An important distinction regarding UX

Finding a clear definition of what exactly constitutes “user experience” or “experience design” is difficult at best. We as user experience and interaction designers have offered many opinions as to what exactly constitutes designing user experience without bothering to make a distinction as to what we believe UX to really be. A distinction needs to be made as to what constitutes user experience design, or UX design, and what constitutes experience design, or what I’ll refer to as XD. My goal is to try and offer a model of the field for reference, beginning with some clarification of XD and UX.

I was spurred to tackle this issue after reading a post from the end of last year by Teehan+Lax, referencing an argument by iA’s Oliver Reichenstein along with a response by Dane Petersen from Adaptive Path. David sums up the two presented arguments nicely:
iA says: experience design means more rigour. It has to do with how you design. It’s design practice made accountable to research, user feedback and measurable business results. It is practiced by seasoned professionals who are passionate about what they do and have earned their stripes through hard-fought experience.
AP says: experience design means more complexity. It has to do with what you design. It’s design practice that focuses on a broader, more multidimensional design space. It is practiced by multi-disciplinary teams who have been trained to apply design thinking systematically and holistically, across a variety of channels and modes.
Both these arguments examine user experience as a whole, but they are born of different approaches to UX. Dane makes an additional distinction in his description, claiming that experience design is “not designing experiences, but designing for experiences.” While I do agree with this point, I think it warrants even further clarification and is worth making a distinction of UX from XD. UX attempts to design a user’s experience in a controlled manner. I have spent this summer researching and pondering our field’s attempts at defining experience design an attempt to craft my own description of this distinction.

So what’s the difference?

UX defines the “how,” the “why,” and the “what” of design, including the interactions, research, design, testing, and implementation. A good model of UX can be seen in the User Experience Wheel by Magnus Revang. UX examines the whole picture of a product from idea, to launch, to strategy and redesign. UX typically focuses on one medium like a product or website. It produces an “experience.” UX is typically situated in the market, informed by business strategy as well as user needs. XD informs the “how,” the “why,” and the “what” of design. The primary goal of XD is interpretation of experiences, exploring the factors that surround experience. The goal is to produce a concept of the “experience.” You can define “an experience,” but in the end people adapt, reappropriate, misinterpret, and have opinions and lives outside the experience a product affords. People have their own agency, subjectively experiencing the world. A new parent with a screaming baby is going to interact with an iPhone app in a completely different manner than a businessperson on a plane or a kid at a ball game. I believe UX is still fundamentally born of experience design, but exists as a focused approach to XD. “User” experience rightly infers its roots in usability and a focus on designing something for a person. Since its coining by Don Norman, UX was born of and has largely been appropriated by the web and the web design community. Its inception was based on the change in definition of interaction with devices. No longer were interactions with a computer constrained to a terminal and a person (hence the moniker Human-Computer Interaction, or HCI), but complex networks were forming around data, online services, and the people that used them.

UX is technology-centric

UX lives and dies in technology and business. First and foremost, a UX designer is trying to create something successful, but needs to to have an understanding of user needs, usability, the customer experience (CX), visual design, and how this product fits into a person’s ecology of use. It’s a big picture approach to designing for a user. It’s design with an equal focus on function and purpose. There is an end goal of solving a problem or addressing needs. XD focuses less on technologically-driven motivations to human- and socially-driven motivations when designing. Experience design sits outside the world of business, though its principles are used. It’s driven on a belief that experience evolves around an artifact based on the person using it. Experience design focuses on emergent experiences rather than experiences that are afforded or dictated by use of an artifact. It’s design with a belief that the purpose is more important than the function, but will in the end define the function. The end goal is (re)definition and refinement of the problem and needs.

Disney Disney does experience design. – Express Monorail by Joe Penniston. Retrieved on 07.17.2011 from

Experience is dynamic, ill-defined, and ever-evolving.

Experience Design is a remedy to this. It starts from the Why, tries to clarify the needs and emotions involved in an activity, the meaning, the experience. Only then, it determines functionality that is able to provide the experience (the What) and an appropriate way of putting the functionality to action (the How). Experience Design wants the Why, What and How to chime together, but with the Why, the needs and emotions, setting the tone (see Figure 7). This leads to products which are sensitive to the particularities of human experience. It leads to products able to tell enjoyable stories through their use or consumption. – Marc Hassenzahl
Experience design about telling a story, about communicating and supporting experiences, rather than creating an experience around a device. It’s a dialogue created by a person, outlined or suggested by the designer. It’s about creating understanding. Design is the creation of meaning (Krippendorf, 1989), but even moreso, experience design is a deep contemplation of what meanings emerge. Some indie games design for an emotion (Braid, Amnesia, Limbo) that model their interactions around the why and the experience, rather than building the interaction then defining the “why”.
Design has moved from its origins of making things look attractive (styling), to making things that fulfill true needs in an effective understandable way (design studies and interactive design) to the enabling of experiences (experience design). Each step is more difficult than the one before each requires and builds upon what was learned before. – Don Norman
In examining thinking by Dewey and Bahktin, I believe McCarthy and Wright offer an excellent example of what experience design entails. The creation of a movie is a frequently used and excellent example of UX design. It is a consummate design of the story, the methods of consumption, the effects, crafted in a way that each piece is designed to work together in support of a whole and provide you with “an experience.” XD would also take into account recommendations by friends, families, and reviewers and the expectations created, as well as the follow-up reflections and conversations with other friends and family. It includes the aesthetic experience, connectedness, continuity, and the process of reflection.

