Wait, what UX are you talking about?

Most of the confusion around what UX is and isn’t comes from people using “UX” to talk about completely different things. When people talk about UX, they’re usually talking about either the process, philosophy, or the quality of an interaction.

The process

UX always includes research
We’re looking for a designer who follows UX practices…”
It's not UX design if you don't talk to users

If you've been around UX long enough, you've probably heard the term "User Centered Design" thrown around. When people talk about the UX process, they're just a different (and more confusing) term for User Centered Design. Both mean the same thing and are often used interchangeably. I'm not sure why people started saying UX process when talking about User Centered Design but that's what happened and it now makes things more confusing for the rest of us.

User Centered Design (or UCD) is a set of practices, processes, and strategies for designing websites and apps. It generally follows these phases:

  • Research (user interviews, surveys, and analytics)
  • Define (personas, mental models, information architecture diagrams, and journey maps)
  • Prototype (wireframes, clickable prototypes, etc.)
  • Develop (mockups and code)
  • Test and Iterate (usability testing, click testing, and A/B testing)

The User Centered Design method includes most of the deliverables that are commonly associated with UX Design like wireframes, personas, information architecture diagrams, journey maps, mental models, prototypes, and usability tests. When someone says they’re a UX Designer, their job is usually to create some combination of these deliverables.

UCD is usually what people are talking about when they say things like “it's not UX if you don't do research.” What they're really saying is “you're not following the UX process if you don't do research.”

The philosophy

Good UX is about getting out of the user’s way
UX is about empathy
UX is about listening

When people talk about the philosophy of UX, they’re talking about a set of ideas (or a mindset) for improving design decisions.

UX philosophy starts with putting users at the center of design decisions. Everything else is secondary. It's about asking what the user needs and expects from interacting with your interface and making design decisions to meet those needs and expectations.

UX philosophy is separate from the UX process because it’s possible to make design decisions for the user’s benefit without following the UX process (and there’s a whole lot of UX Designers who want to fight me for saying that).

Personally, this was the most confusing part of UX when I was a new designer. There's so many designers that define UX with fluffy terms like "UX is listening" without explaining what that means or what it looks like in practice.

If you want to get a better understanding of design philosophy, the best place to start is Don't Make Me Think by Steve Krug.

The quality of an interaction

This app has great UX
That UX sucks
We’re improving the UX

When people talk about the UX of a product, they’re talking about the quality of interacting with that interface.

This includes things like:

  • How successful the user was at completing a task
  • How usable the product is
  • If using the interface was delightful, confusing, fun, frustrating, etc.
  • How intuitive a product is

When people talk about the experience of using an app, they use UX as the term for explaining that.

So it’s all these things?

Yep. People use the umbrella term “UX” to refer to all these things, often without realizing they’re talking about different aspects of UX design. This is why there are so many articles that contradict each other when trying to define what UX is and isn’t when they're just talking about one aspect of UX.

So the next time you read something about UX, try to figure out what aspect of UX they're writing about. Hopefully, then it will make more sense.