People often ask me “What is UX?” or “What does a UX designer do?” Being new to the field I’ve never felt like I had a good simple answer. So, I decided to use my UX Research skills to come up with a better definition for myself. I consider this a work in progress, and as I learn more about the field I’m sure I will have updates to share. Enjoy.

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I found that the idea of User Experience Design (UX) has four threads that weave together:

  • UX comes from Design Philosophy and Methods

  • UX is User-Centered rather than Product-Centered

  • UX incorporates the Brand Experience

  • UX is a job in the Software Industry

Let’s talk about each of these points starting with it’s foundation in Design Philosophy.

Part 1: The Philosophy of Design and Design Methods

All philosophical schools of thought have their key historical figures and texts. Design, as a field of thought, really starts to come about in the late 1950’s to 1960’s. It’s somewhat counter-cultural roots are a reaction to the philosophical school of “rationalism”, from which arise the modern scientific method (The Renaissance) and liberal democracy (The Enlightenment). Design was an attempt to bring intuition back into balance with rationality.

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Neuroscientists generally model our minds as containing two systems of thought. Unconscious thought, known as System 1, is wholistic, intuitive, creative, and "right-brain”. Conscious thought, known as system 2 is linear, logical, analytic, and "left-brain".


Because of this dual mode of rationality and intuition, people tend to think of design as a balance between engineering and art. Design pulls from both of these areas, but it is also something separate and different from them. This is because the perspective of a designer starts with an ideal future state and then, through an evolutionary process, pulls the present state towards that desired future state. Compare this with art or engineering, which works to understand and preserve the present state - whether that medium is real or symbolic - and then systematically push the boundaries out one step at a time.

"To design is to devise courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.”

— Herbert Simon

“Design is the process of going from an existing condition to a preferred one. Observe that there’s no relationship to art.” 

— Milton Glaser

I use the word Evolution purposefully. From Darwin, we know that Evolution is about survival of the fittest. UX is concerned with User-Environment fitness. The evolutionary process is very good at dealing with open, evolving, complex, and ambiguous problems. These are the types of problems that we use Design to solve. Like Design, Evolution does not provide a final and optimal solution in a well understood (rational) problem space. Evolution and Design both develop a “good enough” solution, quickly.

Remember, Design balances intuition and rationality. Design pulls insight from both our conscious and unconscious mind. Without our System 1, our unconscious and intuitive mind, we would be overwhelmed and unable to generate “good enough” solutions “quickly enough”. Without our System 2 mind however we wouldn’t be able to stand back and reflect on those solutions in order to make them better. This back and forth process of generation and reflection can be even more powerful when done with diverse groups of people who are constructing both a more diverse unconscious mind and a greater toolbox of consciously acquired skills and expertise. A design team is a balance of creative social input and market skills. Whether we do it alone or in a group, this evolutionary process of generation-reflection, more colloquially known as trial-and-error, is the basis of Design Thinking.

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For several decades, design was focused on the solutions themselves and the process for generating them. In the 1980’s that focus shifted from a Product-Centered perspective to a User-Centered perspective.

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Part 2: UX is User-Centered rather than Product-Centered

Now that you understand what design is, let’s talk about another really important point in the history of UX Design, and that's the idea of User-Centered Design (UCD). 

Don Norman coined the term User-Centered Design in 1988 in his book The Design of Everyday Things. Norman Joined Apple Computer in the early 90’s and would go on to become the Vice President of Apple Computer’s Advanced Technology Group (known as Apple Research Labs at the time). Up until that point, design was focused on product usability. UCD changed the focus of design from usability of a product or service (industrial, architectural, system) to the emotional response of the user as they engage with a product or service.


UCD moves the focus of a designer from the tool itself to the interaction of the tool, user, and environment as a wholistic system. Instead of stopping with, “Can a user complete this task?” it adds to that, “How does a user feel throughout the completion this task?” 

This perspective, putting the user at the center of the design process, requires that design teams begin to engage with real users from the very beginning of the design process to explore and validate their design decisions. 

This is why the Design Process starts with Empathy. Remember, design is about envisioning a future and then pulling it towards us. It’s also about user-environment fitness. By starting with empathy, a designer can make sure to engage their System 1 mind for intuitive understanding before their System 2 mind comes up with logical but potentially limited (or completely wrong) understanding.

Design Thinking & The Design Process

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Get to know your users. Consider their mental and physical environment, their goals and roadblocks, and their motivations and triggers. You can use the internet, but it’s important to really get out and to seek to empathize with real individuals as well.


