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UX Unicorns and Other Fanciful Creatures

Fewer things in User Experience Design are more contended than the definition of User Experience Design. Most of us who practice it agree on the goals of UX Design (happy users) and even the methods we use to get there (contextual inquiries, user journey maps, wireframes, usability studies, etc). But defining “the thing itself” continues to baffle us.

In his recent article on UX Booth, Darren Northcott provides a compelling argument for one way we might begin to whittle away at a useful definition. Specifically, Darren describes the difference between UX and Information Architecture, stating that “User Experience takes Information Architecture as its foundation and brings it to the next level.” As Darren explains it, while information architects focus primarily on organization and labeling, “UX designers work to make things more profound, targeting their users on an emotional level.”


Wait, are we really able to effect emotional states? (Image by Elsa D)

On the whole I agree with Darren’s analysis and find that he provides a compelling account of the goals of UX Design as well as how information architecture works toward accomplishing those goals. There is, however, something in the way we’ve come to understand User Experience Designers reflected in Darren’s approach that troubles me. Darren writes that “User Experience Designers […] employ user-centered design to produce a cohesive, predictable, and desirable affect in their target audience. Whoa.”

Whoa, indeed. Are we really able, as User Experience Designers, to create emotional states? That’s what I hear when I read sentences like this. And I’m afraid that’s what those outside of User Experience hear as well (which would explain the longstanding confusion). One begins to understand how, from an outsider’s point of view, this might sound questionable – even diabolical. Do we really claim that user experience designers are magical beings that poop rainbows of surprise and delight? Or is there something else going on here? Let’s investigate!

UX Designer = not a real thing

At the risk of being confrontational, let me suggest that “User Experience Designer” is actually little more than a convenient euphemism. Spurious. Catchy, yes – but empty. Before you flame away and hit the “submit comment” button below, let me to explain why.

Louis XIV’s Hall of Mirrors at Versailles

“Experience” in the way we mean it as referring to an affective state is inherently subjective. Example: My friend Steven, an ardent francophile, finally visited Louis XIV’s famed Hall of Mirrors at Versailles last year. His description of the experience was full of “awe, inspiration, and feeling in the presence of greatness.” Steven’s teenage (and disaffected hipster) son, Jimmy, described a very different experience: “Meh. It was just a bunch of mirrors and gold paint. And it smelled funny. I was bored, actually.”

As designers, we can’t design “an experience.” It is an emotional, interior state of being. The best we can do is design for an experience. The Sun King’s hall leverages scale, light, repetition, amplification of imagery, and thematics of luxury and opulence to build an immersive environment. This environment affects many of those who enter it in the intended way; to this degree it meets the expectations of its designers. But it can force nothing. The interiors of subjects’ minds – where affective states (awe, delight; boredom, frustration) are born – remain beyond our reach.

Which is not to suggest that there has been some malefic plot in the user-centered design community to pull one over on honest, hard-working developers and marketing departments. The fact that one cannot design experience strikes me, nonetheless, as incontrovertible. So how did this nomenclatural catastrophe occur? I would like to suggest that the reason we as UX Designers have come to place ourselves in the not-a- real-thing category has to do with a funny quirk in the English language. Allow me to elaborate.

Morphology: the peculiarities of variation in form

In linguistics, “morphology” is (in part) the study of how words change as they move across grammatical forms. There is insight here to be had for our particular predicament. Consider the following equivalences:

Designing for User Experience = User Experience Design

No problem here: I think we can agree that one can design for user experience. Notice, however, morphological peculiarity #1: when moving from a gerund form (Designing for User Experience) to a nominal form (User Experience Design), the preposition “for” is lost. There is simply no natural-language place for “for” in the noun form. Since its loss is expected given the usages of syntactical semantics, it is not missed – and its absence creates no misinformation. But:

Practitioner of User Experience Design = User Experience Designer

Notice that in the natural language translation from one form to the other, the preposition “for” remains absent. This is where we run into a problem. Because:

User Experience Designer = One Who Designs User Experiences

In this final natural language translation, we never recuperate the lost preposition – and as a result we end up making claims to impossible design: we can design for a particular experience, but we cannot design the affective state itself.

Have we gone off the grammatical deep end here? I say no – not if we claim to be designers. This is exactly this level of detail that matters in User Experience Design. In this example, I used grammar, morphology, and the semantic differences between denotation and connotation to analyze how a set of terms might create a particular subjective understanding in the mind of an individual not already familiar with the concept of User Experience Design. Likewise, we design for experience by moving to the lowest level of granularity in order to establish empathy with the unique positions of our intended users. Anything short of this is guesswork.

The User Experience Umbrella

Okay. So now you know I’m a grammar nerd. And maybe you think I’ve taken Darren’s reading of user experience design to a ridiculous extreme. Perhaps I have.

I hope, however, that we can all agree on this: while we can’t make users feel a certain way, we can set the stage for emotional reactions by leveraging specific disciplines. UX Designer Dan Willis describes User Experience as an umbrella under which sit six primary disciplines: User Research, Content Strategy, Information Architecture, Interaction Design, Visual Design, and Usability Analysis. Like the linguistic disciplines I employ in the example above, these disciplines allow us to generate insight into the potential experiences our designs create.

