So what about this “user experience design” thing?

This is my personal take on the subject. I present it as a response to the folks I mention here, but it is also an exploration that started twelve years ago when I first started my work as an information architect. Though what follows may sound very certain and definitive at times, let me assure you that my mind can, and will, change.

In the last few months a few people whose opinions I respect have argued that the notion of “user experience design” is problematic at best and meaningless at worst. Some have argued that it should be referred to simply as “design”.

In his critique of the term “user experience design” Bryan Zmijewski of ZURB wrote, “user experience can’t be designed. You can’t control the emotions, feelings, and experiences of the user”.

Humanity has been crafting experiences to effect emotions from time immemorial. If you have ever laughed or cried while watching a film, then your emotions have been controlled by an experience. So what about software? The work of B.J. Fogg and the Stanford Persuasive Tech Lab have clearly shown that technology can indeed be used to influence emotions, beliefs, and behaviors.

Zimijewski continues, “You can, however, understand them. As product designers, we shouldn’t think that we’re creating experiences. Our goal is to understand how users interact with our products so we can make them better”.

Understanding how a user interacts with a product is an exercise in understanding their experience. Making a product “better” is also an experiential exercise. We cannot objectively separate a design of a product from the experience of its use.

Adam Connor rightly points out that, “An individual’s experience when using a product is affected by just about everything that went into making that product: the decisions on what functionality to include, how they work, how they look, how they’re built. As such, it’s important to recognize that everyone who was involved in the product’s creation had a responsibility to optimize that product for the desired experience.”

In a response to Bryan Zmijewski’s post, Peter Merholz echoes Adam’s sentiment, “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”.

I agree with Adam and Peter. However I believe that user experience does have a medium – culture and specifically the cultural context of use. Perhaps the real medium is simply context. I understand that this is not exactly a tangible and narrowly definable medium, but I see it as a medium nonetheless.

Andrew Hinton has been thinking and writing about this for some time now. His work in this area is truly excellent. I encourage you to dig into it at his blog, and eventually in his upcoming book on the topic.

For the purposes of this exploration I want to reference his take on context as a medium:

“In essence, we’ve created a new dimension, an information dimension that we walk around in simultaneously with the one where we evolved as a species; and this dimension can significantly change the meaning of our actions and interactions, with the change of a software rule, a link name or a label. There are no longer clear boundaries between “here” and “there” and reality is increasingly getting bent into disorienting shapes by this pervasive layer of language & soft-machinery.”

In their book Code/Space, Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge argue that software in all of its forms is used to “mediate, supplement, augment, monitor, regulate, facilitate, and ultimately produce collective life” and “shape people’s daily interactions and transactions, and mediate all manner of practices in entertainment, communication, and mobilities”.

In other words – software has become the context in which our culture operates. I believe that the study of anthropology holds the keys understanding the phenomenon that Andrew Hinton and Kitchin & Doge have described.

Anthropology has few sub-disciplines. The three most widely known are cultural anthropology, physical anthropology, and archaeology. Cultural anthropology seeks to understand culture through the study of behavioral patterns. Physical anthropology looks at human evolution, diversity, primate physiology, and population genetics as a means to understand culture. Archaeology studies our impact on, and the shaping of our physical habitat.

Among the lesser known sub-disciplines within anthropology is one which I believe has the most in common with user experience design – linguistic anthropology.

The Society for Linguistic Anthropology defines it as:

“… the comparative study of the ways in which language shapes social life. It explores the many ways in which practices of language use shape patterns of communication, formulate categories of social identity and group membership, organize large-scale cultural beliefs and ideologies, and, in conjunction with other semiotic practices, equip people with common cultural representations of their natural and social worlds.”

In this new cultural context with its information dimension, and with the emergence of code/space we now have new “patterns of communication” that are forming completely new ways to shape “social identity and group membership” that are creating a new set “common cultural representations” for our  “natural and social worlds”. And this change is being facilitated and crafted by us – the people that architect and build software.

In his 1976 work Beyond Culture, anthropologist Edward T. Hall observed that humanity’s evolutionary path is altered and accelerated by our own creations. He proposed the notion of extension transference as a way to explain this process.