Who did you meet? What are their challenges? Which challenges can you help them with? Clearly define the problem you want to solve. 


How are you going to help them? Brainstorm. Use Divergent Thinking to come up with lots of ideas, and Convergent Thinking to prioritize them.


Take your best ideas and start making prototypes - simple solutions in a physical form. Use another divergent process to create as many solutions as you can.


Test your prototypes with other people, and eventually those users you originally empathized with. Converge on those solutions that work.

This is the version from the Stanford D.School. Sometimes the process is reduced down to three steps such as: research, design, iterate. Sometimes more steps are included, but those are often more business related steps, like developing and documenting your solution.

Speaking of business related steps...

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Part 3: UX is focused on the Brand Experience

So, we’ve talked about the Design aspect, and we’ve talked about the User aspect, so now we need to talk about the Experience aspect of User Experience Design. In order to ensure a good user experience we have to realize that the user is not just interacting with a product, they are interacting with a product that is made by and supported by some business or provider. We call this business or supplier a Brand.

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A UX Designer has to balance the needs of the user with the needs of the company, or brand, that is providing the product or service. This need for business management to incorporate a user-centered focus changes how business is done. The traditional business process is product-focused, rational, and linear. Raw materials come into a manufacturing plant, the object is built and sold. As a business becomes user-centered they have to adapt to an evolving-wholistic model. Products become services that get better over time, and users access those products through a subscription that has to be continuously managed and improved. The UX designer therefore has to balance the needs of the User with the needs of the Brand in order to facilitate a pleasant experience between them.

"The time is rapidly approaching when design decision making and management decision making techniques will have so much in common that the one will become no more than the extension of the other.” — L. Bruce Archer

The focus on Brand Experience over Product can explain the mindset seen in startup culture, or in the user of Kickstarter. An entrepreneur will raise money and start promoting themselves before they have a product to sell. In this way they can incorporate feedback from interested users from the beginning, and pull their vision into focus. 

The focus on Brand Experience can also shine light on the rise of Agile management. Agile is a businesses process of managing products and projects in an iterative and continuously improving manner that is focused less towards a final product and more towards a continuous relationship with the user.

Since a Brand (business) is using human-centered iterative design processes to develop it's service, it would only make sense that they would transform the other areas of the business to bring them in line. It is from this managerial transformation that we get terms like Customer Experience Design (CX) and Service Design (SD).

"Service Design blends the perspective of marketing, design, and manufacturing into a single approach to product development."

In a restaurant, the kitchen is considered the "back of the house", and the dining room and public areas are considered the "front of the house.” I like to think of UX designers as back of the house, CX Designers as front of the house, and Service Design as the business level design that combines UX and CX to focus on every point at which a user could interact with a Brand, such as call centers, retail outlets, sales reps, and even user manuals, in addition to the product itself.


You might think that User Experience means *everything* a user experiences in relation to a product or service. That was how I originally thought of UX design. The definitions here though are a little grey. UX is really talking about the User-Product relationship, CX is talking about the User-Brand relationship, and SD is the combination of everything that is designed to improve the User’s Brand Experience. These terms and roles tend to overlap a lot, so the key takeaway is that, when you come across terms like CX and SD, they are referring to the Brand Experience.

So now you understand what a User Experience Designer is in theory, but what does a UX designer do in practice? Next up we'll talk about UX as a job role in the software industry.

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Part 4: UX as a job role in the Software Industry

Someone once mentioned to me that UX designers design the internet (websites and apps). I think that is a good colloquial description of what a UX designer does. I think it should be possible to say that you use a user-centered approach and take into account the brand experience, but work to redesign procedures that occur in a hospital and have nothing to do with apps or the internet. Would that make you a UX Designer? I would say technically yes, but if you look up UX Designer jobs with that as your goal, that’s not what you’ll find.

“UX designers design the internet.”

Right now a UX Designer, as far as a job is concerned, focuses mainly on 2D graphical user interfaces (GUI’s) for websites or mobile apps. This is because of the historical maturing of UX at Apple and in the software industry at large. With the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT), Virtual Reality etc. (VR+), voice and gesture based interfaces, and even direct-to-neuron interfaces, UX will need to broaden it’s definition or new terms will come out to "Yes, and…" UX as one skill among many.

All that is the (near) future however, so let’s talk about the here and now. Consider the vast number of things I can do with my phone, and it just a small box made of metal and glass with three buttons and a charging port. Everything else is a screen interface. Compared to the tools you might find in a toolbox it’s not immediately clear to a user how to use such a phone.


