Encapsulating User Experience

Innovating UX Practice

Inspirations from software engineering

A column by Peter Hornsby
October 24, 2016

We live in a time when the amount of information available on the Web about any subject far outstrips the wildest dreams of the early pioneers of the Internet. There are thousands of sources of information on any topic. Click-bait titles like “Top 10 Mistakes in Web Design” or “7 Signs Someone Isn’t Actually a UX Designer” seem to promise a quick education in just a little time, but tend to lack credibility simply because of the simplistic approach they take.

In an attempt to simply define what User Experience is, some sources try to explicate each dimension. Here are some examples:

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Feynman’s Approach to Definition

In 1961, Caltech invited Richard Feynman to take over the introductory course in physics. While teaching this course, Feynman said:

“If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that all things are made of atoms—little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.”

Feynman’s approach didn’t seek to define what the word physics means. As he noted in his book Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, this is “just a label—it doesn’t tell you anything about what it actually is.” So, instead, he set out a simple statement that nonetheless contains a huge amount of information. As psychologists know, making someone process information rather than simply giving them an answer is a more effective approach in helping them to build deep knowledge.

More recently, Michael Pollan summarized healthy eating as, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” The key takeaways from this statement are messages around eating real food rather than over-processed junk, showing restraint in the quantities of food you consume, and the benefits of favoring plants over meat or fish as the largest portion of the diet.

Most people consume articles on the Web like candy. Their brain is briefly engaged and their immediate need for information is satisfied, but little sinks in—at least little of any real value. The more deeply someone engages with content, the more likely they are to remember it.

I like these statements from Feynman and Pollan because they encapsulate a huge amount of information if the listener is prepared to think deeply about these statements and consider how they might translate into a more formal understanding of that information, as well as how to act.

Defining User Experience

So how might we pass on the meaning of User Experience to a future generation? I propose the following statement as a way of encapsulating UX design:

Figure out what people need to do and what they already understand, then quickly design the best solution you can. Get your users to try it, then make it better.

The first part of this statement is about understanding what people need to do. By understanding the user’s fundamental requirement—as opposed to the current solution or even what users think they need—we start to understand the problem. Learning about what users already understand is the basis for user research. Note that I’ve described this as what users understand rather than what they know. This is partly because of my personal belief that, when someone says they understand something, this shows a deeper level of comprehension than their simply knowing something.

As UX designers, when we design a solution, we need to get it in front of users as quickly as possible. It’s important to get feedback to validate that our understanding of our users and of the problem we’re solving is correct—or show we need to think again. When I talk about quickly designing a solution, I’m really thinking about the idea of the minimal viable product (MVP) that is key to the Lean Startup and Lean UX methods. If we focus on understanding the fundamental need of the user and addressing it, then validate our understanding of users and the problem we’re solving, stakeholders will perceive us as delivering value to the business.

The last part of my statement about the meaning of User Experience considers getting users to try out the solution, then making it better. Only when users interact with a solution and start to get a feel for it themselves can they really provide any kind of informed judgment about it. So, how can you make a solution better? Really listen to your users, then refine your solution, using what you’ve learned. Though, in some cases, you might even need to throw away your original solution and start anew, taking a different approach. This is often a more effective approach to problem solving if you’ve ventured into a design cul de sac. Your first attempt at a solution might not be the best approach to solving the problem.


I really hope we’ll never be in a situation where we have to transfer knowledge in this way, with no other alternative available! However, regardless of the merits of my particular statement about the meaning of User Experience, I do feel that this approach to developing and transferring knowledge about User Experience—to teaching and understanding User Experience—has value. Presenting the listener with only a small amount of information and encouraging that person to reflect upon and consider the implications of a statement in relation to whatever they need to do has value.

I would be very interested in hearing any other suggestions for ways in which we could communicate an understanding of User Experience in a concise way that helps the listener to reflect upon what we’re communicating. Please add your thoughts to the comments. 

Director at Edgerton Riley

Reading, Berkshire, UK

Peter HornsbyPeter has been actively involved in Web design and development since 1993, working in the defense and telecommunications industries; designing a number of interactive, Web-based systems; and advising on usability. He has also worked in education, in both industry and academia, designing and delivering both classroom-based and online training. Peter is a Director at Edgerton Riley, which provides UX consultancy and research to technology firms. Peter has a PhD in software component reuse and a Bachelors degree in human factors, both from Loughborough University, in Leicestershire, UK. He has presented at international conferences and written about reuse, eLearning, and organizational design.  Read More

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