What is UX?

What is User Experience

On a recent Thursday evening, I stepped outside my little design bubble and attended a panel discussion called “How to Sell Design Thinking to your Company or Client.” Overall, the food was good and discussion was interesting, insightful and funny (which I’ve found to be rare for some of these events).  Most interesting to me, one of the panelists, who was employed outside the design space, explained what he saw as the biggest hurdle to getting strong support and dollars allocated for design thinking, user research and UX design in an organization:

“People don’t understand what UX is.”

Well, that was simple. And pretty fair. If you ask a group of UX designers, “What is User Experience?” I guarantee they will all give you different answers. If fact, I’ve heard more people write what user design is NOT versus what it is. UX is NOT graphic design. UI is NOT UX. Over the past few years, my own answer has been evolving as I have listened and experienced working with different users, products and teams.

“User experience design is the process of enhancing customer satisfaction and loyalty by improving the usability, ease of use, and pleasure provided in the interaction between the customer and the product.”Good ol’ Wikipedia

Adding to the confusion is UX designers have various focuses and levels of experience in subsets of the field and defining those can even be difficult sometimes. As I see them, the fields include:

  • Cognitive Psychology
  • Usability
  • Functionality
  • Information Architecture
  • Visual Design
  • Interaction Design
  • Data Visualization or Data Design
  • Content Strategy

How do these subsets work together in a holistic way to create a happy, loyal and productive end user?

Cognitive Psychology

Cognitive psychology, or the understanding of how knowledge is acquired, is backbone of UX design. Coming from a more of a visual design background, at first I was a bit resistant to accept that psychology NOT design principles like balance and unity were the foundation of my chosen line of work.

Before long I saw how understanding the complexities of how people think, perceive and remember are critical to understanding how a user might engage with a design or how a design causes problems and creates stress. Even beyond that,  digging into their emotions, rational (and irrational) thoughts, behavior and motivations hold the key to understanding why people people either become your biggest fans and sing your praises from the rooftops or become the rock in your shoe.

The term “user experience” was first coined in 1993 by design legend Don Norman, who I always saw as a bit of a curmudgeon until I saw this must-watch video. Although the term is fairly new, the field is an offshoot of a field called human factors developed well before the computer was a household item.


We all know, very few products will be successful in the marketplace without being inherently easy-to-use.  “Easy to use,” “intuitive”,  “simple”. These are words I’ve heard from every client ever when asked to describe their ideal product.

But what exactly makes a product “easy to use”? Answer: 5 Es

  • Efficient
  • Effective
  • Engaging
  • Error tolerant
  • Easy to learn

Our threshold for what is usable is constantly evolving as technology gets bigger (and smaller), faster, stronger and smarter. For example, because of the lightning fast speeds of Google, the user’s expectation is all our applications — even those that require a massive amount of processing power — should, or at least appear, to be lighting fast. In the era of “big data” our technology might not be able keep up with our user’s demand for efficiency. One workaround is better and frequent communication with the user.

For example, if a user query takes 20 second or longer (a general rule of thumb is any time more than a second and the user detects a delay. Longer than 10 seconds and they really feel the sting) a good system will communicate the reason for the delay. If not, the user may start to get frustrated with their computer, your software or themselves if they believe they were the cause of the error. If this happens enough, this can lead to distrust in your system and lead to the user abandoning your product, possibly forever. Sad, but true.

Other examples of usability errors. Does the app crash seemingly every 5 minutes?


Easy. Do these features solve a problem in a simple, straightforward and elegant way? Is something broken? Does something not work the way you intended or expected?

Information Architecture

The goal of IA is to organize the content of a product to support usability and findability. I always found information architecture (even that name sounds dull)

Say, Alice lost her debit card after a night on the town. Wanting to avoid possible charges made by someone who may have found the card, she wants to cancel her card and get a new one sent straight away. She visits her bank’s website to do this. Can she easily find contact information or instructions on how to do this?

Information architecture helps structure loads of information in a logical manner so Alice isn’t clicking on link after link, bleary-eyed, frustrated and upset.

Visual Design

This is what most people think when they hear “designer” although design is much, much more than just how “pretty” your product looks.

But, visual language in still important. To the user, his or her perception of design is visual design is more important than usability upon initial impression. Additionally,  great visual design creates an instant sense of trustworthiness and professionalism.

Interaction Design

This is sometimes known as “motion design” and I find to be especially important in mobile design where screen real estate is limited so thoughtful interactions and animations can be meaningful ways to communicate importance, flow and system-wide trust.

Data visualization or Data Design

You will rarely see this This one isn’t relevant to every product but many of the ones I work on have some element of visualization. Understanding data is complex and can be taxing on the brain but great data design can alleviate unnecessary stress.

Content Strategy

In my experience, content strategy is oftentimes left out of the UX conversation. There are probably many reasons for this but I’ll tell you my personal experience and how I found out the hard way. As a “UX Designer”, I’ve designed gorgeous experiences the look and feel for online products using and assumed (hoped?) others would fill in the gaps. You know, the good old “That’s not my job” thinking. They didn’t. I’ve seen content strategy can get lumped into other areas of the business like marketing, product or business development.

Determining your audience and deciding the voice of your product is generally the first step. Do you want to witty and have people sharing your content with coworkers during much-needed laugh breaks at work? Do you want to be serious, an austere authority on all things related to your industry? Or do you want to fit somewhere in between delicately balancing between the two extremes, a friendly mentor always there to help but also someone want at happy hour.

Then comes the unenviable job of executing the production of thoughtful, consistent, engaging, relatable, actionable, shareable and most-importantly authentic content (phew, that was a mouthful of adjectives) through all channels of communication is a large endeavor, most likely involving input from people with a variety of expertise. Content strategy is also much more involved than sharing a few tweetables every now than and then. It extends beyond social media and blogging into UI copy and (my favorite and often-ignored) error messaging.

Through my research, I found trust more than anything else is the key to long term user happiness and success. Although you build trust through all these areas of UX design, none is so obvious and direct as content.


Excellent Product, Happy Users