Originally published on “Matters” by Designit
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.