What is UX?

Truth, principle, posture, process, craft, and tradition

What is user experience design? Precision here can feel like a moving target, but I think it useful to consider six different angles to the question. UX is simultaneously:

  1. A truth
  2. A principle
  3. A posture
  4. A process
  5. A practice / craft
  6. A tradition

UX as Truth

The phrase “UX design” can be stated as a fact: users experience design. Which is to say, it is our designs (in combination with context) that influences, though doesn’t dictate, the experience. The experience might be goal-oriented,

It’s worth noting that we do not control all aspects of the experience. Our fellow human beings might use our product as we intended, or for something else entirely. They might be happy, or angry, or sad. They might be on a phone in a checkout line; a smart speaker in a kitchen; or a laptop on a train. They might have fond feelings for our brand and product, or be predisposed to hate us for reasons rational or not.

We do not, in other words, get to dictate the state of the person approaching us. But we can do everything in our power to anticipate, and serve, their needs. We can do everything in our power to shape their experience.

UX as Principle

From this truth, emerges a principle: we should be laser-focused on our users. We do everything in our power to serve the human being experiencing our design. We should be human-centric.

Jeff Bezos calls this “customer obsession.” And obsession is a useful exaggeration, because it makes a critical point: we never drop our gaze from being focused on the users. And we use whatever tools necessary (personas, job stories, etc) to keep our focus thus. Because we know that, at the end of the day, it’s in our best interest to make a product that makes our customers happy and coming back1. And the only way to know that is to know our product’s users intimately, and listen to them.

(One caveat: although being human-centric is vital, we have to also keep a wider aperture that encompasses the business, the market, constraints, and a user’s broader context. Systems Thinking, too, can help us keep an eye for unintended consequences that can easily slip past our awareness if we’re single-mindedly about “the user."2)

UX as Posture

We aren’t our users! And our users aren’t us. So UX requires a posture of epistemic humility—humility about what we know, and how we know it. It requires a willingness to be wrong.

  • A Lack of Ego. Any good technologist has confidence in their work, but they should also be willing to “kill their darlings” (to use Stephen King’s memorable phrase). Our darlings might include our assumptions; our hopes; or our exciting feature idea sketched on a napkin after waking up at midnight with some brilliant idea. In other words, we must be willing to be wrong.
  • Epistemic Humility. Part-and-parcel with a lack of ego is a humility about what we know, and how we know it. Again, we have to render our assumptions visible and question them ruthlessly. It’s fine to have hunches and intuition, but we should be on our guard to question all of them—or at least the riskiest ones!
  • A Generalist’s Mindset. To some extent, designers should think broadly as well as deeply. Historically, designers have been eclectic generalists. Think Leonard DaVinci’s interests in fields as different as biology and architecture, or Steve Jobs' passion for calligraphy.
  • A Systems-oriented Mindset. Unintended consequences follow when we don’t zoom out and consider different levels of context, or look at problems from other angles, looking for possible second- and third-order consequences. We should be mindful of how every human being, product, and business is embedded in a plethora of systems.
  • Empathy. UX as principle blends with UX as posture: we must have empathy for the people on the other end of our designs. What are they after? What is their “job to be done”? Do they approach the problem the way we assume? What’s their mental model? What really satisfies their desire? Are they using our the product the way we expect? We must be natively curious and empathetic.

UX as Process

Whenever we design, we make a thousand assumptions: about users, about pain points and jobs-to-be-done, about context, about business strategy, about the technology we can use. The goal of the UX process is to render those assumption visible—and then act to test them, methodically, intelligently, even ruthlessly.

This means that we use artifacts and deliverables and documentation to facilitate conversation, to build shared understanding, and to get our assumptions out on the table. And then we subject the riskiest assumptions to a critical evaluation.

This is a constant and iterative feedback loop between the product team and the customer—sensing and responding, trying and learning, again and again and again. We are constantly iterating and learning, checking our hypotheses, and pivoting whenever necessary. It’s a constant conversation.

UX as Practice / Craft

With the above in mind, we can acknowledge that UX design is about design, and design is a craft. As Dan Willis notes, UX is actually a wide umbrella, encompassing a variety of disciplines, tools, methods, and materials, all of which take time to master.

