What is UX Design?

Is the term UX still needed? What do these terms even mean anymore?


  1. What is design?
    a. The process of making an object aesthetically pleasing
    b. A well-researched plan that presents a solution to a problem or business need

In 12+ years doing design for digital applications, I’ve encountered many designers who believe their job is (a) — making things pretty. And they are darn good at it. They hone their craft, obsessing over drop shadows in Photoshop or Sketch, creating beautiful pixel perfect icons, making buttons positively pop off the screen.

Isn’t that what you think of when you think of a designer? Pantone color chips, lots of sketchbooks filled with swaths of color and gestural hand-lettered sayings like “dream” and “believe”, mood boards, and a mug with something on it in Helvetica?

I’ve also known many fantastic designers who rarely open Photoshop and couldn’t care less what color gradient you use in the background. These folks are generally (b) — design to them means planning, brainstorming, organizing, research, and strategy.

You may often find them surrounded by markers, post-its, and index cards. They’re always talking to people and having brainstorms or workshops and creating a general buzz of excitement around “design thinking.”

What is UX?

I’ve begun instructing and mentoring UX design students this year. Many people who want to get into the field have read up on the subject, sure, but still find the terms confusing. “This is my first experience in web & tech, it’s hard to read about,” said one of my new students this week. “How is UX different than other parts of web design?”

I used to believe a UX designer was simply someone who did both (a) and (b), applied to digital applications.

“Only two industries refer to their customers as ‘users’: computer design and drug dealing.” — Edward Tufte

So the “U” indicates this has to do with computers & tech, and the “X” stands for the experience a person is having when doing something with computers & tech.

UX is a mindset.

In the old days, before UX was a thing, we were starting to get some web design. Some folks did good design, but a lot of people did bad design, by which I mean they didn’t really think about how their thing was going to be used, by whom, and what for, so stuff got really complicated and hard to use.

Some industry leaders started blogging and publishing thoughts (btw I think this is also about when we started using the term thoughtleader) and someone came up with the term UX and the thing just exploded.

Now you can look at a design and say, instead of “is it good?” ask “is the person using this having a good experience?” Now you have a whole host of things you can measure. Who is the person using this? What do they consider a good experience? Let’s ask them! Let’s empathize with them. Let’s document their experience so we can analyze the whole journey. Now what do we actually want their experience to be?

So that’s what UX design has become. A way of proactively creating a good experience, as defined by specific goals, for a defined set of users.

One might say that’s what good design is.

In other words, a process for creating an experience that meets specific goals for a defined audience.

Theatre set designers create an experience that meets the goals of mood, emotion, sense of place, etc. for a performance’s audience.

Brand identity designers create an experience that meets the goals of recognition, emotion, etc. for a brand’s audience.

Industrial designers create an experience that meets the goals of usefulness, aesthetics, etc. for users of a particular product.

Software designers create an experience that meets the goals of usability, usefulness, aesthetics, emotion, etc. for users of a digital product.

Design is design.

When we lose sight of the intended audience or goals, or we fail to validate that we’ve met those goals with that audience, we tend to get bad design.

When we define our goals and our audience, and we validate our designs, we tend to get good design.

I train and mentor product professionals who want to gain the skills and confidence to enhance their career and build their personal brand as UX leaders.

I also offer UX workshops for teams who want to find their collaborative mojo and apply lean processes to their work.

Learn more: sarahharrison.co

Published in Startups, Wanderlust, and Life Hacking