What is UX? | Outcome vs. Process

People often ask us, "what is UX?", and we understand why they’re confused. The acronym “UX”, short for User Experience, holds two popular meanings:

  1. UX as an outcome – “The UX of this site made it so easy to use.”
  2. UX as a process – “We talked to a lot of users during the UX phase.”

What is UX as an outcome?

UX is a way to describe the steps a user takes as they move through a set of features within a product. This is not to be confused with a product’s UI (User Interface), which specifically describes the elements on a screen that a user will interact with. A product’s UX is much more than a UI. The UX encompasses the entire end-user experience with a product. The effectiveness of the UX of a product can be measured in its usability, which is defined by how well the end-user can learn and use the product. A highly usable product eliminates any friction a user may experience when navigating or utilizing a product, which often means:

If the UX designers are doing their job right, you won’t even know they were there.

The UX of a product is not limited to the elements on the screen, it can also refer to how quickly a page loads or if the correct results are showing up in a search. Therefore, the UX of a product is not limited to the activities of the design team but includes all teams responsible for delivering and maintaining a product. From the product management team determining the feature road map, the design team determining solutions for the features, the engineering team developing the features, and QA checking if the features have been built to specifications, all members of the team are responsible for a product’s UX.

What is UX as a process?

The activity of UX is a human-centered design practice for designing products. Boiling it down to its most essential parts, a UX process should include the following: developing a hypothesis to a problem, designing an experience that illustrates the hypothesis, testing the hypothesis experience with potential future users and then repeating the process until a design solution has been finalized. It’s important to note that:

"It’s not User Experience design if you’re not talking to users."

If this process sounds familiar, it’s because it is essentially the same process as Design Thinking which in itself is analogous to the scientific method. All of these processes, including UX, rely on testing hypotheses against experiences. The key difference between the scientific method and the UX process (and to a larger extent Design Thinking) is how the scientific method uses objective quantitative data, whereas the UX process uses subjective qualitative data. Quantitative data can also be used in the UX process, but generally it is to validate qualitative data.

A key component of the UX process is the designer’s ability to remove his/herself from the process and to look to the users for insights and validation in order to be as objective as possible. This key component has become a mantra among UX designers:

Design for the user. You are not the user.

While being objective, it’s also important for UX designers to build empathy for the end-users. Empathy helps UX designers understand what the user’s underlying motivations, needs, and goals are. With these insights, UX designers can create better experiences that match the end-users mental model.

In summary, the two popular meanings of UX, UX as a process and UX as an outcome, are two sides of the same coin. The process of UX is based on tried and true methods that puts the end-user first while designing experiences that meet their needs. The UX outcome of that process is an experience that is intuitive, easy to use, and helps accomplish the goals of the end user. Now that you understand what UX is, you should learn what makes UX valuable for all product and engineering teams, and if you couldn't already tell, we're not talking about product wireframes.