What is UX?

What is UX?

UX is naturally an abbreviation of user experience – but has over the years come to encompass so much more. You may even say that user experience is the passive way of explaining what UX entails. In fact, the overwhelming growth and popularity of the term UX means it has come to be different things for different people. For the term to be of use within the context of business, education and recruitment we as professionals must however agree on some common ground.

Here’s my shot at helping more people understand what the term UX is all about.

UX exists because it fills a gap. Without UX there would be less focus on understanding the users of systems and products. In developing a product or service the success of UX lies in bridging the gap between merely making assumptions about what features users want, and truly understanding how the product fits into users’ everyday lives. When I say everyday lives this means looking at behaviors, emotions and activities beyond the organization’s operations.

Understanding users is important because:

  • It allows us to make products that are more well-received by users and therefore more likely to be successful, profitable and/or long-lasting.
  • It allows us to spend less money and time on development because we do not build things that are irrelevant or unnecessarily confusing, hence minimizing the need to abandon or rework solutions.
  • It allows us to prioritize and drive the development process, by understanding what features are more pressing than others.
  • It allows us to discover areas of development we could not think up on our own. This is helpful in innovation, staying ahead of competitors and pivoting the business towards activities that promote long-term survival.
  • It allows us to run ethical businesses and organizations. By understanding how users respond and feel, and taking into consideration related touchpoints beyond our own organization, we can build things that help people fulfill real goals.

I use the word allows because UX is more of a mindset than a strict set of tools that will always deliver the desired outcome. In many ways UX is a craft that requires a multitude of soft and hard skills to thrive. For the best results UX therefore needs a blend of competencies that will likely be contributed by a team working towards a common goal.

Even in a “UX team of one” the individual is naturally not working in a vacuum but in unison with a plethora of professionals within management, customer support, marketing, development, research and so on. Something individuals focused on UX will excel at is making sense of all the information.

Sensemaking is where you will see a lot of the output from UX practitioners. Sometimes this is described as design synthesis – the attempt to make meaning out of data through interpretation and modeling.

Making sense of information is the natural next step after research. It is a considerable task and one that needs to be approached with care. When interpreting research we can not rush through; we can not jump to conclusions; we can not ignore lack of enough data; we can not dismiss findings we disagree with. To master sensemaking, one must drop all preconceptions and prejudices about how people think, do and react. The data must speak, not the own mind. It is a true struggle with confirmation bias.

It is only when we are making real use of research data that we are no longer using guesswork to drive business. This is the purpose of UX – to eliminate the guesswork. We need to make it count.

In the process of sensemaking, UX as a phenomenon is fueled by its ability to consider and pull from a vast mix of human-related subject areas:

  • UX is related to design because it is about problem-solving. We must understand why we are building something and then use design efforts to explore and test our options. This includes exploring aesthetic, functional, economic and socio-political dimensions to accomplish our goals.
  • UX is related to business because it tries to understand what aspects of user needs must be accommodated for a business to progress.
  • UX is related to scientific research because we do the research and make up hypotheses about what will work, which we then experiment with.
  • UX is related to technology because, you know, everything is. And I don’t necessarily mean digital, I mean simply using tools to advance performance.
  • UX is related to sociology and anthropology in that it studies various aspects of humans within societies.
  • UX is related to psychology because we want to understand the mechanics of behavior and for example how habits and memories are formed.
  • UX is related to copywriting because content can make or break a solution and it is a great example of a cost-efficient way of improving products.
  • UX is related to management because we need to coordinate all the efforts in an organization for the UX initiatives to work as intended with regards to variables such as resources, training and investments.

Let’s face it. UX is not an individual wheel in a machine, it needs to permeate all aspects of an organization to truly make an impact. UX needs leadership to reach as much of the organization as possible, and it needs advocates to continuously educate the organization about the importance of a user-centric mindset that minimizes guesswork and promotes a culture of research and experimentation. Talking to users, it’s at thing.

But is UX a discipline in itself? I would say: not yet and maybe not ever. It is a combination of disciplines that come together to work towards the same goals. UX is a mindset born out of a desire to do what’s best for humans. And this mindset has found its place in providing real and beneficial results for businesses. As such, I don’t believe you need UX in your professional title to be working with it.

Am I done yet? Well, I guess it’s time for me to have my stab at a definition of UX.

Definition of UX

UX is the intent to understand people’s behavior, emotions and struggles with the purpose of enabling organizations to make better products and services for those people. UX professionals make sense of data about people and match this with organizational objectives and resources. UX practitioners communicate their findings to build empathy for users, consensus about problems and proposed solutions, as well as motivation for building what’s right.

Each new solution is an experiment that can be learned from to create the next solution.

Unlike interface design or usability, UX is about the big picture and takes into account the organization’s well-being as well as the goal-fulfillment of users. Hence, UX is not so much about creating a frictionless experience as it is about creating the conditions where both organizations and users can continue to improve their performance.

UX practitioners strive to develop a symbiosis between organizations and humans where both continuously improve at what they are trying to accomplish. UX, as a result, contributes to the longevity and sustainability of organizations. And humans.

This article is available in Swedish.

Others who have defined UX:

* Whitney Hess (one of my favorite posts about UX, very much in line with my personal thinking)
* Nielsen Norman Group (Don Norman should probably have a say as the instigator of UX)
* What is UX Design? 15 User Experience Experts Weigh In. So UX design is really another story, but I encourage you to have a look at Peter Merholz comment at the end.