#UX101: What is UX, anyway?

I am writing my new book UX 101 the same way that two of my literary idols, Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens, did: in serial, one chapter at a time. I hope to post a new segment every week until I am done, then compile the content into a final version. Hope you like it!

So, what is UX? Let’s look at the Wikipedia entry, shall we?

User experience (UX or UE) involves a person’s emotions about using a particular product, system or service. User experience highlights the experiential, affective, meaningful and valuable aspects of human-computer interaction and product ownership. Additionally, it includes a person’s perceptions of the practical aspects such as utility, ease of use and efficiency of the system. User experience is subjective in nature because it is about individual perception and thought with respect to the system. User experience is dynamic as it is constantly modified over time due to changing circumstances and new innovations.

Well, that’s a lot of really big words that really doesn’t say much. Maybe the ISO definition is clearer…

ISO 9241-210[1] defines user experience as “a person’s perceptions and responses that result from the use or anticipated use of a product, system or service.”

MUCH better. To rephrase, user experience is shorthand for how people think and feel when they use something… so a product or service could have a bad user experience or a good user experience. Or something in between.

But, is that all there is? Can it be that simple? In a nutshell, yes… but there are a lot of UX professionals who have defined, reframed and described UX in different ways. Two quick examples:

Pete Morville, the great designer and head of Semantic Studios, defined a “User Experience Honeycomb” that is more detailed than the above ISO description. In it, he defines seven different facets of UX:

  • Useful
  • Usable
  • Desirable
  • Findable
  • Accessible
  • Credible
  • Valuable


He goes into more detail in his article here, and here’s a key except:

“It’s a great tool for advancing the conversation beyond usability and for helping people understand the need to define priorities. Is it more important for your web site to be desirable or accessible? How about usable or credible? The truth is, it depends on your unique balance of context, content and users, and the required tradeoffs are better made explicitly than unconsciously.”

All areas Corville lists in his “Honeycomb” will be covered in more detail later.

Another well-known and popular detailed description of UX came from Jesse James Garrett, in his book The Elements of User Experience. He defined “layers” that go from the Abstract to the Concrete, and among those layers are visual design, information design, interaction design, functional specifications, and user needs.


This visualization is focused on deliverables, process and context… What activities and artifacts are required to produce a quality user experience? This “picture” of UX is useful for those people who need a more-process driven description of UX.

Which one is “right”? well, they both are, the same way that the many other visualizations people have created to define what UX are as well. There’s no wrong “answer” as long as these descriptions don’t stray from the key ISO description. Heck, this and the rest of the UX 101 book is my own “take” on UX, so I can’t criticize anyone else’s definition of the disciple (since the book is my own statement on the subject).

And so, now that we know about what user experience is, what is user experience design? The various definitions propagated throughout the Internet and the world tend to agree: UX design is the process of understanding user behavior in order to create the best possible experience for the user. The methods on how to do this varies, but there are some key steps of a UX design process that should always be carried out. UX 101 will detail those vital steps and provide examples of the various tactics and processes of UX design.

(But what about that other term you heard about, “Service Design, you ask? More about that later…)

Seek out these and different sources to get a deeper sense of the domain, but remember this: There is one key aspect that you should never forget, one that many “process-focused” UX books and articles often do.


The most important thing about user experience design isn’t technology, or screen layout, or content… It’s people, the users who will engage with the final product you and your team will produce.

People are complex creatures. What motivates person A may not be important to person B. The knowledge that person C brings to a device may be markedly different than person D. And so on.

The title I most recently held in a user-centered design team, “UX Architect”, was actually incorrect. I can’t “architect” an experience, because that is an individual thing that varies by person. All I can do as a design lead is get a better sense of the users who will be taking advantage of the solution my team is designing, and make sure that solution aligns with thier needs as much as possible. That’s the hard part.

