The common understanding of user experience is all wrong. Here are some new thoughts about how to look at UX.
In recent years, user experience (UX) has evolved from existing in the human-computer interaction community to become a more popular buzzword. The evolution of the term, and its adoption across multiple platforms, has resulted in a term that is ill-defined and heavily contextual. Depending on who you ask, how you ask, when you ask, and in what context you ask, you will often get different answers. Articles concerning UX even leads to false representations of the term. Last year, a series of articles claimed the death of UX when in reality, we are just realizing the potentials of UX beyond the capabilities of one concept or job title.
But, before we can talk about how we successfully achieve great user experiences, don’t we need to share an understanding of what UX means in the first place?
In order to answer what UX is, let’s start with a brief history.
A very brief history of UX
Widely regarded for his expertise in the fields of cognitive science and his advocacy of user-centered design, Don Norman is more or less associated as the founder of the contemporary notion of the term UX — or so he claims himself to be:
I invented the term because I thought human-interface and usability were too narrow. I wanted to cover all aspects of the person’s experience with the system including industrial design graphics, the interface, the physical interaction and the manual. 
In fact, the first recording of the wording “user experience” in a job title is when Norman started working at Apple in 1993. For that reason, Norman was the catalyst for the widespread adoption of the term, though he didn’t invent it. Instead, I believe the rise of UX designers is a result of the rise of complex products, as well as the lucrativeness that was a direct result of easing their use. In other words, the time was right and UX was bound to happen, but that’s another story.
The earliest mentions of UX that I could find were in an academic journal from 1987. In this journal, usability engineers Whiteside and Wixon discussed the importance of shifting the view of users away from experienced computer specialists to the average daily user:
[U]sability exists in the experience of the person. If the person experiences a system as usable, it is. A commitment to designing for people means that, at base, we must accept their judgement as the final criterion for usability […] The starting point for usability engineering must be the uncovering of user experience. 
Following this journal, other engineers took lead as well . Instead of designing for computer specialists, engineers discovered that they had to translate what they made to non-specialists: the users. This helps us understand the shift in time, but we still need to understand the term.
If we want to understand UX, we have to distill it
Before UX was a thing, it was just user experience. Isn’t that the same you may think? No, it’s not. Today the blended term has been shaped to connote certain meanings, processes, and methodologies. But before all this, user experience simply meant a user’s experience. As in, there is a user, and the user has an experience. Done.
Why is this relevant? Well, it helps us realize the object of design: the experience. And this is where it gets tricky. As a designer, you cannot directly design the experience. Since an experience is the result of a user interacting with an artifact (e.g. a product or service), the experience becomes something that is internal to a user. Designers can design an artifact and hope it will lead to the desired experience (e.g. happiness or ease-of-use), but they cannot directly design the internal experience the user experiences. Experience is subjective.
For instance, if I design a website for a restaurant then the customers’ experience with the website is UX regardless of whether it is positive or negative, easy or difficult.
Very often, UX is connected with usability and ease-of-use. These two words describe most intentions with designed artifacts, but in actuality, UX can be any type of experience, be it happiness, or gratitude, or even sadness. Even emotions such as horror or fright can be the goal of UX design, as Adam Czarnik, a Halloween enthusiast, attempted to demonstrate with a haunted house. Here, Adam realized that the haunted house in itself was well-designed, but the queue lines got too crowded and were too close to the house which resulted in users knowing what would happen before they were even in the house.
Attempts of uncovering what facets or types of experiences are possible is ill-defined as there are innumerable design and experience opportunities. Therefore, it makes no sense to refer to UX as something specific. UX can be any kind of experience, be it eating the most delicious ice-cream, or walking through the most frightening haunted house, or even experiencing the feeling of nostalgia from listening to Abba.
I therefore would suggest designers to refer to the desired experience for their users as “desired UX” as desired refers to the intended experience — the goal of design. A better clarification of the different types of experiences achievable through UX design could be a topic for later research.
Having established the original understanding of UX, let’s now move ahead and gather the different understandings of UX through time before proposing a formal definition for the term.
1. Any interaction that occurs in relation to an artifact contributes towards UX.
The first definition is Don Norman’s definition of UX. With Norman, we realize that users do not only shape an experience with the direct interaction with a product, but also any other situations that occurs in relation to the interaction with the artifact:
User Experience encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products. 
