After UX Lx, still no idea what the UX stands for 00:34 on Monday

Sky, originally uploaded by Vesa Härkönen.

Three weeks ago I came to the UX Lx conference in Lisbon with one goal in mind: I wanted to find out if there’s a consensus on what User Experience is. My verdict after three long days of workshops, talks, coffee breaks, and beer towers: there isn’t. Nobody knows what UX means.

Actually, that’s wrong. Almost everybody is pretty sure of what UX is. The problem is that there’s no shared meaning for “user experience” and the opinions are varied enough to make the term vague, even irrelevant.

Taking a page from the amusing Eric Reiss and his Copywriting for the Web presentation, we (as the UX community, if there is one) have no shared reference for UX among us. We share common beliefs but not a common reference: we want to use our design powers to fix broken experiences and make the world better by creating new, good experiences. And because of these common beliefs, we slap the “UX” tag on basically any concrete activity that furthers our beliefs.

Not sure if this is a cause or a consequence of the above, but I feel there’s an aura of magic around UX.

This aura is good for the enthusiasm it creates in people: a junior pixel pusher can get energized when skinning buttons becomes user experience design. After all, the visual look of buttons is a highly relevant issue of user experience — one highly relevant issue, that is. A usability researcher is no more doing an interview after another, but they’re actually making observations about the the user experience. The vagueness of the term evokes a sense of whole, that makes the work of a peg feel all the more important, and thus rewarding.

And if you’re into the kind of marketing that promises heavens on earth with such clever wording, the advertiser will never get caught lying, “user experience” is a silver bullet for you. Just push out the next version of your product with a “now at least 27% better user experience” sticker on it.

But the magic aura of UX is also a bad thing. The fluff of the aura, and the self-confidence of UX practitioners, makes it difficult to discuss anything labeled “user experience”. The aura clouds progress, and slows down change, apart from cosmetic improvements in the details.

I have no idea what to suggest people do about this. Maybe we just need to let all voices be heard, and wait for a clear and shared definitions to appear in the long run.

2 Responses to “After UX Lx, still no idea what the UX stands for”


  1. Janne Says:

    Yeah, and once an engineer opens their mouth and talks about UX, they usually talk about a completely different thing – or in the case they know what they’re talking about, often get the “you can’t possibly know what you’re talking about because UX is REALLY HARD” -look.

    I’ve never really cared much for the idea of UX professionals. Especially with the aura thing you mentioned. UX is like quality – everybody should think about it constantly and be proficient at producing it.

  2. Sami Says:

    I totally agree UX is full of fluff. That is exactly why I refuse to even sell “UX” and try to focus on more concrete terms such as interaction design instead. Incidentally, here’s a snippet of what I wrote elsewhere on the topic:

    –8< --

    “…An user experience cannot be designed. In fact, there is no such thing because users are people too. Interactions, yes. The experience (user journey of whatever the you want to call it this week) touchpoints can be mapped and designed for. But in the end, it’s all in your and your client’s customers’ heads.

    Hence, for example the people we at Nordkapp have doing the interviews, thinking and mapping strategy, wireframing etc are interaction designers. Their backgrounds vary from engineering to mathematics to industrial design. So yes, a mental capability and interest to systems thinking is a definite plus.

    What I see happening in the quite near future is old marcom folks stepping up a notch and hiring business consultants to do “UX”. In most cases, it will fail horribly but they learn from their mistakes. Therefore I see it as an essential tool for survival that designers practice and develop their thinking & methods to suit more theoretical business factors while keeping a strong foothold in the human factors. When you combine those two with solid and skilled design thinking and doing, that’s where the magic happens.”

    –8< --