Just what is user experience (UX) and user-centered design (UCD)? Often, practitioners talk about these concepts as though they are the same which is problematic. Producing content that combines UX and UCD produces an unclear picture of our industry to outsiders, which makes services harder to sell, or at least requires lots of explanation prior to the sell. This industry will benefit by having clear definitions of each of these concepts and discussing them consistently. In pursuit of making these concepts more clear, I offer the following definitions for each.
UX refers to one’s experience with products and businesses. It is not necessarily a job. It is a reference to the fact that every human has experiences with every product and organization they interact with. The recent popularity of this term comes from companies being interested in understanding consumers’ experiences with their products and trying to engineer better ones. Whether a company is interested in learning about this or not is irrelevant. All consumers of every product have an experience with it. Their overall experience is referred to as user experience or UX.
UCD is about choosing from a collection of activities and methods from the disciplines of Human Factors and Psychology to form a strategy for engineering the user experience that businesses and organizations want their users and customers to have. Because UX is broad, so too are the methods and strategies. Such strategies can range from ethnography and observation to experiments where researchers will introduce an independent variable between two or more randomly selected groups and control extraneous variables. Specific methods can be aimed at evaluating the emotional and cognitive aspects of the experience such as delight, satisfaction, and engagement to overt behavior such as errors, time-on-task, uptake, or social promotion. Broadly, these strategies are composed of two domains: research and design. The strategies devised should be mapped to project objectives. Teams should never go through the motions because “that is how they have always done things.” The point of UCD is to 1) understand the current UX, and 2) produce a better one that benefits the stakeholders. By stakeholders, I mean businesses, organizations, and the consumers of their products and services.
These are the collections of activities aimed at evaluating the current experience and tracking changes throughout the lifecycle to validate that project objectives have been met. Typically research and design activities overlap at the requirements and the wireframing stage. After the current experience has been evaluated, researchers discuss their findings and brainstorm how project objectives can be met by making alterations to the current UX of the product. Often, findings from research can affect marketing, design, and development.
UX design refers to the activity of designing a product or system with the willful intention to produce a specific experience that is defined by project objectives and requirements. Design at this stage takes input from what the research discovers about the current experience and tries to redesign something that will produce the specific experience being sought. Typically, this design is done through iterations or cycles in between check points with end users to validate that the design is on track to producing the intended experience at launch.
UX is not UCD. UX refers to the actual experience people are having with the things they use. UCD is a strategy for organizing efforts to engineer a specific experience. UCD strategies and methods can vary based on project objectives. Strategies are typically composed of research and design. Research focuses on the evaluation of the experience and design refers to the construction of that experience. Typically, design and research teams are collaborative. It is to the industry’s advantage to keep these terms separate and use them consistently. Continuing to use copy that conflates UX, UCD, research and design as though they are all the same thing makes our efforts unclear to stakeholders. This is a barrier to the maturation of our industry.