To support Norman’s definition, I have made the figure below to illustrate the relationship between the user and artifact through interaction. Please pay particular attention to the fact that UX is not identified as the artifact itself; instead, it is the users’ experiences that occur as a result of interactions with the artifact.
Based on Norman’s definition of UX
2. The user contributes towards their own experiences.
In another definition — which is by Interaction Design Foundation, a platform that produces educational materials about design — we understand that it is emotional responses that determine whether the experience is positive or negative for the user:
When first encountering a product, a user forms a momentary impression — which evolves over time, typically as the product is used throughout a period. In this process, the user’s perception, action, motivation, and cognition integrate to form a memorable and coherent story: called “the user experience.” 
Therefore, it is not only the artifacts that contribute towards the experience, but in a similar fashion, the users through their internal states, such as their expectations for the artifact, as well as their needs, motivation, predispositions, moods, etc. How are you going to provide a pleasurable experience with ice-cream if the user hates ice-cream in the first place?
3. And… the context!
One of the often-forgotten factors that are just as important as the user and the artifact is the context in which the interaction occurs. Imagine it in this way: The experience of how music is experienced will vary depending on how it is experienced, for example, from headsets or a loud speaker. But, the experience will also be influenced by the context where the music is listened to. That’s why being at a concert on Friday night with friends and other fans is different from listening to a track in a car.
One of the better, if you ask me, definitions provided of UX is provided by two psychology professors. According to Hassenzahl and Tractinsky, user experience is the consequence of:
- A user’s internal state. This could be anything the user brings to the table when the interaction occurs, for instance expectations.
- The characteristics of the designed system. Or, basically the artifact.
- The context within which the interaction occurs. Is it day, or night? Will it be used during school, or work? 
Based on Hassenzahl and Tractinsky’s definition of UX
4. Singular and accumulated experiences.
By ensuring many good singular experiences, the combination of them will lead to an accumulated experience for our users. For instance, imagine this made-up scenario:
A user decides to purchase an Apple computer. The user visits an Apple Store and converses with a salesperson before deciding to buy a MacBook Air. The user then retrieves the new computer and takes it home.
In this example, the user has not only made the interactions that were stated in the text, but much more, such as opening the door to the store, shaking hands with the salesperson, paying for the computer at the front desk, and many more. Not only do all these mentioned interactions between the artifact and the user result in a multitude of singular experiences, but they also contribute towards an accumulated experience for the user.
My proposal for a formal definition of UX
Having gone through four aspects of UX, this brings me to my proposal for a final definition of the term:
User experience refers to the singular and accumulated experiences that occur for users as consequence of them interacting with an artifact in a given context.
Although this definition is concise, it opens up the term to an understanding that applies to other fields beyond design. This might leave some asking, “If UX can be anything, aren’t we all then designers of user experience?” Which is a relevant question given this article, but I will leave this for discussion in my next article “Are we all user experience designers?”
Thanks to Rachel Aydt for copyedits, Thomas Dolberg for content feedback, and Michael Mose Biskjær for guiding me with my academic paper concerning this topic. And thanks to Designit for allowing this investigative opportunity.
- Merholz, P. (1998). Whither “User Experience”? peterme. Retrieved from http://www.peterme.com/index112498.html
- Whiteside, J. & Wixon, D. (1987). The dialectic of usability engineering. Human-Computer Interaction — INTERACT’87. Stuttgart, Germany, 17–20.
- Forlizzi, J. & Battarbee, K. (2004). Understanding experience in interactive systems. Proceedings of the 2004 Conference on Designing Interactive Systems (DIS 04): Processes, Practices, Methods, and Techniques, 261–268.
- Norman, D. A., & Nielsen, J. (n.d.). The Definition of User Experience (UX). Nielsen Norman Group: Evidence-Based User Experience Research, Training, and Consulting. Retrieved from https://www.nngroup.com/articles/definition-user-experience/
- “User Experience (UX) Design”. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/topics/ux-design
- Hassenzahl, M. & Tractinsky, N. (2011). User Experience — A Research Agenda. Behaviour & Information Technology, 25(2), 91–97.