An Incomplete Glossary of User Experience

I’m wired with a persistent interest in understanding experiences more deeply and a curiosity about how they might be improved. As a kid this led me to do things like tear apart my BMX bike or adjust the angle of a ramp for maximum jumping distance. As an grownup who designs things for a living, I still regularly break things down into pieces. Then I add, remove, and rearrange elements with a goal of making something better, or to paraphrase Jared Spool’s definition, I render intent.

Over the years, leaders in the design field have created some very helpful diagrams of user experience, some even attempting to model experience in general. There are many others, and I enjoy these diagrams. A lot. But partly because I haven’t yet stumbled upon the diagram or article that defines terms as succinctly as Jared Spool’s definition of design, and partly because I can’t stop noodling around with things, I thought it might be helpful to summarize the anatomy of an experience as a very brief glossary of interrelated terms.

It began with a thought experiment.

If you could freeze-frame a moment in time and use some kind of magical x-ray-like machine to investigate the elements within any given experience (kind of like what Pixar did with “Inside Out”), what might you notice? And if you then pushed a “play” button and watched the story unfold, how might the elements relate to one another? It was with these question in mind that I sat down to make a list, because that’s what designers do, right?

I began abstracting away, imagining people and products and experiences, and little by little a family of words emerged that seemed to embody many facets of experience — words that describe the ongoing journeys of you and me, with our wants and needs, from here and now to there and then, for better or worse.

And yes, I also began sensing the “throat-clearing inner voice of self criticism” telling me that I was in way over my head and on an esoteric detour of ambiguity and hubris. Nevertheless...

It turned into a list of words and categories.

Rather than jumping right into a list of definitions, I found myself interested in the words we use everyday to describe things and how these words might be grouped into primitive categories of experience. At the top of my list, or better yet underneath all the other terms, like the fuel that powers experience, was desire.

The heart wants what it wants — or else it does not care.
~ Emily Dickinson (later adopted more famously by Woody Allen)

Motivators:

  • Desire: words like want and need, hunger and thirst, motivation
  • Emotion: words like delight and frustration
  • Values: words like good and bad, better and worse, cosmos and chaos
  • Reason: words like logical and absurd

Expressions:

  • Language: words like text, speech, gesture, symbol, image and other means of communication
  • Fidelity: words like realistic and abstract, clear and ambiguous, signal and noise
  • Form: words like light and dark (qualities), many and few (quantities), look and feel — the aesthetics of things made. Being.
  • Function: words like add and delete, read and watch (actions), fast and slow (quantities) — the use of or engagement with things made. Doing.

Players and Props:

  • People: words like you and me (makers and users, givers and receivers)
  • Object: words like it (things made and used, given and received)

Scene:

  • Place: words like here and there, space
  • Time: words like now and then, moment and memory

And it became an incomplete glossary of user experience.

Using these categories as a foundation of terms upon which to build, I then constructed a very brief definition list that explored the relationship between the words used so often to describe user experience. How might the words in these fundamental categories be embedded in different ways and at different points within the terms more commonly used in the practice of designing for user experience? What emerged felt like an incomplete (but hopefully helpful) glossary of user experience.

Elements:

  • Framing is the lens through which experience if viewed and understood — perspective or point of view.
  • Intra-face is the inward-facing, internal space of desire, emotion, values, and reason in a person or encoded into an object.
  • Interface is the outward-facing, external qualities and quantities of form between people and/or objects.
  • Interaction is the qualities and quantities of function between people and/or objects — responses exchanged through the interface.
  • Relationship is the interplay of the form and function of people and objects in place and time.
  • Context is the broader environment of relationships — the “extraface.”
  • Experience is the trajectory of relationships in context.
  • Leadership is the orchestration of experience (desire framed as goals and strategies, hopes and dreams).

Process:

  • Discovery is the process of gaining broader perspective and deeper understanding of better opportunities through empathetic investigation, research, and play.
  • Ideation is the process synthesizing discovery and envisioning better combinations and alternative ideas or products — borne from “how might we…?” questions.
  • Iteration is the process of internally narrowing ideas or product prototypes in a controlled manner by rapidly testing, refining and judging ideas or prototypes with the intention of creating a better experience.
  • Design is envisioning the better thing through discovery, ideation, and iteration.
  • Implementation is the process of building and releasing the better thing into the uncontrolled environment — a product shipped, a word spoken.
  • Feedback is the ongoing response loop and measurements from the environment used for shaping and evolving better future experiences.

And then evolved into an attempt to visualize the pieces as a model of user experience.

An Incomplete Model of User Experience (PDF)

Wait a minute. I was hoping for a real glossary!

In addition to being incomplete, the terms and definitions I’ve put together here are not intended to be a comprehensive lexicon. If you’re interested in digging deeper into the weeds of more formal user experience terminology, here are a few resources worth considering:


Where to from here?

The creation of this list has sparked some related and fundamental questions that I think are worth considering (perhaps in another article). For instance, the goals of design are generally fueled by a desire to make things better. In my experience, however, better can be a very unruly word leading to questions like how do you define better? And for which group or tribe are you defining it, and over what period of time? And when does better mean leaving things as they are instead of making changes? And when does better definitely mean it’s time to make a change?

When it’s time to make some changes. Image Source: Gify.com

P.S. I realize that I’ve stretched the definition of user experience a bit as implied by the title of this article, extending its meaning into the broader realm of stories, art, games, conversations... pretty much all aspects of life. Ultimately, I decided to leave it a little messy, hoping that this broader frame might offer a useful perspective.