Dan Willis' 'UX Umbrella'

This idea can help make sense of some common questions people ask about UX. When someone makes a distinction between UX / UI, they are usually concerned that someone is short-changing UX as process. A design can’t just be pretty; it has to meet a real need! But of course, the craft can be short-changed, too: a product can assume everything right about the user and their goals, and still be unusable because the UI design didn’t apply correct principles of negative space, visual hierarchy, or color contrast and accessibility. To put it another way, a project can be well crafted in a design sense, but if the process of UX was ignored (i.e. little-to-no user or market assumptions were validated), it will land with a thud. Similarly, user and market assumptions can be perfectly validated and reasoned toward a solution, but if the craftmanship is poor, it, too, may land with a thud. (Though the second situation can more easily be remedied!)

This also goes to the question of “whether designers should code.” My answer? Designers should absolutely learn to code, or at least know enough to understand how engineers bring mockups and prototypes to life. Code is the material that undergirds the web and apps we use, and knowing the material’s possibilities and constraints is a part of what makes a craftsman great. If a web designer can know something about the CSS grid, flexbox, the box model, and the many, many CSS properties available to front-end engineers—yes!

In a way, craft is the culminating side of UX design. A well-crafted product is well-made, deeply considered, beneficial, and opinionated3. And that can only result from a deep understanding of user, context, material, business, and market.

UX as Tradition

Design as a profession started with the industrial revolution, when making things at-scale became a possibility for the first time. But people have been making tools and technology for a very long time, and design draws from pre-industrial disciplines like engineering, architecture, and even philosophy.

Thus design is a tradition, an unending conversation4. It spans questions of business and technology, philosophy and ethics. What makes good design for print and mobile? What is the “grain of the web” and how do we design for it? What is the tension between craftsmanship and profit?5 What role should design and technology play in our modern life, given its' mixed-record in producing beneficial results for mankind? How do we anticipate unintended consequences?

Being able to contribute to the conversation means we’re aware of the conversation already in progress. It means expanding our aperture to include past contributions and design trends. It means historicizing our work. As Neil Postman wrote:

… history is not merely one subject among many that may be taught; every subject has a history, including biology, physics, mathematics, literature, music, and art. I would propose here that every teacher must be a history teacher. To teach, for example, what we know about biology today without also teaching what we once knew, or thought we knew, is to reduce knowledge to a mere consumer product. It is to deprive students of a sense of the meaning of what we know, and of how we know. To teach about the atom without Democritus, to teach about electricity without Faraday, to teach about political science without Aristotle or Machiavelli, to teach about music without Haydn, is to refuse our students access to The Great Conversation.6

I don’t know that the question of “What is UX?” will ever be easily be settled. But I think it’s worth trying to think of UX as simultaneously many things. Different jobs and roles in the industry will emphasize different things at different times—in one role, I might be more focused on the process as a researcher, and in another role, I might be focused on the craft of UI or motion design. But there’s a grand tradition of trying to make the world better that unites us, even if it’s in tension with the other grand tradition of trying to make a buck at others' expense. May we all work to design a better world, and (I hope) continue to debate what it is, exactly, that makes UX design UX design.

  1. I should note here that it is not always in the best interests of the company to make great products. As Ed Zitron notes in Big Tech’s Big Downgrade, many companies prioritize shareholder and investor interests, seeking short-term gains at the expense of a good product. But I think it’s fair to say that any gains thus realized will result in user attrition over time. (The pull of short-term profits is possibly the biggest “distortion field” exerting force on the discipline of UX today.) ↩︎

  2. Sheryl Cababa makes this point wonderfully in the first few chapters of Closing the Loop: Systems Thinking for Designers. Not considering contexts and systems that the user is embedded in, and the unintended consequences that might result, is still another “distortion field” at work. ↩︎

  3. I want to write more about how to determine whether a product is well-crafted, but for now, I like Adam Stoddard’s definition in “Craft at scale” is a white whale”: 1) Is it well-made? 2) Is it well-considered? 3) Is it beneficial? 4) Is it opinionated? (Still another side note: scale could be considered still another potential UX distortion field, at least if measures aren’t taken to empower teams and culture.) ↩︎

  4. The “unending conversation” is a wonderful metaphor used by Kenneth Burke. It’s used by him to describe philosophy and the humanities, and in the sense that design is a tradition that philosophizes about itself, I think applying the metaphor here is apt. ↩︎

  5. “The tension between craftmanship and profit” may be among my favorite answers to the question leading this essay. ↩︎

  6. From Neil Postman’s provocative book Technopoly↩︎