He observed that human culture creates sub-systems that extend the original system, but also change the way we develop and progress. Spoken language was extended to a written form and suddenly writing and speaking became two parts of the same system and changed the way we communicate, preserve, and perpetuate our culture.

Human language was extended again when we began to create instruction sets for the machines we created (also an extension of tools we created). In 1801 Joseph Marie Jacquard used punch cards to instruct looms to weave cloth in specific patterns. In 1837 Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace developed code for the Analytical Engine which would allow machines to perform complex calculations. Finally in 1943 the ENIAC coding system became the first modern programming language.

Each of these was an attempt to extend human language to communication with inanimate objects. They, in turn, would communicate back to us.  In this way programmed machines would become a vehicle for extension transference as they extended the capabilities of previously labor intensive systems that facilitated human activity.

For much of its existence the computer was seen as a means to receive answers to complex computational processes. Persistent memory, storage media, and increasingly better interface technology made personal computing a powerful tool. But it wasn’t until the advent of the Internet, the World Wide Web, and emergence of mobile computing that technology truly began to change our culture in a fundamental way.

Software is no longer simply a tool to help an individual with a complex task. Software is not just connecting people. As Andrew points out, our lives are immersed in the new dimension of information. As a result of this immersion we find ourselves in a time of great cultural change.

The software we create is fueling this change – this new extension transference – and I do not think we truly realize the impact our work has on the world in which we live, and on the lives of every person on this planet.

It is no wonder that our heads spin when we grapple with the very notion of user experience design.

Bryan Zimijewski expresses just how overwhelming it can be to try and address this new reality, “to truly be a UX Designer you have to be an expert in so many fields. That’s because the buzzword of User Experience Design covers too many fields: anthropology, psychology, graphic design, user research, communication design, usability and much much more. How can any one person really be an expert in all that?”

The notion that a single person can shape every aspect of a user’s experience with a product is clearly flawed.

The growing field of service design is an attempt to see the user experience in this broader context. But even in a broad-stroked holistic view of an experience (echoing Adam Connor and Peter Merholz) each component part still needs to be created with the user in mind. That creation process needs individuals who will shape each part to fit the whole. And the whole experience needs to be crafted to fit the context and needs of the user.

I believe that is the role for user experience practitioners, but I don not believe our discipline has matured to the point where that role is clearly understood, or well defined. As Bryan Zmijewski points out, to design a user experience requires an approach and a set of methods drawn from many disciplines.

To make this a reality we must not retreat from what seems an impossibly complex undertaking, as Bryan seems to suggest. Instead, we need to embrace that complexity to drive the evolution of our discipline.

I believe part of the problem is the notion that the experience is in fact designed. I firmly believe that the creation of a user experience is not an exercise in design. Instead, I see it as experience architecture.

I use the term architecture for two reasons. First, it reflects the nature of this new digital reality that behaves like a space – a space built on the semantics and syntax of code as well as language.  The presentation by Jorge Arango, Andrew Hinton, and Andrea Resmi from the IA Summit in 2011 covers that topic quite well, so I will refrain from digging into that here.

The second reason comes from a 2008 blog post by Seth Godin that captures the crux of the semantic tangle between design and architecture:

“I think architecting something is different from designing it. I hope you can forgive me but I think it’s a more precise way to express this idea.

Design carries a lot of baggage related to aesthetics. We say something is well-designed if it looks good. There are great designs that don’t look good, certainly, but it’s really easy to get caught up in a bauhaus, white space, font-driven, Ideo-envy way of thinking about design.

So I reserve ‘architect’ to describe the intentional arrangement of design elements to get a certain result.”

So just what the heck is experience architecture?  Currently user experience design has four key sub-disciplines: information architecture, interaction design, visual design, and content strategy.

Each of them focuses on a key aspect of software design. Information architecture is mainly concerned with structure and wayfinding with an eye towards communicating meaning and aiding comprehension. Interaction design focuses on the operational elements of software by shaping processes and the controls that form the heart of the user interface. Visual designers apply all of the rules of their craft to design both an esthetic experience, but also one that communicates the brand, and allows the user to quickly find the right navigational options, or the right controls to manipulate the software.  The creation, deliver, and management of content is the domain of the content strategist.

