What is User Experience?

I’m tired of discussing “user experience.” What it is, what it isn’t. I’m tired of talking about wireframes vs prototypes. I’m tired of the agile-lean-waterfall debates. I’m weary from discussing personas and sitemaps. I’m wary of design patterns, and I’m pretty sure the term “user” has held us back. Above all, I’m tired of defining the damn thing. None of this is what I practice, and these things aren’t user experience.

So what is UX?

Let’s talk instead about two kinds of people:

At the end of the day, there are those people who will go quietly about their jobs, perhaps grumbling about not having a “seat at the table.” These people may have also been taught the right way to do things. Then, there are others who–regardless of their titles or position–will stand up and say, “Wait a minute, why are we doing it this way?”

What sets these folks apart is a relentless curiosity.

They are the people who ask all the “what if?” and “why not?” questions. They disrupt processes when the process isn’t paying off. And they defy decisions, when the decisions don’t make sense. They may be subversive, but their goal isn’t subversion. Rather, they care. About the experience being designed for, and the people who will have to live with these experiences.

They care because of another vital quality: Empathy. They care about people. It’s not all about the paycheck for them. They care about what is created, because people will be affected, influenced, hindered or helped. They care about the business, people served by that business, and ultimately the world. They are curious, have empathy, and are vocal, which puts them in an interesting position.

Regardless of their appointed position, those who care will be found at the center of all that is designed, built, served, or otherwise experienced by people. These people will care about load times in browsers as well as long lines at the grocery store. They care about the details that make or break an experience: remembering a name, when someone on hold is transferred to another representative, or fixing the out of place pixel because, well, it matters.

They care about solving the real problems. And to be clear, they care about the business that enables these experiences. No customer=no business (and vice versa). Because they care about all of these details, they don’t fit neatly into an existing business unit. And they don’t even want their own business unit. They’d rather cut across silos, and grin at the magic that happens when people collaborate across disciplines.

These people have been around, long before the term “UX.” And these people will still be around, long after UX has either died out or hardened into a certifiable profession.

I am one of these people. I design experiences. Or I design for experiences, if we must mince words. I don’t do this because I was trained to do so. I do this because I must. I am a User Experience Designer. Or whatever they’re calling it these days.


  1. Stephen, I’ve been debating all of this in my head lately, too. I have an entire wall covered with post-its covering most of what you’ve mentioned here. That wall is there reminding me after a tough day that I care about users and their experiences, and businesses goals. I think different from most, I don’t back down, I rock the boat… and that’s ok.

    Absolutely. Awesome. Article. Well said.

  2. Nice read that I actually can relate to. I urge to do things right and not just what randomly pops into my head. Users matters, experience matters. Period.
    I don’t have a degree in design or related, but I struggle to find the best solutions in my work.
    I don’t verbalize it but sometimes I just think “If you can’t backup your design decisions with user research, patterns, principles or case studies you might as well go back doing print design…”

  3. Totally agree… I’m in the same boat as you. I do what you saying a lot, more than I should, but until there is change I’ll continue to. I’d add one more word that others have said that they feel I have displayed with empathy and that is passion. I think you need to have empathy first, but to go in day and day out and really push against the tide, you need to have passion for what you do. A decent paycheck doesn’t hurt either 😉

  4. Well said, and thank you for this! I agree wholeheartedly.

    The debate will rage on however, because others have a logistical need for definition, not just personal perspective. How do you measure the above qualities? How do you put them in a job description? How do you train someone on these qualities? And where does my role as “someone who cares” end and another role begin? (At least these are the conversations I have with HR. 😉

    But if we can at least set aside our internal debate, I think that’s a great step forward…

  5. I really enjoyed reading this article. The focus on empathy for people is great, user experience research should be more closely linked to it. I don’t see that word often enough. If anyone here is interested, I have started a discussion on the role of empathy in social interaction for information professionals (equally applicable to UX researchers and designers): http://www.academia.edu/345159/Social_interaction_and_the_role_of_empathy_in_information_and_knowledge_management_A_literature_review

  6. Very well put Steven… The first thing that an Experience Designer should have is Passion & Pride about he/she is doing… Its surprising to see some UX guys operating like a processed machine… Loved the way you have put it…kudos 🙂

  7. Wow, it’s like looking in a mirror! I was waiting for the ridicule or restless ‘these people are really frustrating’, but it never came, maybe I am doing something right! (even if its clearly in the wrong place.)

    Silos are where the good work gets done

  8. Hi Steven, I care too.

    It has struck a very personal chord with me as I can relate to a lot of what you have written.

  9. Amazing how much I resonate with this post! User experience is a way of life for me or rather IS life. The subversive misconception is spot on!


  10. All true. And the good news is, there’s definitely a growing number of people in the community who are arriving at the same conclusion. To me, this all points in the direction of leadership — true leadership, as distinct from role authority. Organizations that are going to compete and survive in the new economy need effective, empathetic, creative, adaptable leaders who know how define the problem, fail and iterate quickly, empower employees, build self-directed teams, and get shit done. We need to stop waiting for people to give us a seat at the table, and start taking on the leadership roles that will EARN us a seat at the table.

  11. Spot on. Everyone who builds or designs for the web should have this attitude. You do have to be a little careful in how you approach people to object against something. Having a better solution or being able to prototype up something often is more fruitful than just disagreeing without substance.

  12. Thanks for writing this Stephen! I have noticed is that no matter the job title, I love surrounding myself with “those who care”. You could easily replace “user experience designer” with “software developer”, “product manager”, or “executive” in your piece and it would still apply.

  13. Well put. I agree with you. I guess that to myself I’ve couched it in a slightly different way. To me, it’s about problem solving – some people are just *born* problem solvers. Whether they see problems at work, home, with friends – – it doesn’t matter – they know they can make a difference. Problems are problems!

    But you are right, without empathy, problem solvers wouldn’t be bothered with problem solving – empathy is a key attribute of a problem solver. Thanks, I hadn’t considered that before!

  14. Amazing Steven!
    I am too resonate with this post.
    I just want to mention only one thing that an Designers with Experience should have Pride and Passion about their work.
    Thanks For Sharing!

  15. Excellent post Stephen! I’ve worked in photography, retail, hospitality, and digital design. Creating great experiences definitely cuts across all disciplines and roles. It truly is about empathy.

  16. Hi Steven

    I am a fourth year graphic designer. I am currently trying to figure out which software is used for creation of user experience design. Do you need to code anything perhaps?

    Thanks gerry

    (gerardthrn at yahoo dot com)

  17. HI Gerry

    This is a great question for our group on Linkedin
    As well, I’ve obfuscated your email because it could open you up to be spammed.

    BTW, software should be the least of your worries: here is a link to the syllabus I teach
    focus on fundamentals, the software is always changing, Now it’s tools like omnigraffle, axure and balsalmiq, but next year it could be something new. Software is a tool, not an answer.

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