Does User Experience Kill Positioning?

That was the question that popped up during a conversation about the Sang Han thread on the St. Louis Egotist. I was having the conversation with a certain creative director person who shall remain unnamed on account of I expect she wouldn’t want to be in the middle of something like this. We were discussing my post about the post about Sang and she said something like, “Since user experience seems to be so heavily informed by this idea of mental models, how does good UX design differentiate itself?”

Actually, she may have said nothing like that at all, but I heard something like that and since I’m not divulging my source, I suppose it doesn’t really matter. The question is an interesting one I think. So much of the inquiry that informs the UX design process is designed to get at what the user expects based upon their previous experience. The goal then is to give those users what they expect. Now I realize the UX community is not a monolith, so I’d imagine there are many different explications of the “goal of UX design” floating around out there. That said, I haven’t really heard any what you might call “mainstream UX people” saying things what would radically depart from my above formulation.

Perhaps it is easy to see where I’m going with all this. In the pantheon of marketing theories, there is this thing what is known as positioning. In “The International Encyclopedia of Communication,” positioning is described, in part, as follows:

“Positioning is an essential concept in communication management, Public Relations, and Marketing communication. The process of positioning includes identifying, defining, and managing the perception relevant audiences have of a particular organization, product, person, or idea.”

The two men most responsible for the popularization of positioning are Jack Trout and Al Ries. They wrote a book what is generally regarded as a lot seminal, called “Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind.” In it, they define positioning as “an organized system for finding a window in the mind. It is based on the concept that communication can only take place at the right time and under the right circumstances”. As the wikipedia entry for positioning notes, in Mr. Trout’s initial considerations of positioning, he asserts that “the typical consumer is overwhelmed with unwanted advertising, and has a natural tendency to discard all information that does not immediately find a comfortable (and empty) slot in the consumers mind.”

Good positioning helps a brand to stand out so as to occupy an empty slot in the consumer’s mind. Good user experience helps a brand to comply with the consumer’s presuppositions and biases. At first glance, it would seem you could drive a truck through that one. Anyone who has used any of the 37signals tools, in all their usable glory, would probably be willing to cop to the similarity of the experience with that of Facebook, or the WordPress admin interface, or any of a number of other very usable tools. In many ways, my own experiences with these tools do seem to run together in my mind as it were.

So there’s the question: Does the practice of user experience undermine the practice of positioning? I don’t think the answer set is bivalent. I think there are nuanced answers, but I do think the question is worth asking. What do you think?