Designing the interface for software is the perfect kind of problem to be solved with User-Centered Design Thinking. It is from this open, complex, ambiguous, and continuously evolving medium of the touchscreen that UCD found it’s killer application, design for the graphical user interface (GUI). 

As phones became more capable, designers started to define and even specialize into 5 major roles:

User Research / UX Analysis

The term UX Researcher tends to refer to someone who researches the users emotional experience, whereas UX Analyst tends to be the person that researches the user requirements for the business experience. In either case they use psychology, empathy, quantitative and qualitative research, to define the users experience. 

Deliverables include: competitor analysis, market analysis, user interviews, user surveys, user personas, user tests, storyboards. 

Information Architecture (IA)

Information Architecture is concerned with the meta structure of the app. IA is not involved in the visual design, but like a building, is about deciding what needs to be included and where it needs to go. 

Deliverables include: site maps, experience maps, information taxonomies, and even the written content that will appear on the site

User Interface (UI)

User Interface design is what most people think about when they think about a UX designer’s job. Indeed jobs are often listed as UX/UI Designer because this is really the meat of what we would traditionally think of Design as. UI is concerned with all the “nouns” that make up the website: the buttons, text boxes, image and media placeholders, menus, etc. Where they go on the page, how they are placed in relation to other elements, and how they move around as a window gets resized are all part of the UI design phase. 

Deliverables: wireframes (think architectural blueprints for a website), sketches

User Interaction (IxD)

If UI is concerned with the “nouns” IxD is concerned with the “verbs”. Interaction Designers focus on the actions a user will take, clicking a button for instance, and communicating to that user what’s going on. If you click a button and it animates a little bit to let you know you were successful, that’s the work of IxD. IxD is concerned with communicating to the user what’s going on, and how long it will take, so they aren’t left wondering. With all the gesture-based navigation coming out on mobile devices this is a hot area of research.

Deliverables: animations, micro-interactions

Visual Design (VD)

Visual Design is another aspect that people often think of when they think of UX. Although the visual design of a site is the first thing a user will notice, it’s really the last thing that gets built. Visual Designers choose the colors, fonts, and images that go on a website. It’s pretty much in line with what a graphic designer does, but it’s included in the UX process because those choices certainly impact a sites usability and overall feeling.

Deliverables: prototypes, style-guides

These differing roles each play a part in the non-linear, evolutionary, and iterative design process. Just like the Design Thinking Process these roles happen in parallel, not series. I like to think of this process as an idea being pulled into focus rather than an idea that is constructed and pushed along a path from beginning to end. 

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Some Final Miscellaneous Thoughts

The Promise of Design

Design Thinking uses both sides of the brain, so it is therefore mind-full. It is no accident that design thinking is flourishing at the same time as the global mindfulness movement. The internet and digital technology are enabling us to communicate and empathize as individuals at a global scale for the very first time. The internet is becoming the System 2 (neocortex) of our global society - it’s higher-consciousness. This revolution in information technology will force us to shift from a paradigm of economic rationalism, growth, capitalism, and liberal democracy to a paradigm of collective individualism, cultural consciousness, and inclusive evolution. On the one hand Design Thinking is new and exciting, and on the other other, it's is as old as human consciousness has been solving problems. 

Designers Against Design Thinking

Does using the Design Thinking Process make you a Designer? There are actually a lot of Designers out there that dislike Design Thinking. Their argument reminds me of the moral of the movie Ratatouille. "Anyone can design" does not mean everyone can design [well], it means that anyone has the ability to become a good designer, and that a good designer could come from anywhere. The debate around Design Thinking pits the more egalitarian view of design as any process of goal-oriented exploration, and the more elitist view of Design as the pool of skills possessed by professional Designers, of which only one skill is the Design Thinking Process. The reality is, of course, somewhere in the middle. 

UX Bootcamps

This division plays into how people view the various UX bootcamps (and coding camps for that matter) that companies like General Assembly offer. Bootcamps can show you the Design Process. They can help you create the space in your life to go through several projects. They can help you gain friends who are also just entering the field, and connect you with a network of already working professionals. They are not going to teach you to be a Professional Designer. They do not have enough time and depth to teach you all the facets required to be a Professional Designer. That’s why some people agree they teach design, and some do not. However, there is a huge industry demand for designers, so companies are willing to take a chance and hire students who can use the bootcamps to produce a promising portfolio that demonstrate some design knack. 

There is no clear and defined path to becoming a designer or Designer. If you are interested in becoming a UX designer I hope this article has helped you to understand what it is, what it isn’t, and maybe a little bit about where it might be headed in the future.

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