UX Trading Cards by Dan Willis

It would be a mistake, of course, to suggest that these are and always will be the only disciplines that constitute User Experience Design. Curt Collinsworth, for instance, has recently made a strong argument for including kinetic design in this list.

Whatever our list of disciplines may be, it is this concrete, tangible work that allows us the insight to “target users on an emotional level.” It often looks something like this:

  • find out about the users (user research),
  • make sure your content is relevant to them (Content Strategy),
  • make sure they can find it easily (Information Architecture) and
  • move around in your application easily (Interaction Design),
  • make sure your application is aesthetically pleasing (Visual Design), and then finally
  • make sure that it all hasn’t been foiled by something you’ve overlooked – or couldn’t anticipate at any other stage (Usability).

This is a gross oversimplification, but the point stands: it is each of these elements in relation to each other that create the possibility for a positive experience, not some nebulous, indescribable magic that happens after all this other work is done.

So where does this leave us?

For most of us, the practice of Designing for User Experience means that we wear several of these disciplinary hats in succession – or all at once. This does not, however, make “User Experience Designer” a separate discipline. The distinction is not academic. If we cannot – or do not – communicate clearly the scope and tangible value of our practice, we run the risk of seeing that scope steadily diminish.

So what’s to be done? “User Experience Designer” has stuck. It’s in my job title. It might be in yours. And it’s not likely going anywhere anytime soon. This doesn’t mean we can’t work to create greater clarity around both the term and the profession. Let’s start by not expecting our listeners to accept that we have some magical access to the headwaters of human emotion. We’re not unicorns. We are detail oriented, multi- disciplinary practitioners that use a wide variety of tools in order to create the optimal conditions for the desired emotional reactions – experiences – for those who use our products. No magic required.

Darren’s article, like many of those like it that frame the User Experience Designer as a practitioner apart, is not responsible for this misunderstanding. Darren’s reading of the tasks and goals of creating quality user experience are spot-on. Those of us in the field are not duped by the mysticism of “designing experience”; we know what this means.

When it comes time, however, to deliver an elevator pitch to coworkers (who must suffer our “creativity”) and clients (who we hope will pay for it in dollars) I suggest we strive for the perspicacity and attention to detail that we claim as the hallmark of our profession. Being magic is hard. I don’t want it. But I do want each of us to be clearly perceived as a skilled professional with insight to offer. This, I think, we can do.

This article’s lead image by Elsa D

About the Author

Andy Fitzgerald

Andy Fitzgerald is a Senior User Experience Architect at Deloitte Digital in Seattle. Andy's recent work focuses primarily on mobile, but he has spent the better part of a decade massaging truculent bits of information into difficult digital spaces. Andy blogs at Find him on Twitter at @andybywire.


  • Stepan Reply

    So, after all this, what is the difference between a “regular” designer and UX designer? Doesn’t is mean the same? Isn’t it just a buzzword to get more paid? Or is “regular” design prior to release of brand new product/service and ux design maitenance of existing (optimizing according to real user experience data)?

  • James Gunter Reply

    Fascinating. My job title is officially, “Content Strategist,” but I fill all the roles described above–maybe I should ask for a new title?

    Anyway, my background is in rhetoric and although I agree that you can’t design an experience for “everyone” (as your Versailles example illustrates) I think it is possible to design an experience for a specific audience. Or at least have a reasonable expectation that, given the right messaging and design, a particular type of user will take a particular action.

    However, you make a good point: We can set the stage for an experience, given the right user, but not everyone is going to have the experience we intend.

    (And trying to get buy-in for that philosophy from higher-ups who think their website is for “everyone” is a constant headache.)

    • Andy Fitzgerald Reply

      Thanks for the insight, James. I think there’s a lot we can learn from rhetoric in UX Design. In both cases, our aim is to persuade or motivate a particular audience. My suspicion is that the habits we learned from early web design — where simply being online was enough — have been hard to shake. We’ve made a lot of progress since the early 1990s, but there’s definitely lots of envelope left to push.

  • Josh Reply

    Very nicely written article. It definately made sense once you broke out the morphology aspect of the words/expectations.

  • Brant Reply

    I agree that as UX designers we do not have the ability to “force” experiences on users. We are merely creating environments which, through research and planning, have been optimized for certain audiences. This increases the chances for a positive experience but it doesn’t guarantee 100% every single user will perceive the same experience.

    The main difference from a designer to a UX designer are the skillsets mentioned above in the article. A traditional designer isn’t familiar with the general UX process of research, IA, IxD, Content Strategy, etc. That doesn’t mean they can’t learn and practice the principles but the real differentiation is in the process. The visual design of a UX designer is based on scientific thought coupled with creative exploration as it pertains to the user’s needs.

    Thats a general summary though much more could and should be said about it all!

    Job well done with the article however, I enjoyed it.

  • David Fiorito Reply

    The term “experience” has two connotations. Merriam-Webster defines it as “the act or process of directly perceiving events or reality”, as well as, “the fact or state of having been affected by or gained knowledge through direct observation or participation”.

