UX & UI Designer


Occasionally sharing some exciting stories at the intersection of design and user experience.

Why you should ditch your UX definition, and use this one instead


This article was originally released March 14, 2018 on Designit’s publication on Medium.

In recent years, UX has evolved from being used in the human computer interaction community into becoming a popular buzzword. The evolution of the term, and its adoption across various platforms has resulted in a term that is ill-defined and heavily contextual.

We have all experienced that depending on who you ask, how you ask, whenyou ask, and in what context you ask, you will get different answers on what UX is.

The web has become resourceful on how to achieve better experience for our users. Case studies, research methods, design principles, dos and donts, etc. But, before we can talk about how we successfully achieve better user experiences, don’t we need to share a consensus on what UX means in the first place? 🤔 That’s the aim of this article.

Through a brief history as well as an introduction of key aspects of UX, this article will help you understand and articulate what UX is. Real life examples and visuals will support the article’s claims. In the end, the article will accumulate into a concise definition of UX — perfect for a tweet. 🐤

A very brief history of UX

Widely regarded for his expertise in the fields of cognitive science and his advocacy of user-centered design, Don Norman is more or less associated as the founder of the contemporary notion of the term UX — as he also claims himself to be:

“I invented the term because I thought human-interface and usability were too narrow. I wanted to cover all aspects of the person’s experience with the system” [Merholz, 1998].

There might be some truth to this as the first recording of the wording “user experience” in a job title is when Norman started working at Apple in 1993. Here we discovered how improving the experience of any aspect of using a product (e.g., service at the Apple Store, the simple packaging that fits in the car, and everything else we know Apple for) proved to be a profitable business strategy.

Today, Norman’s adoption of the term has grown to become an in-demand job title known as ‘User Experience Designer’. Norman working at Apple, therefore, became the catalyst for the widespread adoption of the term, however, he didn’t invent it.

The earliest mentions of UX that I could find were in a usability engineering journal from 1987. In this journal, the engineers Whiteside and Wixon discussed the importance of shifting the view of users away from experienced computer specialists to the average daily user:

“[U]sability exists in the experience of the person. If the person experiences a system as usable, it is. A commitment to designing for people means that, at base, we must accept their judgement as the final criterion for usability […] The starting point for usability engineering must be the uncovering of user experience.” [Whiteside and Nixon, 1987].

Instead of designing for computer specialists, engineers discovered that they had to translate what they made to non-specialists: the users. Following this journal, other engineers took the lead as well [Forlizzi and Battarbee, 2004].

Conclusively, UX as a concept did not derive from Norman. He did, however, popularize it through (successful) adoption of the concept in a business and commercial setting. Norman was merely a part of a movement which was initiated by usability computer engineers six years before his job at Apple.

The concept of UX

Before UX was a thing, it was just user experience. “Isn’t that the same?” you may think. No, it’s not. Today the blended term has been shaped to connote certain methods, processes, and methodologies. But before all this, user experience simply meant a user’s experience. As in, there is a user, and the user has an experience. Done.

Why is this relevant? Well, it helps us realize the object of design: the experience. And this is where it gets tricky. As a designer, you cannot directly design the experience. Since an experience is the result of a user interacting with an object (e.g. a product or service), the experience becomes something that is internal to a user. Designers can design an object and hope it will lead to the desired experience (e.g. happiness or ease-of-use), but they cannot directly design the internal experience the user experiences. Experience is subjective.

Very often, UX is connected with usability which refers to how usable and easy to use an object is. Usability describes most intentions with designed objects, but in actuality, UX can be any type of experience, be it happiness, or gratitude, or even sadness.

Emotions such as horror or fright can, for example, be the goal of UX design, as Adam Czarnik, a Halloween enthusiast, demonstrate with a haunted house. Here, Adam realized that the haunted house in itself was well-designed, but the queue lines were too crowded and were too close to the house. This has nothing to do with usability, but it is an act meant to improve the users’ horror experience, and therefore, UX.