Collaboration between those four disciplines allows users to build the right connection with a product, understand it, operate it, and find the information they need, or achieve the task they set out to accomplish. But to Adam Connor’s point, that alone does not create an experience for the user, just a part of it.

This is where the experience architect comes in. I see the role of the experience architect as the one that takes the holistic view of the software experience, and how it fits with the brand, the business, the context of the user, the broader cultural context. In Seth Godin’s terminology, user experience architects do not design the elements of the experience; they create the intentional arrangement of design elements to get a certain result.

To do this, they must work with people throughout an enterprise – product teams, developers, technologists, marketing, operations, finance, and the executive team, in order to understand how the product fits within the full business context.  In addition the experience architect must conduct user research to fully understand the context of the users – their needs and goals.  Finally, they must also understand the competitive landscape.

With this knowledge in hand the experience architect can arrange the elements and situate the product in the proper context. It is then up to the IAs, interaction designers, visual designers, and content strategists to turn the vision in to a real product that can then be properly positioned within the holistic user experience.

Some of us have been doing this for years, and we have done it under different titles and job descriptions. Ours is such a young discipline that it has yet to define itself, its skill sets and methods, and even the roles of its practitioners. And to be clear, what I have articulated here is just my take on the subject. And I am sure that my view on this subject will change over time, and with your help.

I hope that through conversation with the fine folks in the UX community I can learn more, hear their critique, and reshape this vision of what we do. It is my firm belief that two brains are better than one, and the more brains we can get thinking about this the sooner we can push the boundaries and shape our craft.


  1. All very interesting points…my one quibble is that as an ex-archaeologist, I don’t consider it to be a sub-discipline of anthropology (although it’s often presented that way in the US, my experience and training was very different); we’re pretty separate, even though we’re both broadly interested in people and culture. Otherwise, I’m totally with you on taking a holistic view; we leave out other perspectives to our (and our users’) detriment. I find I rarely use my information architect title anymore – it’s almost more of a bullet point.

  2. I didn’t follow why context is the medium. I’m familiar with all of the articles/books you referenced, but I wasn’t clear on why context is the medium.

    I reiterate the question I had for Peter: why can’t experience be the medium?

    • Hey Austin,

      In the post I said that we cannot objectively separate a design of a product from the experience of its use.

      I would also add that it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate the experience of using a product from the overall context in which it is used. My favorite example of this is photography.

      Using my iPhone, I can take a photo, edit and process it, post it to instagram, share it on twitter, and send it as a physical postcard. The blend of physical environments, devices, services, and software forms the context even though each part is its own unique experience.

      I chose the camera, editing, and sharing apps because they worked so well together, and they fit the way I like to take and share photos. The design of each element should focus on the experience of use, but, it is my belief that the context of use should be the focus of an intentional architectural process as well.

      So perhaps experience and context should be considered media. The experience is the micro medium, and context is the macro medium.

  3. Pingback: UX Thoughts From Cross Wired Mind | Jean-Paul Carmichael

  4. Lies!

    “…we cannot objectively separate a design of a product from the experience of its use…” I’d argue we don’t have to. This is separated for us by time.

    And I’d flip the macro/micro. Context is always tied to a slice in time while experience is a collection of contexts across time.

    Visually, did you ever make a circle out of straight lines:

    Each line represents a point in time and the orthogonal contexts that affect the point of the line that intersects the circle’s diameter. The circle, itself, is the experience.

    What say you?

    • Experience is one of those words that tends to muddy the semantic waters. It is both a container and the things inside the container. I can say I have twelve years experience as an information architect, but that was formed from each of the experiences I have had along the way.

      Context is the setting and conditions of each of those smaller experiences.

      In the visual example, I agree with your assessment that the circle is the end experience. But in the context of its creation, the crafter had the experience of measuring and laying down the pattern for the nails to be driven. Then there is the experience of color selection. And finally, the experience of working the string to achieve the final effect.

      Maybe macro/micro is the wrong way of thinking about the relationship? Context is about the conditions, the setting, the ecosystem where the experience occurs. And, like the examples in the embodied cognition article, if the context is right, then it simply facilitates the experience. And perhaps each interaction between context and experience can be nested within a larger context/experience container.

  5. Pingback: Jean-Paul Carmichael :: Blog