I offer a distinction.

UX is the process of designing a medium and the experience surrounding it. XD is the process of exploring and studying the experience that includes a medium. They’re not mutually exclusive, but UX is just one part of experience design. This thinking is based on substantial work and thinking by others before me. I do hope this helps clarify ideas for some and spark debate for others, but I would love any feedback the design community-at-large is willing to offer.
These ideas are an exercise in trying to define for myself–and help clarify for others–the ecology of terms that has arisen around “user experience” since its coining by Don Norman. The types, number, and re-appropriation of terms used in our field is a growing, complex, and messy web of ideas. UX, UXD, XD, IxD/iD, service design, customer experience, and design strategy all seem to be important, yet slightly different pieces of this puzzle. My goal after this article is to elaborate on this idea and provide a model outlining the ecology of experience design.


Post thumbnail image: Express Monorail by Joe Penniston. Retrieved on 07.17.2011 from

XD references

Gillis, David. (2010) Thoughts on “Can experience be designed?”.
– This is what prompted my exploration into the topic. Hassenzahl, Marc. (2011) User experience and experience design. In:Soegaard, Mads and Dam, Rikke Friis (eds.). “Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction”. Available online at
– Great summary of experience design. Paluch, Kimmy. (2006) What is user experience design.
– I disagree with essentially all of this article. Petersen, Dane. (2009) “Can experience be designed?” Yes. No. Wait, yes. But..
– One of the original arguments referenced. Fredheim, Helge. (2011) Why user experience cannot be designed. Hess, Whitney (2009) 10 Most common misconceptions around user experience design.
– Great post except Whitney approaches UX as if it were XD. #3 is the one that gives it away. Anderson, Stephen. (2009) Fundamentals of experience design.
– The diagram here is pretty good but it misses things, like the designer, design methods, and all those exciting things.

UX references

Lyle. (2011) ILUVUXDESIGN. and
– This offers a wonderful description of the role of the UX designer. Gócza, Zoltán and Kollin, Zoltán. (2010) UX Myths.
– UX has a focus on usability. Revang, Marcus. (2009) The UX wheel.
– I feel like the UX wheel offers a great comprehensive picture defining UX. Moule, Jodie. (2011) The A-B-C of behavior.
– This behavior model is a bit too simplistic for XD, but works well for UXD. Weinschenk, Susan. (2010) The psychologist’s view of UX design.
– Another good article outlining UX with no focus whatsoever on XD. Rutledge, Andy. (2010) Education for dummies.
– This offers some insights into UX, but more importantly it also highlights the role of the web industry in defining UX. Andy has a lot to say on this topic, much of which I don’t agree with.

Additional References

Bannon, L. and Bødker, S. (1991) Beyond the interface: Encountering artifacts in use. From: Designing Interaction: Psychology at the human-computer interface. Cambridge U.P. Bule, E., Hoonhout, J., Höök, K., Roto, V., Jenson, S., and Wright, P. “Designing for User Experience: Academia & Industry.” CHI’11. Vancouver, BC. Panel. (summary reference) Hassenzahl, M. (2008) User experience (UX): Towards an experiential perspective on product quality. Proc ICM’08. ACM Press. (publication reference) Krippendorf, K. (1989) “On the Essential Contexts of Artifacts” or on the Proposition that “Design is Making Sense (of Things).” From Design Issues 5,2:9-39,. Löwgren, J., and Stolterman, E. (2004) Thoughtful interaction design. The MIT Press. McCarthy, J., and Wright, P. (2004) Technology as experience. The MIT Press. Moggridge, B. (2007) Designing interactions. The MIT Press. Norman, D. (2005) Emotional design: Why we love (or hate) everyday things. Basic Books. Saffer, D. (2009) Designing for interaction: Creating innovative applications and devices. New Riders. Suchman, L. (1987) Plans and situated actions: The problem of human-machine communication. Cambridge UP. (pp.179-189).