It doesn’t take long in any tech-related conversation before the acronyms begin to flow, because they’re a convenient way to express complex phrases in fewer syllables. Sometimes the acronyms we adopt don’t mean much when broken down (‘wi-fi’ anyone?), but that’s OK if they’ve taken on a single, accepted definition.

Other times we adopt terms that evolve from their original context without taking on a single definition, and this is the case with ‘UX’ as a shorthand for ‘user experience’.

Apart from issues with lay-person pronunciation (“You’re what? An ‘ucks’ designer?”), the problem with ‘UX’ is that it has become a buzzword, a convenient catch-all for a set of issues that UX teams are commonly asked to deal with. I frequently hear ‘UX’ substituted for usability (“we need some UX testing”), user-centred design (“UX process”),wireframes (“when can I see the UX?”). Replacing ‘UX’ with ‘user experience’ in these examples doesn’t work. The idea that the experience of a product or service is affected by more than usability and wireframes is lost, and with it the opportunity to reallyunderstand and improve it.

What should UX actually mean?

I was interested to discover that ‘user experience’ is defined within an ISO standard, which fits much better with my own understanding of the term. ISO 9241-210 Human-centred design processes for interactive systems defines user experience as ‘a person’s perceptions and responses that result from the use or anticipated use of a product, system or service’.

It goes on to add:

‘User experience includes all the users’ emotions, beliefs, preferences, perceptions, physical and psychological responses, behaviours and accomplishments that occur before, during and after use.’

It’s clear from this definition that user experience is affected by multitude of factors beyond the common ‘UX’ wrapper.

To illustrate just how broad that goes, let’s consider a movie streaming service as an example.  Outside of design, influencing factors for the service’s user experience might include:

  • Expectations
    How does the service compare with the user’s pre-conceptions set by internal forces like marketing, advertising, price and brand identity, but also external forces like word of mouth and experience of competitor services?
  • Technology
    Can the technology deliver what’s expected of the service? Is the streaming quality great on the user’s 60” TV? Is their connection up to it? Is it even available on their platform? Do outages and bugs affect the service?
  • Content 
    Is the content what the user wants? Does it have the latest blockbusters and that 80s sci-fi B-movie they’ve been recommended? Or, is it hampered by licensing restrictions? What about the interface content – are the descriptions useful and the movie stills recognisable? Does advertising get in the way of accessing the service?
  • Customer service
    Do they resolve the problem within minutes, outside office hours? Or, are reps over-stretched, under-trained and hard to contact?
  • Context of use
    Is the user trying to use this service in difficult circumstances, or in a way it was never intended for? Maybe they want to use it to watch films on a smartphone with a cracked screen in bright light over a 3G connection.

User experience is everywhere

None of the factors listed above fall under the perceived ‘UX’ discipline, some of them are not even within the control of the business, but they are obviously part of the user experience. So, we have a discrepancy between what the UX team is expected to achieve (to define and manage user experience) and their actual remit (to define how users interact with the digital interface).

In order to achieve user experience greatness, every team needs to consider how their decisions affect the user’s experience of the product. Not just the obvious, direct implications for the current screen or process, but subtle effects elsewhere. What expectations does this set? And how is this experience affected by the user expectations set elsewhere?

Going back to our fictional movie streaming service, let’s say for example that the product team want to introduce HD streaming. The technology team choose a new streaming supplier in order to offer HD. The user experience team re-design the interface to allow users to filter for HD movies. The marketing team run a campaign to tell customers about this new addition to the service, and how much it will improve their movie experience. Every team has done their best to meet their objectives. Great!

One of our users, Maggie, sees the HD campaign. She’s been happily using the service for a few months, but her expectations have now changed. As the HD service is new, not many titles are available and Maggie is a little disappointed. When she tries to play HD content she finds that it buffers a lot, her connection’s not up to it. What’s more, the media player looks different and doesn’t have keyboard controls.

Maggie is clearly having a worse experience despite the service being improved in real terms. Several things caused this:

  • The marketing campaign met its objectives in attracting customers to the new HD service, but didn’t manage expectations around bandwidth and content availability.
  • The UX team designed the search interface for anticipating a large catalogue of HD films, but it looks underwhelming with the small launch selection.
  • The additional technology needed to switch back to a low quality stream wasn’t anticipated.
  • Maggie was reliant on a feature of the old player that the tech team didn’t know was important when they chose a new supplier.

The role of UX

Decisions will always affect user experience in unexpected ways. UX designers are often the first to notice and raise potential user experience problems, and to suggest solutions – we are problem solvers at heart. However, this doesn’t mean that bad user experiences are caused by bad design, nor that clever design is always the solution. User experience is something that every team should consider and take responsibility for.

In many ways it’s impossible to be a user experience designer. UX teams commonly tackle interaction design, visual design, information architecture, usability and user research. They are only able to influence user experience as far as it relates to the digital interface.

‘UX’ as a term is probably not going away (no matter how much I’d like it to), but it’s good to remind ourselves now and again that it means more than ‘wireframes’.

About the author

I am a UX Consultant and Creative Technologist interested in interaction, mobile, e-commerce, UX strategy and many other design-related things

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