User Experience Design is Dead; Long Live User Experience

In a recent post where I argued that the biggest challenge the field faces is understanding how companies can sustainably and repeatedly deliver great experiences, a commenter wrote Bryan Zmijewski from Zurb commented, “UX Design doesn’t exist and designers have only tried to reinterpreted what great product designers, design thinkers and design managers having been doing for many decades before the web ever came along. The only things that have matured are the designers themselves.”

My initial thought upon reading this comment was, “Bullshit.” But upon further thinking, I realized he’s partly right. When you’re designing for user experience, you’re designing toward a desired outcome, the user’s experience, not a thing. If this is true, then user experience design would be the only form of design not defined by the medium, technology, or artifacts of its design, and that’s weird. And so I’m beginning to believe “UX design” doesn’t exist, really.

The label “User experience design” emerged in order to combat the small-mindedness of design for technology that was prevalent in the early 90s. During the technological boom of the last 20 years, with the emergence of the Web, prevalence of computers in all aspects of our lives, and the increasing complexity of the things we are building, “user experience” has been a helpful term in that it continually reminded us to think beyond whatever narrow thing we’re considering at the time, and to consider the entire user’s experience.

And now, in 2012, with Apple, Inc. having the largest market capitalization of any company in the world, and an endless stream of CEOs and pundits talking about the importance of user experience, I suspect the phrase “user experience design” is no longer necessary, and could even be harmful. Harmful because it suggests that the only folks who need to worry about user experience are the designers, when in fact companies need to treat user experience no different than they treat profitability, or corporate culture, or innovation, or anything else that’s essential for it’s ongoing success. The companies that succeed best in delivering great experience are those that have it as an organization-wide mindset.

(Why is the comment only partly right? Because UX design was not simply a matter of reinterpreting that great designers have done in the past. It has been an ongoing attempt to grapple with the newfound complexity of the subjects of design, a complexity that our prior tools and methods were simply not up to the task of addressing. And he’s wrong for using the phrase “design thinkers”–if “UX design” doesn’t exist, than “design thinkers” most certainly do not.)

18 thoughts on “User Experience Design is Dead; Long Live User Experience

  1. As a 15 year UX Architect while I keep design in mind. I have the task of taking everything into account and building a great overall experience that leads to something.

    Clients and / or companies still feel that as an architect your designing an experience for them. I don’t work for them. I work for their clients the true end user.

  2. So if UX design is out, what’s next? UX fabrication? UX management? UX monitoring? UX assurance? I am trying to think of verbs that go with your examples of “profitability, or corporate culture, or innovation”. I guess they are all “managed”, “surveyed”, and “promoted”.
    Or are you basically still agreeing with your statement from 2005 that UX is a quality, not a discipline? (http://www.peterme.com/archives/000489.html) But a quality of what? OF a company, a project, or a design?

    Let me finish by saying that I basically agree. We just need to find the right words for what we’ll be doing in the future :-)

    (P.S.: In the last paragraph, did you mean to say UX was NOT simply a matter of reinterpreting that great designers have done in the past?)

  3. Peter, thanks for pointing out that mistake. I corrected it to say UX was NOT simply a matter…

  4. Peter,

    Why couldn’t “experience” be considered a medium?

    I agree that we’re really more like product designers whose products impact web, mobile, email, phone, service, and business systems. But I still wonder why experience can’t be a medium.

    Philip Johnson said the difference between architecture and sculpture is that sculpture is something you experience, and architecture is where experience occurs.

  5. There’s a lot of confusion about the terminology for the field of design that deals with digital / interactive / time based products. I personally prefer “Interaction Design” as the discipline name, exactly because as you mention, “user experience” is an outcome that depends on all the people involved in the creation of the product, not only the designers. Fully agree with you.
    And also, I’m sure that great graphic, automotive or furniture designers also consider the user experience when they design, which makes this term not exclusive of digital products.

