Defining UX

It's 2014, but there is still a surprising amount of confusion about what exactly UX means, and what UX people do. With this essay, I’d like to…

  1. Establish a succinct definition of UX.
  2. Disambiguate UX from related jargon.
  3. Illustrate UX by comparing it to the widely-understood practice of architecture.
  4. Offer my two cents on the future of UX: in a word, prototyping.

1. A practical definition

UX is the design of software interfaces. Or, as noted UX firm Teehan+Lax puts it: “…if it has a screen we will design for it.” Like all forms of design, it is a practice and a process, and there are numerous principles that inform what is “good” UX.

Today, we are so immersed in software we often don’t think of it as such.

All websites are software. E-mail is software, as is the e-mail client which displays your messages. All mobile apps are software. Your laptop’s operating system and all the programs running on it are software. Your car’s navigation system and control panel are software. Smart devices such as watches and home automation products run software. Video games are software. Even your microwave’s digital control panel is a very simple piece of software. There are, of course, enormously large and powerful software systems in place at the military and corporate levels that few regular people ever interact with. But they all have one thing in common: all software has an interface that enables humans to control it, and someone needs to design that interface.

One more thing. This essay focuses on defining UX, not so much on establishing what is good UX — I may need to write a separate article about that. But a brief answer would be “delight,” as in, the opposite of “frustration.” If a regular person can pick up your app or website for the first time and, without any help, complete a useful task that they couldn’t do elsewhere – that’s delight. But we live in a world of extremely frustrating software experiences, and that’s where UX designers come in.

2. Taking apart the jargon

The practice of UX grew alongside the macro shift in the computer industry from institutional to individual. Marc Andreessenhas written on this topic prolifically at the industry level. Basically, the owners and developers of software products realized it was a competitive advantage to design their products from the user’s perspective, rather than their own, since the users now had a choice of what software to use. Nowhere is this more evident than the web, where similar sites and apps are one click away: any roadblock that causes a moment’s frustration is a risk that your user will go elsewhere. UX, from a business standpoint, is largely about competitive differentiation, in much the same way as branding.

Let’s begin the disambiguation process. Many people in marketing and related disciplines are familiar with the concepts of experience design, which refers to physical environments such as tradeshow booths and retail stores, and theconsumer journey, which is a conceptual model describing a customer’s perception of a product or service across a range of touchpoints.

UX is neither of these. The giveaway is the term “user.” “User” indicates software. It was coined in the 1970s by Donald Norman to refer to the humans that used programs written by software engineers. At the time, people were treated as an afterthought and the depersonalization is evident in the somewhat distant choice of word. Other fields use many words to refer to humans: customer, consumer, client, guest, visitor, player, patient. But the term “user” is used consistently only in software design.

There are a lot of terms that sound like UX but are either related fields or separate concepts entirely. Let’s examine a few of them:

User Interface (UI)

A user interface (UI) is the final output of the UX process, much the same way that a building is the output of the architecture process. While UX is a practice, a UI is the actual thing that you see on your screen — graphics, buttons, forms, menus, etc. A “UI designer” could be a synonym for a UX designer, but it’s a weird expression, like calling an architect a “building designer.”

HCI (Human-Computer Interaction)

HCI is the historical antecedent of UX, dating back to the early days of computing. It refers to the study of how humans behave when confronted with computer systems. It includes many aspects of cognitive science and behavioral psychology. HCI is an academic field of study; the output of HCI is research papers. UX is the design practice that leverages many of the insights and findings of HCI.

It’s worth noting here how alienating people found computer interfaces in the early days; movies like “War Games” and “Alien” epitomize this fear. In practice, UX is often about making software feel “user-friendly” as opposed to anonymous and institutional.

Information architecture

Information architecture refers to the organization of elements within an interface, both at the abstract level of taxonomy (classification of content), and at the visual level of system navigation and the arrangement of interface elements on each page or screen.

The outputs of information architecture — sitemaps and wireframes — are the most well-known artifacts of the UX process, and the terms UX and IA are often used interchangeably. In fact, the Master of Library Science degree is a common starting point to a career in information architecture (the Dewey Decimal System is one of the most well-known information taxonomies). Modern UX, however, is a broader practice encompassing aspects of graphic design, psychology and technology.

Interaction design

Interaction design refers specifically to the choreography of how a user’s actions are represented by the system and the results displayed: animations or visual feedback such as hover states on buttons, expanding/collapsing of menus, transitions between screens or pages, etc. Colloquially, the terms interaction design and information architecture are often used interchangeably but they are not really the same.