UX 101 is about user experience, and a typical UX design process. This processes involve design and documentation activities, but throughout all the activities users are a vital part of what takes place. The correct UX design process is “user-centered”, hence the term “user-centered design” (used to describe both teams and the tasks the teams do).

Designing something that works for user involves involving them in the process… it’s a critically important way to ensure what you are creating aligns with how people think and act.

Up next, details on the history of UX design and a look at the founding fathers…

Process or talent? Companies can’t focus on both…

“The Most Important Document to ever come out of Silicon Valley” was released last week… at least, that’s what Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg called it. This Most Important Document wasn’t a cutting-edge business plan, or a product roadmap… Far from it. It was Netflix’s “Corporate Culture” guidelines, a document that is usually quite dry and boring.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings authored much more than your typical “Respect your employees, treat your customers well” boilerplate: He created a manifesto about how companies should grow, how to trust and empower employees, and how a talent-based company should work in the twenty-first century.

Here’s the Netflix presentation:

One of the most key points in the presentation is a discussion of organizational growth, detailing how large organizations typically start out being talent-based and talent-driven. As these organizations grow and become more complex they shift, becoming process-driven and paralyzed with rules and regulations. This, Hastings states, drives the talented people out and thus when the marketplace changes the company loses its competitive edge (s process can’t respond to a paradigm shift in an industry, but talented people can). How Hastings staffs and grows Netflix is the opposite of that model – he continues to focus on acquiring and keeping the best talent he can possibly find, paying them more than the market rate to keep them engaged and motivated.

This key point is presented matter-of-factly, with no doubt or ambiguity. And when you read it, it’s obvious and exactly right: you can see how institutional processes have hampered and hamstrung major companies over the past few decades (Microsoft, I’m looking in your direction).

Not to say that I want to go to work for Netflix, but after reading this document they are precisely the type of company I want to align my fortunes with – an organization that values talent above process, that lets professionals be professionals.

This article also made me consider my approach to user experience design. In the past I have been very pro-process, but recently I’ve come around to a completely different opinion. UX design is a creative effort, and a good UX designer needs to be versed in a dozen different domains (technical, psychological, commercial, you name it). There’s plenty of people who put “UX” in front of their names, but many of them are developers or graphic designers in disguise. You can have the best design process in the world, but if you don’t have talented people in the right roles working at their best… well, the results will speak for themselves (again, I cast a glance towards Redmond).

Finally, I’ve been very frustrated in my present job of late, and this Netflix presentation gave me a clear perspective on why. The processes and org charts and silos at the company are completely hampering my ability to do my job. I can’t make an impact, can’t “make a dent in the universe” as Steve Jobs famously said. At this company, talent is not important; process is king…. even if the processes put in place make things worse.

I’ve outgrown it.

What happens next… well, who knows? I have some very ambitious goals, both professionally and personally, and I’m looking to go somewhere and work for people who appreciate and support such goals.

And as of this moment… it ain’t where I’m at now.

What does a lead UX designer do?

Hate to pull this old chestnut out, again, but I must…. it depends.

There is no one definitive definition of "lead UX designer." In some companies he or she may "own" the entire design of a product or a domain, and in other organizations the Lead UX Designer is simply the only designer assigned to a project. For example, I could be at Company A and have the title "Lead UX Designer, Mobile" and have the same role and responsibilities of a UX Architect or Director of Design. Or I could be the UX Lead ay Company B and I'm just doing detailed design documentation and wireframes… and not much else.

UX is a mature discipline, but there's still variety in the jobs and the roles… and I hope it stays that way, because (in my opinion) rigid titles and descriptions takes away from our ability to be agile and flexible about what we do. I'm all for standards, but not one that stifles design and innovation.

The one thing I think is constant no matter where you work is this: if you are the Lead UX Designer, you should… well, lead. Set direction, veto bad ideas, fight for quality. Negotiate for and try to produce the best experience possible. Fight for the user.

See question on Quora