Attempts at uncovering what facets or types of experiences are possible are virtually impossible as there are innumerable design and experience opportunities. Therefore, it makes no sense to refer to UX as something specific — like usability. UX can be any kind of experience, be it walking through the most frightening haunted house, or experiencing the feeling of nostalgia from listening to your favorite old music tracks. Even delicious food is an experience.

I, therefore, would suggest designers to refer to the desired experience they want to achieve for their users as ‘desired UX’ . Here, desired refers to the intended experience — the goal of design. Are you trying to improve the horror experience of a haunted house? Are you trying to motivate users to dance through music? Or do you want to make a website that is easy to use? Regardless of your goal for your design, your users’ experiences are UX. And as a UX designer, your goal is to achieve a specific desired experience.

The 3️⃣ Main Aspects of UX

In order to achieve a desired UX, most UX designers believe this is done through a well designed object (e.g. website, haunted house, app, etc.). But in reality, there’s more to it. And, I distilled it down to three aspects.

Aspect 1: Subjectivity

As explained previously, UX exists in the mind of the user, not in the object (or artifact). Thus, UX is not identified as the object itself; instead, it is the user’s experience that occur as a result of interactions with the object.

The basic model of UX can be demonstrated as illustrated below. Here, UX is not a result of the design object. It’s a result of the user interacting with a design object.

Based on Norman’s definition of UX.

Aspect 2: Contributing agents

The previous aspect introduced two agents that contributes to the experience — object and user — but actually, there’s one more that is often forgotten. In an academic journal by two psychology professors, Hassenzahl and Tractinsky argue that UX is the consequence of interaction between the following three contributors: object, user, and context [Hassenzahl and Tractinsky, 2011].

Object. Popularly considered the main contributor towards UX, it is no surprise that an object is required for UX to take place. Note, an object does not only include physical things but can also be a service offered by a person.

User. Users contribute significantly towards their own UX. As explained previously, the experience the user experiences is subjective. Depending on their internal states, such as their expectations for the object, as well as their needs, motivation, predispositions, moods, etc., the experience will vary. Each user have their own taste and expectations which ultimately contributes towards the experience.

Context. One of the often-forgotten factors that are potentially just as important as the user and the object is the context. Context refers to the situation in which the interaction occurs. Time, location, culture, atmosphere, human-presence, among other things in varying degrees contribute to the user’s experience. For example, First Agenda works on the effectivization of meetings through app and web software. Given their aim is on a specific scenario such as a meeting, context heavily contributes to their users’ experiences.

Each contributing agent does not only contribute individually but collaboratively. This relationship can be illustrated through the figure below.

Based on Hassenzahl and Tractinsky’s definition of UX.

So it does not make sense in UX design, to only worry about the object itself when you want to achieve a desired UX. You have to factor in all three contributors. Depending on the task or project and what experience you want to achieve, it might even be that one of the other contributors are more influential than the others.

Aspect 3: Singular and accumulated experiences

The third aspect becomes evident through Don Norman’s definition of UX.

“User Experience encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.” [Norman and Nielsen, 2011]

With Norman, we realize that users do not only shape an experience with the direct interaction with an object, but also any other interaction that occurs in relation to any interaction with the object.

For instance, imagine this made-up scenario:

A user decides to purchase an Apple computer. The user visits an Apple Store and converses with a salesperson before deciding to buy a MacBook Air. The user then retrieves the new computer and takes it home.

In this example, the user has not only made the interactions that were stated in the text, but others such as visiting Apple’s website, opening the door to the Apple store, shaking hands with the salesperson, paying for the computer, and many more.

Not only do all these mentioned interactions between the object and the user result in a multitude of singular experiences, but they also contribute towards an accumulated experience for the user.

Singular experiences is a result of an interaction with a touch-point, whereas the accumulated experience is the result of all singular experiences.

By realizing each singular experience, designers can ensure a desired accumulated UX.

A formal definition of UX

Having gone through the three main aspects of UX, we are equipped to understand the proposal for a formal definition of the term:

User experience refers to the singular and accumulated experiences that occur for users as a consequence of them interacting with an object in a given context.

This article is a result of a collaboration between Aarhus University and Designit. If you agree or disagree, feel free to comment and challenge the theory. If you love it, feel free to share it with your — UX confused — colleagues. 🤓