UX Essentials Lesson 1: Defining User Experience Design


Welcome to the first lesson of the UX Essentials Course! It’s a course containing lessons on the different elements of User Experience.

By the end of this course you should be able to:

  • Understand and explain the different elements of User Experience Design
  • Learn exactly what UX Designers do
  • Get inside knowledge on how to make a solid portfolio

But today’s goal is get a strategic, big picture understanding of what User Experience is. So let’s jump into it.

A single Google search turns up an endless variety of definitions for UX.. After evaluating many definitions and gaining real-world experience in the field,, I’ve found it most comprehensive to define user experience in different contexts (you’ll see what I mean). Starting with…

10,000 Foot View Definition of User Experience

I’ve found this to be the broadest and fairest definition, which I paraphrase from the NNGroup:

[su_quote]User Experience is the set of experiences users have with a company, its services, and its products.[/su_quote]

Yeah, that’s pretty broad. So let’s illustrate it with a personal example.

I bought my Macbook last year, summer of 2013. I’ve been a Windows guy all my life. Before buying the Macbook, I perused the different options on Apple.com. The website was clean, user-friendly, and gave me the information I needed to make a decision. I ordered the Macbook for pickup at a nearby Apple Store. While waiting for store representatives to retrieve my machine, another Apple rep explained to me how I can bring my Apple to the Genius bar if I have any problems.

Opening the package was a treat in itself; the unboxing process was elegant and made my first time opening a Macbook a memorable experience. After booting up the machine, the account and setup process was very straightforward. I was on the internet within minutes. Since then, a year ago, I honestly haven’t had any problems since.

You might notice that there were many touchpoints throughout that experience:

  • Website: Apple.com.
  • Retail: The physical Apple store that I visited along with the Apple representatives I talked to.
  • Product: The packaging, unboxing process and the physical make of the Macbook
  • Digital: The operating system, look, feel and functionality of the Macbook itself.

Technically, all of that is my user experience with buying the Macbook. And that experience continues as I draft these words on my Macbook.

Each part of that experience was designed. Apple.com is designed by talented web developers and UX designers. Apple stores are designed by architects and store planners. Macbooks are designed by industrial designers, engineers and lots more. So on and so forth.

So it’s worthwhile to note that while not everyone has a specific “User Experience” title, almost every employee at a company is involved – to some extent – with its user experience. Nuzi Barkatally likes the definition that “User experience means advocating for the user.” So no matter your role at a company, you can advocate for and help its customers in some way.

Defining User Experience as a Sum of Its Parts

Now that we’ve established a high level understanding of user experience, we can now dig into User Experience Design. While user experience is the overall experience a user has with a service or product, User Experience Design is the discipline that combines different practices and subdisciplines to design the user experience itself.

Venn Diagrams like the one below are one of the best reinforcements of the idea that UX Design is a combination of different fields:

Recognizing that User Experience Design is comprised of different studies and fields is what separates a UX Beginner from someone who just throws “UX” as a filler buzzword.


Don’t take the above diagram at face value; there are many other diagrams like this one that emphasize other practices. The key is to know that UX is a combination of  fields from design to psychology to human computer interaction.

Sometimes a person might sound like they have expertise by saying something like “The UX of iOS7 sucks.” Initially, this sounds like a fair enough comment. But it’s not too different from someone who judges how good an article is by only reading the headline.

The differentiator? Learning how to identify and talk about what parts of the user experience are good or bad. It’s a much more educated answer to say: “iOS 7’s new visual language and interaction design is confusing; the flat graphical elements make it difficult to determine whether a button can be pressed or not. This is one part of the user experience of new iPhones that make them harder to use.”

UX is Not UI

Many non-designers usually think of “User Interface” and graphics when it comes to UX. When I introduce myself as a UX Designer, the most typical question I get is: “Oh, like designing user interfaces?”

Conversely, I also hear people use “UX” as a buzzword when they mean to say “UI.” See a pretty infographic? “This infographic has good UX.” See a nice, slick dashboard? “The UX of this dashboard is so clean.” This will drive you crazy after working in the field for a while.

The lesson: UX is not UI. UI is part of UX. Just as the Venn Diagram displayed earlier, Visual Design is one circle within the big circle of User Experience.

Sure, the new Mavericks OS I installed on my Macbook does feature a nice, clean UI. But how it works and my entire experience with it on a day-to-day basis makes the user experience.

The distinction between UX and UI is so tantamount to our industry that Erik Flowers made an entire site called UXisnotUI.com. It basically boils down to this graphic here:


Defining User Experience Design as a process.

We’ve now 1) defined User Experience broadly 2) defined User Experience Design as a sum of its parts and now we define User Experience Design as a process. But first, a little bit of pseudo-history.

When people first started developing software, many went straight to coding their application. It might have just been sufficient for simple apps and programs. But as the need and applications of software grew, so did its complexity. Soon, it became very costly to build an entire application, find out what’s wrong with it (that or people didn’t want to use it at all), then code the whole thing over again. That took a lot of time and money.

So there must be a more efficient way. So why not bring the user into the process much earlier on, test often, and design a more complete, thought-out experience before committing a bunch of effort coding everything? (Link to much more complete history of UX here).

This process is formalized by Jesse James Garrett, UX visionary who created the now-famous “UX-Essentials-Lesson-1-Elements-of-UX-Design-JJG

Garrett proposes that User Experience Design falls within these 5 planes. Ideally, designers apply these planes in a process, designing from the bottom plane up to the top plane:

  • Strategy
  • Scope
  • Structure
  • Skeleton
  • Surface

The idea is that a designer starts with the goals, strategies and research of a project – the “why.” Then you work up the planes until reaching the Surface, which is the Visual Design (or UI). A change in the lower plane will affect all planes above it. For example, if a client suddenly requests a website to be responsive, that change at the Scope plane (functional requirements) will ripple up all the way up to the Surface Plane, where the Visuals will have to reflect an interface that is adaptable to any device.

While there is no right or wrong process, most UX Designers would agree that a typical UX design process would include some research, design and testing. As UX evolves as a field, new processes and tools will come into place to make designing products and services faster. But timeless models such as Garrett’s 5 planes will provide a solid framework well into the future.

_ _ _

Wow, that was a lot. But let’s do a recap of what we learned here:

  • The broad definition of User Experience
  • User Experience Design is an interdisciplinary field that combines different practices
  • UX is not UI
  • User Experience Design – just like any other design – is a process

Hopefully that can give you a near-complete understanding of what UX is at a high level. The UX Essentials Course will deepen your understanding as we explore each element of UX Design.

The next lesson in this series is: What Do UX Designers Do? Stay tuned :)


4 responses to “UX Essentials Lesson 1: Defining User Experience Design”

  1. wow- nice- will be looking forward to this series :)

  2. Love reading your work especially as a UX newbie

  3. Very good article

  4. Thanks!! so clear

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