“User experience is such a nebulous term.”
– Aarron Walter, The UX Reader
As a newbie to user experience (UX) design, one question bugs me the most: what the bloody hell is UX, really?
In my search for the answer, however, I turned from curious to frustratingly confused. It appears that UX experts can’t agree amongst themselves: two common definitions of UX are widely subscribed to, but each appear to describe something completely different. On the one hand, UX is described as the overall experience/perception of users; on the other, it’s described as a process.
Upon deeper analysis, it became clear that the latter definition is logically flawed, and for a silly reason – an utter disregard for semantics. In other words, UX is not a process.
Let me explain by first going through each definition:
#1: UX is everything the user experiences when interacting with a product, service, or company.
“User experience encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.”
– Jakob Nielsen and Don Norman, “The Definition of User Experience”
Here, UX is defined to be the experience that users have (big surprise). This definition, while undeniably vast, is also honest; it acknowledges the fact that even elements like customer support, transactional emails, or product delivery can, to varying degrees, affect the overall experience that a user has with a product/service.
And then there is the other popular definition of UX:
#2: UX is a user-centric and business-centric process of developing a product.
“User Experience is a commitment to developing products and services with purpose, compassion, and integrity. It is the never-ending process of seeing the world from the customer’s perspective and working to improve the quality of their lives. It is the never-ending process of maintaining the health of the business and finding new ways to help it grow sustainably.”
– Whitney Hess, “User Experience is…”
“User experience is an approach to product development that incorporates direct user feedback throughout the development cycle, in order to reduce costs and create products and tools that meet user needs and have a high level of usability.”
– UX Professionals Association, “About UX”
UX is also, at times, defined as a process of product development; one that keeps in mind both the user’s, as well as the business’s, needs. This makes sense, because one shouldn’t blindly strive to create great experiences, while neglecting critical business goals like sales or signups.
But is this second definition simply a more concrete embodiment of the first? No, it isn’t. Because this definition is problematic: it’s answering the wrong question.
Why UX is not a process.
When UX practitioners answer the question “What is UX?” with “It’s a process”, what they’re really addressing isn’t what UX is, but how one should go about creating a good UX for a product.
Just think about it:
Question: “What’s the ‘user experience’ of a product?”
Answer: “The user experience of a product is this process where you do A, B and C, while keeping X, Y and Z in mind.”
The answer clearly doesn’t address the question. But look what happens when you tweak the question:
Question: “How do you create a good user experience for a product?”
Answer: “You create a good user experience by going through this process where you do A, B and C, while keeping X, Y and Z in mind.”
This, then, is the problem: UX practitioners who claim that UX is a process, actually mean to say that the act of creating a user experience, i.e. UX design, is a process. The difference here might seem subtle, but it’s significant.
Because when UX practitioners use the terms “UX” (which refers to the thing itself) and “UX design” (which refers to the act of creating the thing) interchangeably, they show that they either don’t know what they’re talking about, or don’t care to be precise about what they say.
But this is all a matter of semantics. What point are you trying to make?
The point is that semantics should matter – and it should matter a lot.
The UX design field is still pretty nascent in many places around the world. On top of that (or maybe because of that), many universities and formal institutions don’t offer courses that teach about UX design. So to learn about UX and UX design, many of us have to refer to a scattering of resources that range from published books, to ebooks, blogs, and even online courses; materials that are written by experienced UX folks, that are targeted at the less experienced ones.
The responsibility, thus, lies with the authors of such materials to articulate themselves in a precise manner. To – as starters – not treat related terms as though they’re synonymous. Because failing to do so not only (ironically) turns these resources into hurdles that confuse new UX designers, but also makes UX design seem like a fluffy profession to outsiders – one that discards clarity for artistic expression; one that, consequently, shouldn’t be taken too seriously.
The nebulous nature of UX doesn’t give practitioners an excuse to muddle up terms; in fact, it calls for an even higher level of precision in the expression of ideas and thoughts. Only then can we build up a robust body of knowledge that can be passed down, inspected, scrutinised, and – indeed – improved upon.
So let’s stop saying that UX is a process, because it really isn’t.
- I realise that a 3rd definition of UX has been mentioned in a recent article by UX Booth; Marli Mesibov, the author of that article, suggests that some UXers think of UX as a role. I find that claim ridiculous. In the original Medium article cited by UX Booth, author Catalina Rusu was discussing the roles and responsibilities of UX and UI designers. Nowhere in the Medium article did Catalina equate UX to a role; in other words, Marli quoted her out of context. (TLDR: UX is not a role; a UX designer)
- The UX Professionals Association has offered another definition of UX that is close to the first definition stated in this article, i.e. UX as the user’s experience, not as a process/approach. However, I still take issue with the UXPA’s imprecise use of the term “UX” to mean “UX design” in parts of its website.
- The point of this article isn’t to define what UX is, but to point out that semantics should matter, especially when it comes to serious discussions about definitions and processes in UX design. For that reason, I’ve chosen fall back on Don Norman’s definition of UX, because – as it happens – he was the one who first coined the term. Many other definitions of UX exist, but I think they pretty much revolve around the same vast, nebulous description of everything the user experiences.