Usability

Usability is the quality of a software interface that makes it understandable and learnable by a first-time user without external intervention. Led by Jakob Nielsenand his acolytes, there is a school of thought within the UX world that emphasizes usability over all other concerns. While usability is indeed a key factor in good UX, there are other important concerns such as visual beauty and technical performance.

User research and user testing

User research is a practice that is used at the beginning of the UX process to gather information, identify problems and form insights about the problem at hand. User testing is done towards the end of the process to validate proposed design solutions with real people.

Visual design

Visual designers are responsible for the surface layer of the interface: color, typography, graphics, and some aspects of layout and interaction design. Visual design is the first thing people see and usually elicits the strongest emotional reaction. However, visual design happens at the end of the UX process because it is wholly dependent on the structural and functional decisions made by the UX designer, just as interior decoration cannot happen before the rooms themselves are designed. Some visual designers resent their work being called a “skin” or a “coat of paint,” but I don’t see that as pejorative. Try selling a car before it has been painted and its interiors installed: you will quickly discover how lack of surface polish can trump all other concerns.

3. Architecture & UX: an analogy

Unlike UX, which is only a few decades old, architecture has been around for as long as human civilization and is broadly understood by laypersons. Furthermore, it deals with plainly visible physical objects, in contrast to the abstractions of software. But the practices of designing buildings and designing software interface are highly analogous. It’s no coincidence that the core practice of UX is known as information architecture.

The heart of UX, and the mark of a great practitioner, is the ability to step inside the mind of the user and imagine what it’s like to muddle through an unknown process by yourself. Similarly, architects visualize spaces in three dimensions, imagining what a room will feel like. This creative imagination is a talent which, like other talents, cannot be taught but only nurtured and refined.

Like most other skills, raw talent and imagination is not enough by itself. A UX designer must also be aware of the business objectives of the software’s owner, the practical constraints of the project timeline and budget, the ever-evolving standards and conventions of interface design in general, and the technical constraints of the system itself and the devices on which it will run. Without these “hard skills,” the UX designer cannot propose and define real-world, buildable solutions and is, therefore, not a true designer. Similarly, an architect without an understanding of structural engineering, materials science, building codes, and construction is not really an architect -- just someone trying to draw pictures of buildings.

Every architect has a client, typically a real estate owner. For now we will focus on the commercial real estate owner (to avoid confusion, we will reserve the term “developer” for software developers). Similarly, a UX designer has a client, typically the owner of a website or software product he wishes to commercialize. The owners in both cases have a business plan in place that describes the commercial process they wish to enable (i.e., renting units or driving e-commerce sales). It is the architect’s or UX designer’s job to define exactly how to do that. Once the UX work is complete, the final documentation (blueprints or wireframes/specs) is handed to the builders: contractors in the physical world, software developers in the software world.

Once the architectural blueprints have reached a stable point, a separate process begins where interior designers are brought in to choose the interior colors and surface materials, furniture and decoration. Similarly, in the UX world, visualdesigners work from wireframes to define typography, color schemes, icon systems, and graphics, while copywriters write the final language of the site. Just as some architects prefer to do their own interiors, some UX designers with a strong aesthetic sensibility like to take their projects all the way to this finished state.

4. A final word: prototyping

Historically, UX has been a very documentation-heavy practice -- there are endless and often abstract diagrams and specifications. But really, nobody has the time or the patience for this process, and most non-professionals cannot interpret these abstract documents. They just want a model of the final product as soon as possible so they can see it, play with it, and comment on it.

The solution is interactive prototypes, which simulate each interaction so that stakeholders can experience a workflow from start to finish. Tools such as Axureor UXpin enable the design and display of fully interactive HTML models without writing code.

The industry is already moving away from all forms of static documentation. The ability to rapidly design and test prototypes with real users changes the dynamic of the overall process. Why bother with a lengthy (and usually doomed) process of trying to research what users want, when you can simply take an educated guess in the form of a prototype, and refine it with real user feedback?

Ultimately, the goal of UX is speed -- both in terms of moving users through interactions as seamlessly as possible, and in expediting the software design and development process itself. To aspiring UX designers, I encourage you to learn a prototyping tool and start building. Study best practices and conventions and borrow them liberally. Apply your own creativity when nothing else fits the bill. Go fast, then go faster.