  6. There term user itself can be limiting because we are often creating for multiple users, multiple social interactions or often with successful products, services or events, for users that we are not yet aware of. I’ve found this to be especially true with innovation. In terms of the term ‘design’, it tends to be limiting as well, and I agree that organizations need to be focused on customers needs as part of their business model and every role in the company needs to reflect this – its not just up to good branding or designers to portray an certain image, its up to the company to create one from start to the finish. So, in the end, I think the good part is that many companies around the world are embracing the ‘experience’ age, and the term ‘experience’ will prevail. Its how organizations collectively deliver experiences that will help shape the best “cross-channel” products, services and event experiences. I’m curious what will happen to our titles as designers (or creators or orchestrators?) – but I tend to hope that we mainly get a better shot as a collective in the industry at working with marketers, sales, support, etc to enable really great, seamless and consistent experiences of a company or brand.

  7. Jesse James Garrett

    “user experience design would be the only form of design not defined by the medium, technology, or artifacts of its design, and that’s weird.”

    So what if it’s weird? The 21st century is full of things that are weird but nonetheless true.

  8. Peter,

    I couldn’t agree more with you, for a long time I felt the need to use the exact term experience and user-experience in particular to cultivate and foster a culture of attention to the experience the users had towards the use of software, but the reality is that in todays rational corporations, user experience is really part of the overall service or product design. Its very much thank to companies like yours, apple and ideo that the idea that companies can’t just design a product, but need to engineer/design/whatever they prefer to call it, the overall experience their customers will have.

    I also hate the fact that sometimes the time UX is interpreted to be solely related to UI, which is really daunting but it happens way to often unfortunately.

    As usual, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this one as well ;) and cheers from Europe, Düsseldorf.

  9. Some of the weirdness of now, perhaps unlike the traditional scope of design, is that we’re designing to the “post-” (e.g., of “post-modern”): we’re asked to create post-medium, post-technology, post-artifact oriented designs.

    The “post-” of it is just a ballpark term; “hyper-” is an alternative: we also could call it hyper-medium, hyper-technology, hyper-artifact oriented design.

    “Experience” at best might imply: not just one medium, not just one technology, not just one (type of) artifact.

  10. Peter, I agree – UX is not a new thing, everything from the Ford Model T to Dieter Rahm’s Braun products to the iPhone has had a “user experience”.

    We can be graphic designers, ethnographers, business developers, programmers, interaction designers, etc, but we’re not UX designers. All we can do is have a shared vision of how we want the customer to experience the product/company, and knowledge in how to apply this to my field of expertise.

  11. Thanks for the post Peter. I have no problem with the term “UX designer” or architect, but do feel it needs to be flavoured by skill and experience with the particular media (plural) at hand.

    It can then usefully refer to a cross disciplinary, cross-stream of work concern in a project. For anything complex, someone needs to ride shotgun, through the details and the disciplines, to the vision of the something that one is aiming for.

    That person is sometimes the one who saw the vision in the first place. Other times it is someone else who is engaged to help realise same, or flush it out. Either way it demands a familiarity and engagement with specifics. Artists (across all arts disciplines) can be seen as poets in the sense of dealing with poetics and making (poiesis), but they must skilfully touch specific media to be real.

    On the other hand, getting too close to the specifics of any media (singular) on a regular basis, and I guess you could call such an individual (in the online UX design space, say) an interface designer, or interaction designer, or whatever other specific thing they are producing. Very often those of us engaged in UX end up doing precisely that.

  12. I agree with Bryan Z. I’ve been doing design for digital artifacts since the early 90′s and to me it’s always been about design more than anything else. This is especially true today when most of my solutions are increasingly analogue (ubicomp, sensors, gestures etc) in their appearance, despite the increasingly complex technology under the hood. To me the statement “It has been an ongoing attempt to grapple with the newfound complexity of the subjects of design, a complexity that our prior tools and methods were simply not up to the task of addressing. ” actually points at a lack of humbleness within our discipline (I’ve been there myself, so please don’t take this the wrong way :). Designers have always struggled with increasing complexity in terms of tools, production processes, materials and so on – it’s an unavoidable part of how society transforms itself. Just because we ended up as designers during a time when ICT exploded doesn’t mean that it’s more complex than anything before. It’s just another kind of design space and materials to use.