    The first is most certainly designed. If it is designed well, we will be able to achieve the desired results in the second.

    • Andy Fitzgerald Reply

      Thanks for bringing another level of nuance to this discussion, David. I agree that “Experience” can be a slippery term. That’s part of the reason that I’ve limited my focus here, as a response to Darren’s article, to “‘Experience’ in the way we mean it as referring to an affective state.” That said, my goal isn’t to elide other ways of understanding experience, but rather to draw attention to one particularly problematic understanding of how UX Design happens.

      You make some excellent points in relation to context in your blog post on the topic ( That’s definitely a critical piece to effective UX Design — and, I suspect, yet another reason to make sure we have a clear sense of the tools we have at our disposal in design and the breadth of their influence.

  • Martin Reply

    The absence of a UX design much more likely to invoke an emotional response!

    • Tom Rau Reply

      I think you couldn’t be more correct when talking about “designing for an experience” as opposed to designing the experience itself. I am of the camp that believes the products we design for should be responsible for the emotional state affected on the user and it is our job to allow that to happen in the most organic, and intuitive way possible. That being said, I think we are an enormous part of achieving that goal. Either way great article.

  • Darren Northcott Reply

    Well done Andy. It’s funny how, as David pointed out, the term ‘Experience’ can be derived in so many ways. At some point you could say that we, as practitioners, design AN experience FOR an experience and hope to hell the former elicits the latter. The question is, at what point to stop splitting hairs? Like you mentioned, we in the community understand what we mean (at least I hope so), but it could get muddy for those outside, ie. the clients. However, will they truly ever understand? Or do we simply let them interpret it as they may, because in the end, if our experience doesn’t elicit the experience we intended, we don’t get the ROI’s, KPI’s ect, and probably will never see them again… ;)

    • Andy Fitzgerald Reply

      Thanks for the comment, Darren — and thanks for posting the article that started this discussion off; there have been some interesting ideas floating around here. I do agree that splitting hairs gets futile pretty quickly (often right from the start). There is, of course, a difference between “splitting hairs” and attention to detail at the appropriate level of granularity. It sounds like we disagree where that level is. I’ve found that getting behind, under, and inside the ideas and concepts we normally take for granted has a lot of value to my practice as a UX Designer. That this approach isn’t for everyone is certainly no surprise. Fortunately for us as creative professionals, these kinds of choices are each of ours to make.

  • Susan Reply

    I think user experience designer is a much more accurate term for what a UX designer is trying to do–design and enhance the experience of a user–than any other term could be. I don’t see a viable alternative presented by the author, and Designing for User Experience Practitioner seems oddly pompous. I think the big win is that it’s now an accepted term and has developed into an increasingly well defined discipline.

    I was originally trained as an industrial designer–never designed an “industrial” in my life. Interior designers don’t design every object in an “interior” space and it is an extremely vague term–I would image that the interior of a space is as subjective to someone as an software experience may be. Nomenclatures change–the now ambiguously named profession of Visual Designer was once called Commercial Artist, then Graphic Designer, then the terms split into 2D or 3D Designer, and I’m probably forgetting a few more common terms. None of these are completely accurate (2D?), but the goal is for there to be a clearer view of what the job entails.

    While a professional who designs a book, an advertisement, or a product is designing a “thing”, it’s not in a vacuum. The goal is influence or to assist a person in some way. I think that the goal of ALL designers is to enhance the experience of the audience or end user. That’s why design schools spend so much time teaching the discipline of design and on the critique of student work. It’s why design students also study psychology, sociology, physics, and marketing.

    Learning about human behavior is intrinsic to being able to design for humans.

  • Nk Reply

    Great read. I think you hit on something that often gets overlooked in the UX world (perhaps because we sometimes rely on copywriters): the power of language.

    The language we use to describe things is incredibly important, and even two phrases that seem nearly identical can invoke two very different responses, emotional or otherwise.

  • Fiveonline Website Design Company India Reply

    A good UX practitioner can bring to a project is a strategic assessment of how much and what kind of UX practices can contribute to the project in what ways, given the needs of the Clients.

  • Avangelist Reply

    As a User Experience Designer/Architect/whatever somebody wants to put I got to say I am not sure the title is right. Everyone involved in creating something should be conducting user centred design.

    What is see is a mix bag, there are some genuine UX people and organisations out there doing all their research and everything else that creates well formed educated decisions.

    Then there is a bunch of people and organisations who are just helping companies refocus on what they were trying to do in the first place.

    And then a bunch of people who have no clue who are just trying to play buzzword bingo with the HR team.

  • marcus mustafa Reply

    thanks andy for getting into the details. that’s what we like.

    i agree, we can’t design “an experience” as such but i do think we can bring some magic in here though. it’s hard, as you say, but i find that some data sorcery goes a long way. i realise you over simplified the list of disciplines but i’d add some proper real-time data dudes in there together with the user researches and out comes some real insights that you, and the rest of the experience design team, can add to the pot. it’s like real-time magic…

    p’s m

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