I’m Not a UX Designer Anymore
Published: August 19, 2013
Discussions about the use of language and, in particular, the question “What is user experience?” are surprisingly common themes on UX forums. I say surprisingly because, although people working in user experience often come from a broad range of established professional backgrounds, user experience, as a discipline, often appears rather unsure of itself. In this column, I’ll look at some of the common discussions about user experience and the use of language within the UX community.
What Is User Experience?
Discussions about the term user experience generally focus on its scope, highlighting the fact that designing what is on a computer or device screen is only one part of a user’s total experience. Good UX practice comprises many things, including user research, usability testing, and iterative design and development, but many UX designers get involved in aspects of the product development process that are outside of design, including requirements definition and functional testing.
More importantly, their work may influence other customer touchpoints, ranging from ensuring that customers can interact with elements whose design is consistent—for example, visual consistency across online and offline components—to influencing broader business processes. UX designers are often able to take a broader view than colleagues who are working on just one aspect of a problem or process and, therefore, are able to identify the need for change and positively influence change across their organization.
To illustrate this, let’s think about an organization’s contact information that appears on a Web page. At a superficial level, a UX designer chooses to present the information in a way that makes it easy for a user to find and understand. At a slightly deeper level, the designer might choose to align the visual presentation of this contact information online and offline to achieve greater brand consistency. Going deeper still, the designer might ask questions of stakeholders within the organization to understand whether the contact strategy that the organization is adopting is the most effective way to address the problem and might test alternative solutions with users to build a business case for or against the strategy.
As user experience has become an integral part of the way more and more organizations work, designers are now applying much the same mindset that they bring to the design of user interfaces to other customer touchpoints and organizational processes—all under the banner of customer experience or, more recently, service design. These design disciplines typically take a broader view of the ways people interact with organizations—with the product or service user interface being just one small, though important element.
The Origins of User Experience
My own journey into UX design began in 2007, when I was looking to continue doing something that I’d enjoyed doing at my soon to be previous employer: designing user interfaces for software. I became aware that what I had always understood to be one application of human factors had become a specialization in itself—particularly in relation to Web sites and applications. Terms such as human‑computer interaction and the older man‑machine interaction had long since become regarded as too academic, and the term user experience had taken hold in the field.
At the time, user experience was the term in common use, but the terms user interface designer or, more infrequently, interaction designer were also common parlance. The term user experience originated with Don Norman, as Peter Merholz documented on his blog and Pabini Gabriel-Petit, who was working at Apple when Don Norman introduced the term to the company, wrote about on UXmatters. Don Norman himself said that:
I invented the term because I thought human interface and usability were too narrow. I wanted to cover all aspects of the person’s experience with a system, including industrial design, graphics, the interface, the physical interaction, and the manual.
Since then, the term has spread widely—so much so that it is now starting to lose its meaning.
There may be prior art, circa 1986, from Brenda Laurel, who referred to the “user’s experience” in “Interface as Mimesis,” from Norman and Draper’s User Centered Systems Design. Nevertheless, it is clear from Norman’s definition that the original concept was broad: “…all aspects of a person’s experience with a system….” This, in turn, brings me to the term user. Is it somehow demeaning to our target audience to refer to them as users? Should we instead say human experience or, if our concern is with digital products, digital experience? Some prefer customer experience even though that term now refers to another field of work?
At their heart, such discussions about language are discussions about systems thinking: where do we draw the boundaries around our fields of work? Stripping away the terminology that has grown up around the subject and become infused with meaning, our role is to make people’s interactions with systems positive experiences. While some systems are purely digital in nature, others have a broader scope. So systems range from the online experience to the product experience to the organizational experience. Defining the boundaries of the system defines the scope of a designer’s role, which may extend to designing everything with which a user interacts, as in Norman’s original definition of user experience.
The term user experience isn’t going to go away. There is too much momentum behind it. But as the scope of design broadens to encompass touchpoints beyond the digital experience, I am personally inclined to follow the example of a friend and simplify the problem by removing any qualifiers—whether user, customer, Web, or interaction—and rebranding my own role as experience designer. Free of the perceptual baggage of these qualifiers, I can focus on the good stuff: making life better for the people who use the systems that I design.