Some thoughts on what UX is, what it isn't, and why it's increasingly difficult to tell the two apart

Recently, our Sales Director asked me a difficult question. He wanted to know what the product is, so that he can sell it: What does the client get when buying UX work from us? Normally, this would be a no-brainer: any good product should be easy and simple to define and describe. Otherwise it’s probably not a very good product. Same with services; “if you buy X hours of coding work, you’ll get this module”. However, we were talking about UX, and this is what flummoxed me. Could I really sum up everything that is UX into an elevator pitch, a one-slide statement, a product that would be easy and simple to describe and sell?


(If you, dear reader, don’t feel like wading through my long-winded reasoning and just want to see the answer, jump on over to the last section of this article).

I know he was hoping to hear something along the lines of “When you buy UX from us, you get a nice interface”. And in today’s world, I know many people with the letters U and X on their business cards who would have no qualms with making this statement. This is because – and I realize this might be an unpopular opinion but trust me, it won’t be the last one in this article – the term UX has been bastardized and misused to the point where it can mean anything from “I design business cards” (a real life example, I actually once met a person who runs a graphical design business and described that as ‘UX’) to “I mostly design layouts for websites” (a former student of mine), and all the way to “I run extensive user studies to understand what our users want and need, and how they interact with our service” (i.e. what I consider ‘UX work’).

Yer a UX designer, Harry

The reason for this worrying development is simply because these days it’s trendy to use UX as a substitute for “anything-at-all-having-to-do-with-interfaces”. Recently, I was contacted by a recruiter who wanted to know if I would be interested in a UX position. After chatting with her for a while and describing my background in academic HCI research, she paused for a while before blurting out “ok, that’s all very impressive, but we’d really need someone who can do hands-on design work, like icons and stuff”. I politely ended the call shortly after.
I’d like to quote Don Norman here. In case you don’t know, he’s the guy who came up with the term UX back in the day while working at Apple. He was asked to explain the term ‘UX’ in a conference in 2016. This is what he said (here’s the full video):

Today [the term UX] has been horribly misused. It is used by people to say ’I’m a user experience designer, I design websites or I design apps’ and they have no clue to what they’re doing and they think the experience is that simple device or the website or the app or who knows what. No! It’s everything! It’s the way you experience the world, it’s the way you experience your life, the way you experience the service – or, yeah, an app or a computer system – but it’s a system of everything.

For a more comprehensive definition of UX by Don Norman and Jakob Nielsen, please see here.
My point here – and it’s time for another unpopular opinion – is that even people who work as UX designers don’t necessarily know what UX is. They’re graphic designers, or visual designers, or even front-end developers who have had ‘UX’ tacked on their title by HR departments who thought “hey, we need a graphic designer but let’s put out a job ad with the term UX on it because it sounds fancier”. Then sales departments sell these people to customer projects as ‘UX experts’ to do ‘nice interfaces’, and the customer learns that this is what UX designers do. The next time they need some interface design done, they ask for a UX designer, who comes in to do more visuals for them.
Dr. Nick Fine has called this the great UX/UI kidnapping of 2016. In a recent LinkedIn post he writes: “None of us defended user centric UX well enough during the great UX/UI kidnapping of 2016 and UX quality suffered across the board”.
As so clearly stated in this article, having a UX department or UX title does not mean you are practicing UX.

UX is a many splendored thing

So, I can hear you asking, pray tell: What it is that UX designers actually do?
Research. Plain and simple. User experience = user research. Creating and validating designs together with end-users is known as user-centered design, and it’s the very backbone of UX.
To take another quote, this time from Hoa Loranger, a VP at Nielsen Norman Group (that’s the company founded by Don Norman and Jakob Nielsen, the two ‘grand old men’ of usability and UX):

UX without users is not UX. It’s X. Which means: don’t do it. Even the most well thought-out designs are only assumptions until we validate them with end users. Pushing out designs without user input is extremely dangerous and problematic.

User-centered design is something that cannot be tacked on a project when an app or a service is ready to launch. Rather, it’s a philosophy that defines a project. It’s all about including representative members of the user population in the design process from the very start; it’s about co-designing with users, and validating design decisions with users. For a product to be truly successful, user-centered design must complement (or even drive) business objectives.
However, business priorities often lack the reality of user needs and decisions are made based on what we think is awesome rather than what is truly awesome. UX has strategic aspects that involve a deep understanding of the business, the users, and context in which they operate. Ignoring these aspects can easily lead to the “just ship it” trap, where a product is launched without end-user involvement. Fixing issues after-the-fact, when complaints start rolling in from the field, is exponentially more expensive and resource-intensive when compared to catching these issues early on in the design process.

Who you designin’ for?

Designers are not users. While intuitively obvious, this simple statement is something that often gets overlooked in a project. Designers are, typically, amongst the elite 5% of population when it comes to computer skills. A study of ~216 000 people aged 16-65 published in 2016 by the OECD revealed that even in Scandinavia (combined results of Sweden, Finland, Norway and Denmark), ~20% of people can’t use computers at all (i.e. not even reach the lowest level ‘below 1 – terrible’ in the test). Across 33 rich countries, only 5% of the population has high computer-related abilities, and only a third of people can complete medium-complexity tasks. You can find thorough summaries of the report here and here.
What this means is that designer-led designs often simply get things wrong. For the 5% elite to guess at what is easy to use or intuitive for the remaining 95% is irrelevant and misleading. Even though designers often talk about the concept of empathy, or trying to place oneself in the shoes of the user, it is simply quite impossible to strip away all the knowledge and skill they possess and truly see the product through the eyes of someone with a markedly lower skill level, or someone using a product/app/website for the very first time. The only way to understand what your users think and feel is to ask them.
However, the opposite also holds true: users are not designers. Even though I’ve gone to quite some lengths here to highlight the importance of involving users in the design process, it is not something that the users can (or should) do on their own. A trained UX professional is the individual in charge of channeling the input and data collected from users and refining that into a design that is understandable, useable, and intuitive. Doing this requires a specific set of skills and, crucially, a good understanding of people. This is why UX professionals typically come from a variety of backgrounds having to do with understanding people: cognitive psychology, human-computer interaction, anthropology, ethnography, and so forth.
UX is not an art. It’s a science. Therefore, “doing UX” requires people who are formally trained in gathering and analyzing data in a rigorous, scientific way. Using the wrong methods, collecting wrong data, or interpreting data incorrectly is just as bad, if not worse, than not doing research at all. UX must be conducted under strict scientific rigor and be repeatable by another UX person. Most people who say they do User Experience simply cannot do this process.

So, what is the product?

After this lengthy detour, I’d like to return back to the difficult question posed by our Sales Director: what is the product? Is it possible to pack everything that is UX into a bite-sized pitch, a product, that he can easily sell?
Having thought long and hard, I would make the following pitch:
“When you buy UX from us, what you are buying is understanding. Involving a trained UX professional in your project ensures that the voice of your users is heard, and their message received. In short, you are investing in a better, more useable product that fills the needs your customers have, and not the needs you think they have.”
Investing in UX can make your product. But in order for UX to work for you, you have to i) get individuals with the correct set of skills; ii) involve them in the project early enough; and iii) give them the time and resources they need to do the job right. Investing in fake UX, on the other hand, is almost a sure-fire way to break your product – or, at the very least, to set yourself up for uneccessary costs, delays, and poor user feedback, all of which could have been avoided by simply involving users in the design process early enough, and in the correct way.

There is more