in Uncategorized, user experience

There is no such thing as UX Design

Provocative statement: The entire “field” of user experience emerged for one reason — to accommodate, and overcome, poor (or non-existent) product management practices.

Product management’s responsibility is to identify opportunities in the market, specify new offerings, and see these through development and distribution. Originally, product management was seen as a business function, and MBA’s were placed in that role. As such, it was about sweating the market, assessing opportunities, crafting business plans, establishing requirements, and the like.

In Silicon Valley, most notably at Google (where Larry felt it inappropriate for non-engineers to tell engineers what to do), a more technically oriented product manager emerged, essentially a flavor of engineering management but with some business savvy.

The rise of software, and particularly networked software, lead to products of immense complexity. It was in these environments that some designers realized that a significant perspective was being neglected–drawing from customer empathy. Designers, who are typically the most empathetic folks in a product organization, knew that many of the requirements they’d been given were foolhardy–that no one would use the thing. So, they pushed back, incorporating first usability and then up-front user research methods, and developing systems-level design practices around architecture diagrams, interaction flows, wireframes, and the like.

This work was called “user experience,” a term originally coined by Donald Norman to acknowledge that the totality of a user’s experience should be intentionally addressed.

The problem is, Don should have never had to say something so obvious. It was due to the shortcomings of the MBA and computer science mindset that product management had not yet considered this.

So, the field of user experience emerges, typically within design teams, in order to fill this gap. It makes for an awkward organizational fit, because, really, product managers should be the ones driving these efforts, as they are best suited to weigh these inputs alongside the business and technical concerns.

The dissolution of “UX Design”

User experience is an emergent property of an entire organization, not just one group. When user experience is so closely associated with design, it allows non-designers to feel like user experience isn’t their responsibility. This association also sets up designers to fail, because they are given a charter they cannot deliver on.

There is another issue around the job title, and career path, of “UX Design.” The use of the term is so broad as to be meaningless. Instead, let’s unbundle the components of what people think of as UX Design and place them where they make more sense.

Much (most?) of what people mean when they say UX Design is around the structural and interface designs of complex, software-enabled systems. And we already have a name for that: interaction design.

There are strategic aspects of UX Design — user research-informed product strategy, using design and storytelling to help figure out what we should do. We also have a name for this: product management. As in, product managers need to consider this empathy-driven understanding with equal weight to the business and technical concerns.

Do not interpret this as me suggesting designers should not be included in product management — far from it. Design is a key input, and oftentimes, driver of product management. In fact, I am seeing more and more senior “UX Designers” reframing themselves as product managers, because it better explains what they’re actually doing. This is progress.

“User experience design” served a purpose when it was necessary to shine a light on a glaring gap in the ways we were working. That gap has largely been addressed, and I see no reason not to retire that term.

  1. It’s a good post, with a lot of observations that resonate with me, however I’d like to add, that when de-constructing what UX stands for – the good old “Elements of User Experience” by JJG are still very valid today. They perfectly encapsulate references to various job functions that should have a UX mindset.

    The one other major component that usually gets bundled in or mixed up with UX *Design* is user research, what is often done by ux researchers nowadays in organisations with a) larger UX teams, or b) a separate ‘traditional’ design, where the ux guys are more the usability guys as of old.

    I don’t think a product manager should be relied on to do all the user research themselves, they most certainly should be a part of it, but a product manager is already wearing a lot of hats.

  2. Agree. If you need an UX team, or an innovation tea, is because UX and innovation are not in your business DNA.
    However, not everyone us as evolved, and there is a clear need for team to drive these concepts in. We still need a name to recruit folks who are designers that have a 360 awareness, that are translators and facilitatos or the dialogue between business and users, and express themselves not just with Excel but also with flows, maps, storytelling, pixels, etc, and are well versed not just in prioritisation but getting into users and business stakeholders’ heads.
    Pity that the UX design terms has been misused to unforeseen extents, and now it means anything and everything.

  3. Peter, I totally agree with your statement of the current problem with UX-related terminology, titles, and sometimes awkward organizational fit. I’d add an additional branch to the origin story of this problem, however: the movement away from design as purely aesthetics. My experience of the rise of UX is that it was at least partly an insistence that effective design required a broader view of the end user’s experience. A view that included, mainly, at first, interaction design and usability considerations. Viewed in this lineage, though, I wonder whether many people’s understanding of UX design would align with product management in the way you propose. I suspect the problem is that, whatever we call it, there is not just one accepted definition of the discipline in the first place.

  4. If UX Design doesn’t exist and the only two real and distinct entities in a company are Product and Interaction Design, then there is no reason why UX should not report to Product. As a result, all UX research activities would be immediately questioned/ not appropriately funded/ replaced by generic market research activities. Business requirements won’t be effectively counterbalanced with user-centric data and therefore “product designers” could be at the mercy of aggressive business practices (e.g. “Please, can you hide the customer center phone number on our homepage?”)

