Back to Basics: Nomenclature Issues of Experience Design


“Experience design is an emerging field, and I would be at the forefront of service innovation, isn’t it?” So I thought. Until a friend commented “Isn’t experience design just customer service?”

Experience design could be considered an ancient practice — think rituals, ceremonies, drama, and architecture, which had been designed to create certain human experiences (McLellan, 2000). According to McLellan, the ancient practice of experience design became pervasive during the twentieth century due to the influence of media, which showcased the different types of experiences and the importance of effective design.

But to non-practitioners today, the notion of “experience design” seemed confusing. As design fiction writer, Bruce Sterling (2009), pointed out, “Experience design is closer in spirit to theater, poetry or even philosophy than it is to the older assembly line. What on earth isn’t ‘experience?’” There were also many terms and acronyms that seemed similar to “experience design” e.g. user experience (UX), customer experience (CX), service design (SD), human-centered design (HCD). Many even had multiple interpretations by industry practitioners, which added to the confusion. So below was what I found:

User experience (UX) was often associated by the IT industry with users’ interactions with digital products and services. UX design thus became associated with usability issues such as improving website aesthetics and user interface instead. Meanwhile Andy Polaine, a service design researcher at the Lucerne School of Art and Design, observed that UX tended to be interpreted more broadly in US than in UK, such that UX encompassed all interactions of customers with a company’s products and services, and not just interactions in the digital realm (Shedroff etc., 2013). If so, what was the difference between “user experience” and “experience”, given such a broad definition of UX? The UX community had a semantic bickering over this (Reiss, 2014), and one key difference between the two was that “user experience” involved creating an experience through a device, while an experience in general did not always involve one e.g. the experience of watching a sunrise did not require a device (Hassenzahl, 2014).

Customer experience” (CX), defined as “how customers perceived their interactions with your company” (Manning, 2010), seemed to resemble the broader definition of UX encompassing all customer interactions with the company. On the other hand, those who adopted the narrower definition of UX as users’ experiences of digital interactions considered UX a subset of CX instead (Bodine, 2013; Lowden, 2014).

Nonetheless, in practice, based on Forrester’s Q4 2014 Global Customer Experience/User Experience Online Survey, only 13% responded that their CX and UX functions were set up as one joint operation (Buley, 2015:p.5). CX functions tended to comprise of professionals from business-related backgrounds, and were responsible for measuring customer satisfaction and shaping a customer-centric culture in the company. UX functions were performed by professionals from design, human-computer interaction, anthropology, or cognitive psychology disciplines, and were responsible for driving the design process (Buley, 2015:p.3). This seemed to reflect the narrower definition of UX as a subset of CX in theory.

CX And UX Job Listings Show Different Responsibilities — Plus A Few Key Overlaps (Buley, 2015:p.3)

From another perspective, the terms “customers” and “users” could refer to distinct groups (Innes, 2013). In the business-to-business (B2B) context, “customers” were those who bought the product or service e.g. the IT departments in corporations who purchased Microsoft Office for their end-user departments; “users” referred to the end-users in the corporate departments who used the Office software. In the business-to-consumer (B2C) context, visitors to an ecommerce site were considered “users”, who became “customers” after making a purchase on the ecommerce site. Therefore in this context, some might be referring to different groups when using the term “user experience” or “customer experience”, so it is important to pick this up when conversing with clients or other designers.

Experience design” would refer to the approach for creating emotional relationships with users through meticulous planning of both tangible and intangible aspects of a service (Pullman & Gross, 2004). Tangible aspects could include “mechanic clues” such as smells and sounds; intangible aspects could include “humanic clues” derived from human behaviors (Berry etc., 1994). The goal of experience design was to create experiences that went beyond being functional, but also enjoyable and engaging (McLellan, 2000). The richest experience would be such that users could perform passive and active participatory roles, and have immersive and absorptive involvement in the context (Pine & Gilmore, 1998). Therefore the elements of the user experience involved would not necessarily be restricted to the digital space only, but include those in the physical realm as well.

Service Designwould meanwhile take on a broader meaning for designers. Both Service Design and Experience Design required designers to be user-centric, adopting the central tenet of design thinking in putting users’ needs as the focal point of design. But Service Design would encompass not just customer-facing touchpoints but internal touchpoints as well, thus going beyond designing the customer experience (in the case of experience design), but also re-aligning the company’s internal supporting processes (Shedroff etc., 2013).

As the design profession seemed to prefer to keep nomenclature non-standardised to reflect the evolving nature of the field (Schneider & Stickdorn, 2010), it was important to appreciate the differences among common industry terms, so that experience designers could explain to non-designers how experience design could complement the work they do, and be useful to their businesses and lives.


Berry, L.L., Carbone, L.P. & Haeckel, S.H. 2002, “Managing the Total Customer Experience”, MIT Sloan Management Review, vol. 43, no. 3, pp. 85–89.

Bodine, K. 2013, , How Does Service Design Relate To CX And UX?. Available: on 25 Jun 2015].

Buley, L. 2015, , Bridging the CX/UX divide. Available: on 25 Jun 2015].

Hassenzahl, M. 2014, , User Experience and Experience Design. In: Soegaard, Mads and Dam, Rikke Friis (eds.). “The Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction, 2nd Ed.”. Aarhus, Denmark: The Interaction Design Foundation. Available: on 25 Jun 2015].

Innes, J. 2013, , Customer Experience Versus User Experience: What’s the Difference and Why Does It Matter?. Available: on 25 Jun 2015].

Lowden, T. 2014, , User Experience (UX) vs. Customer Experience (CX): What’s the Dif?. Available: on 25 Jun 2015].

Manning, H. 2010, , Customer Experience Defined. Available: on 25 Jun 2015].

McLellan, H. 2000, “Experience Design”, CyberPsychology & Behavior, vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 59–69.

Pine, J. & Gilmore, J. 1998, , Welcome to the Experience Economy. Available: on 10 Jun 2015].

Pullman, M.E. & Gross, M.A. 2004, “Ability of Experience Design Elements to Elicit Emotions and Loyalty Behaviors”, Decision Sciences, vol. 35, no. 3, pp. 551–578.

Reiss, E.L. 2014, , Commentary on: Hassenzahl, Marc (2014): User Experience and Experience Design. In: Soegaard, Mads and Dam, Rikke Friis (eds.). “The Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction, 2nd Ed.”. Aarhus, Denmark: The Interaction Design Foundation.. Available: on 25 Jun 2015].

Schneider, J., & Stickdorn, M. (Eds.) 2010, This is Service Design Thinking, BIS Publishers., Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Shedroff, N., Polaine, A., Løvlie, L. & Leichter, F. 2013, “Q&A”, Design Management Review, vol. 24, no. 3, pp. 4–9.

Sterling, B. May 2009, “Design Fiction”, Interactions, vol. 16, no. 3.