The usage of the term User Experience (UX) has has exploded in the tech, media and design industries in recent years. But what does UX really mean?

The truth is, it is incredibly difficult to define what UX is, or what a UX designer does. Because it's so new, we haven't yet arrived at a universal definition. If you Google "definition of UX" you'll be hard pressed to find two credible sources with the same definition. Go ahead, try. I'll wait.

What's worse, when you combine the inconsistent definitions with the usual word vomit used to explain UX, it makes understanding the job nearly impossible. Most definitions I've come across make it sound like it's rocket science. Take Wikipedia's definition, for example:

User Experience is the process of enhancing user satisfaction with a product by improving the usability, accessibility, and pleasure provided in the interaction with the product. User experience design encompasses traditional human-computer interaction (HCI) design, and extends it by addressing all aspects of a product or service as perceived by users.

As a UX designer myself, how am I supposed to explain that to my mom?

Most definitions are certainly a mouthful. Don't get me wrong, you can still count on me to talk the talk, as well. But the irony is that UX designers are supposed to make things easy to use and understand, and yet, how we explain what we do is so complex.

Why haven't we used our superpowers to design a definition that can be easily consumed and understood?

I'm sure most UX designers are too busy saving the world, one digital product at a time, to worry about describing their work. But it matters that we do. It really matters. With the lack of consistency and simplicity in how we define UX, we've stripped it of it's meaning and, more importantly, reduced the job to a mere buzzword.

Because of the pervasive abstraction about what UX design is, the most common perception of UX is the design of the "face" or "skin" of an an app or website. Today, the things that UX designers create, the apps you use every day, have shaped our interpersonal relationships, dictated how we manage our finances and influenced how we consume news.

Is a visual artist qualified to control the essential elements of how we function as a society? Probably not.

A one-dimensional understanding of UX means there's a greater chance of companies underestimating the resources that create the products that shape our value systems, our social norms, our brains.

Yet part of the reason UX is so difficult to define is that it has so many dimensions, which makes it challenging to encapsulate. Among other things, a UX designer requires at least some foundational knowledge of:

  • Business acumen to ensure that the interests and strategies of the business are being met;
  • Cognition and communication to logically organize information (visually and semantically) in a way that can be quickly understood or learned;
  • Behavioral sciences to take into consideration human motivations, attitudes and aspirations;
  • Computer science to understand the constraints and possibilities of the medium by which he or she creates;
  • Cultural intelligence to be sensitive of diversity and international exposure;
  • Ethics to prevent users from being exploited.

How then, do we create an all-encompassing description of a UX designer that isn't ripe for misunderstandings and over-simplification? One that allows us to truly understand the capabilities of the person that carries so much weight.

The answer is we don't. That person doesn't exist. Here's why.

Business has always been about providing a great experience to the customer--that's the nature of creating value, and it's nothing new. In fact, 86% of buyers say they are willing to pay more for a better customer experience. All successful businesses, not just the digital ones, have mastered that.

Since the advent of the term, UX has primarily been a reference for resources dedicated to a customer's digital experience. The distinction for digital designers signaled a shift to behavioral factors (like emotion and memory) that influence our experience with a screen, rather than our traditional experiences in brick and mortar environments.

Today, however, the boundaries between physical and digital experiences are blurred, with nearly all businesses operating with some sort of digital component. The reality is, every business must have some degree of digital competency in order to remain relevant.

If there is no longer a distinction between users and customers, why should separate business functions exist to serve each of them?

For instance, would a UX designer for Marriott's mobile app operate any differently than, say, the hotel concierge? Both require empathizing with the customer, anticipating their needs and adding value to their experience. The only difference is the medium in which that service is provided.

Granted, there's still a need for strong design in successful digital experiences, but it might be time to drop the User in User Experience and focus on the customer holistically. When you think about which business functions have historically owned the customer experience, you'd be hard pressed to find a company that leaves that responsibility to a graphic designer. Rather, that responsibility falls on the entire organization, or more specifically, the company leadership.