  13. Peter, I believe Don Norman, often credited (even by himself) with inventing “user experience” and hence its design, declared the term finished back in 2004, at an ad hoc one-night conference on the many faces of design. Ten design associations (including Interaction Designers) were present at that meeting, attended by a hundred or so in the audience. The lack of agreement among the parties as to what design was about and for was startling, and that was without inviting into the conversation such design-like professionals architects, landscape architects, media designers, and the like. This is more or less settled law, as they say. Three or three decades after many of us passed through or near the design profession, not much has changed. The same arguments rage, the media though more varied have changed little in terms of consequence, and sad to say, we may go to our graves without any grand revelations. Wasn’t it Goethe who said on his death bed, “Open the second shutter so that more light may come in”? If such a genius couldn’t figure it out, why should we burden ourselves with trying? Just enjoy doing whatever it is you do or do something else. If you have the luxuries of choice and change, you are blessed indeed.

    Christopher Orlet, “Famous Last Words,” Utne Reader, July/August 2002
    http://www.utne.com/2002-07-01/famous-last-words.aspx#ixzz1pAqPe2eF/

  14. PS Like Don, I’m still all for “experience design” as a useful handle for holistic design, if we keep in mind that design like all other shared phenomena is ultimately about designing experience. Heck, my book on the topic is ten years overdue because I’m not sure it’s worth the time to write or read. More fun to be out walking.

  15. Aaron Ladurini

    I agree that the utilization of the term “user experience designer” is limiting. User experience gives of the connotation that the designer is only responsible for the good or bad experience that an end product user has with the product. While this may be the main focus, there is more that goes into the design than just the experience. These elements are all factors which involve the human. Factors such as anthropometric fit, ease of use, safety factor, serviceability, maintainability, cost of use, etc. I feel that user experience is a concentration that fits under Human Factors engineering. I don`t believe that concentration should only be focused on the user but the over all human element, being anyone who comes in contact with the product from every day users to the technician who fixes the product, every aspect must be incorporated into the design. In no way am I trying to down play the importance of a user experience designers job, I just feel that what goes into designing the experience is better captured by Human Factors engineering.

  16. Oh, Human Factors Engineering has tons of baggage. It’s borrowed from systems engineering, and reduces people to “human factors”. It’s utterly dehumanizing, not unlike a company referring to people as “human resources.”

  17. Great post. I think the issue is with the connotation of the word “user.” In fact, I recently wrote an article about it : http://blog.rp3agency.com/86ing-ux-part-one-of-two/

  18. I’ve gone back and forth on whether or not to use the term “User Experience Designer” vs. “Product Designer”. My team is internally referred to as Product Designers, but after 3+ years, I’m trying to move away from that more and more and back to User Experience Designers.

    My basic belief is that the term ‘product’, as it’s defined by most tech companies I’ve worked for in the valley, is not actually a product, at least not from a users perspective. A lot of our products are called ‘products’ for the sake of our advertisers, so they know what they’re buying, but have no real meaning to our end users.

    Second, talking about “products” at tech companies seems to be a crutch to allow people to not have to think about the entire user experience. Unfortunately (in my experience), this leads to narrowly defined projects that end up in a ghetto to be later reintegrated across other ‘products’. And this is something that rarely happens, and if it does happen, happens poorly most of the time.

    In actuality, I don’t like talking about User Experience Designers, either. I prefer to refer to it as the UX team, but would love to be able to hire IA’s, IxD’s, Visual Designers, and Content Strategists, but budgets don’t allow for that.

    -kyle