    In the real world, multiple business units compete within one company for budget, resources and influence. In this context, where the final user is typically taken hostage, UX teams / departments constitute a unique force that can decisively contribute to the company success. Personally, I agree that UX is not a happy term but similarly to HR (another unhappy business acronym and function) is not only real but totally necessary.

  5. @pablo–
    User research should most definitely report up through product. In another post, I plan on addressing how placing research in support of design diminishes the influence that research should have.
    My point is that the product managers that you describe are BAD product managers.

  6. Given the provocative statement, I was actually expecting to disagree with this more than I did. You captured well the fact that product management is much more than just interaction design (a misunderstanding I actually hear a lot, and point I made in my blog post Product Management Is Not User Experience).

    I read this through a few times and a few things stuck in my head:

    1) I agree that in many cases there are product managers who are too internally focused, or have limited understanding of customer / user needs. That’s changing, but it’s still a problem in many cases. However, I think it’s an incorrect over-generalization to say that designers are “typically the most empathetic folks in a product organization.” (Maybe you were just referring to the old model of engineering-driven development, but it didn’t seem that way.) That does a disservice to a lot of product managers who are truly doing what they should be in terms of understanding buyer/customer/user needs, and neglects the fact that there are still a lot of designers out there who still think their job is to just make things look cool.

    2) When you say that UX emerged “to accommodate, and overcome, poor (or non-existent) product management practices,” it’s important to clarify that “product management practices” is different than “product managers.” There are lots of situations where there is no “product manager” — custom software development, or tailoring of off-the-shelf software for custom internal use, for example. You can have someone in these situations with a title like “project manager” or “business analyst” who is still focusing on a lot of the same principles as a product manager would (though things like market sizing, pricing, sales enablement, etc. wouldn’t be covered).

    3) I would guess that people not in design roles don’t recognize the difference between “UX Design” and “interaction design,” so I can already imagine that the blog post title is being interpreted by some to say that you think UX is not needed (

    4) I feel like the message of replacing “UX Design” with “Interaction design” is about 10 years too late. The UX term has taken hold. Many (most?) people who don’t have a design background/experience probably don’t understand the difference, or maybe have never even heard the term “interaction design” (for example: marketers, executives). So, while you may be right that the term should go away, I feel like we’re too far down the path of that to happen anytime soon.

  7. Another case of semantics. The very reason not to retire the term is understanding and discussing its origins, use, and evolution. Variable audiences have put the term to work with variable purpose. There has never been a true concilience of the field, but rather an adoptive curve of popular use, and a diffusion after the fact. It’s a question of absolute vs. relative, the flaws being reliance on the economy of absolute, and the lack of vigilance to accommodate differing perspectives.

    So, an alternative perspective on “User Experience” is it derives from the term End User, an idea that implied someone was at the other end of a code, program, or web production line. There has long been an understanding that the end product failed to live up to the expectations, intentions, or desired utilities demanded. You can take it all the way back to the Command Line Interface to the Graphic User Interface. It’s not a novel idea to suggest experiences can suck or for that matter be optimized.

    In terms of communicating the point across a range of possible interpretations and initial impressions, do the ideas of “product management” or “interaction design” really provide a better assurance of getting it all right than “user experience design”?

  8. Thanks for the great post Peter. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this topic and enjoyed your take on it. The origins and specific responsibilities of a “UX designer” can be endlessly debated, just look at the comments section of any blog post about UX design. Regardless of what side people take in those debates, the thing that seems to be consistent — at least in my limited experience — is what you called the “awkward organizational fit” between UX designers and product managers. I’ve seen more organizations begin to understand the value of good product management, but those organizations then struggle to properly redefine the rest of the roles on their product development teams. The role that gets confused the most is UX design, which at the end of the day is the responsibility of the entire product development team.

  9. There are good points here. But one could argue likewise: There is no such thing as product marketing. Product marketing traditionally (and still to some extend) is about marketing and selling any product that you are asked to handle.
    And if looking at the world today, a product without a story, without deep knowledge of the consumers and users etc will not sell. Yes, you can try to sell, but it will most likely fail.
    When this is said, I agree that the word UX design today can cover a lot of things – and that it is a misused ‘title’ (like a product manager also is in many companies by the way).
    My key point is maybe: A product manager that does not know his or hers customers will never be successful. A UX designer (if we keep that term for a few seconds) that knows nothing about what user interface improvement that will be marketable will also not succeed.
    And I do see quite a few people who can master both disciplines – or who are able to go into good cooperation (not only between these two disciplines, since there is much more needed) – and by doing this being able to create great innovations that consumers love and hence are easy/easier to sell

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