tumbleweed badges.

But the problem is that people who don't have any idea of the real answer rush to answer with unproven conjectures. Somebody who's never had to design a dishwasher starts telling you "it has no window in the door because the water in it looks disgusting". And gets tons of votes because it sounds plausible. Frankly, if the actual designer of a product comes along without revealing his identity and states the real, but boring reason, his answer will probably disappear on the third page where nobody reads it.

But the problem is that just because something sounds plausible, it doesn't have to be true. So these questions become kind of the birthing place of a new mythology. They are the opposite of what Stack Exchange attempts to achieve: reliable information.

Stack exchange has long noticed that some very popular types of questions don't fare well with our format, not because they are not interesting, but because voting loses its quality control function. For example, this is why list questions are banned from almost every site. My view is that anything which asks for "why is a design the way it is" should be removed with extreme prejudice.

Some of these questions can certainly be salvaged. "Do traffic lights have user experience advantages over roundabouts?" is a valid question. But to pretend that traffic lights are installed because politicians deliberate over user experience instead of the cost of machines and electricity vs. that guy from Siemens telling them they'll have to fire 200 people from their traffic lights producing plant unless the city installs traffic lights in the newly developed area means we are leading the gullible astray and becoming a laughingstock for the others.

  • You are right, the real world part was definitely a red herring and confusing people. I have zero beef with real world UX. It's more about "why is this thing that's always been this way this way?" that is the gripe. I've updated the question title to reflect! – DA01 Apr 17 '15 at 16:40
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    Also, I completely agree with everything else here as well. The fact that these bad questions have equally bad answers is the real concern--especially when said answer has 50+ upvotes, but is pure conjecture. – DA01 Apr 17 '15 at 16:45
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I asked Why do people mount TVs so high on the wall in their homes? because I wanted to know what problem people are trying to solve by doing this (to me) counter-intuitive behavior. It's not a question about the design of the TV but about the environment in which people use a tool. That seemed like UX to me, so I asked it here.

I asked Why do public restrooms place the paper holders so low? for the same reason (though here the "users" are really the installers, not the end users).

At the time I asked these questions (2.5 and 1.5 years ago, respectively) they seemed to be in-scope here. Sometimes scope changes; if so, please just let me know (since closures don't generate user notifications).

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    Your comment about “users are really the installers” is a good insight. I went to a talk by an appliance manufacturer & they showed historical product & then said they shifted focus from home owners to home builders. So the user experience they were optimizing for drove the change in appliance design and installation. And that’s exactly why I agree with you these topics are worth discussing here on UX.SE. – Michael Hogan Jan 7 at 0:38

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