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What is UX anyways?

A guide to what UX is, how UX sees the world, where UX came from, how to do UX and our take on where UX is going in the grand scheme of things.

Defining User Experience

The term User Experience (and its abbreviation “UX”) is a relatively new one as far as terms go. It first emerged around the early 90s, by Don Norman, to describe his team at Apple (source: interaction-design.org).

“User experience” encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.

– Don Norman & Jakob Nielsen

Today, UX refers to an expansive field that covers both digital and analog experiences and whose practitioners can be involved in a wide range of activities across the organizations they work for. For people looking into the UX field from the outside confusion about what UX involves is a completely understandable reaction. (Some wonder: ‘why isn’t it called UE?’ – to which we respond: ‘the x makes it sound cooler’ and the brand association with Xmen or expensive car models is just a side benefit).

Here we endeavor to give readers an overview, arming you with a sense of where UX came from, what it involves, who is involved with UX, why we do it, and how we benefit from the UX design toolbox. We’re trying to connect the dots – onwards we go.

Pencil & Paper’s Definition of User Experience

The extra layer of thought and care that exists in the invisible space between technology and the person using it.

Confusion Around UX Terminology

As with most fields, terminology wars rage and debates on their nuanced meanings interest only the specialists and make everyone else tired. There are many terms you may have heard of that have somewhat blurry distinctions between them. UX is associated with:

  • User-centred design (UCD)
  • Human-centred design (HCD)
  • Human computer interaction (HCI)
  • Customer experience (CX)
  • Interaction Design
  • Human Factors
  • Service Design

There are a lot of commonalities between these terms, no shocker there. These terms vary mainly in the scale of projects and range of challenges they address. Some terms are also more associated with academic research than project-based work. We’re calling them out, so that you can have some broader context for these words you may have seen before and wondered about.

The User at the Centre

The key similarity found in all the terms listed above is that they focus on the human at the heart of the interaction. This human-centric perspective is a significant departure from how society has commonly approached building things.

Imagine if every product and service you came across  was optimized to work for you – sharing the language you use to describe your goals, fitting in with your schedule or preferred method of communication and making sure your time isn’t wasted. This isn’t the case much of the time. As user-centred designers, our philosophy is: Why work against a user when you could work with them? 

Solidifying the human centred perspective with data

A key part of our design discipline is that we don’t just love users from afar and hope we make the right choices for them, we test with them throughout many versions of our designs, until we get something that is truly excellent. It’s amazing how actually talking to a person can show you things you hadn’t thought of or didn’t even know you assumed.

Our Philosophy on Being Designers

As a designer, you don’t have to be a magic unicorn dreaming up the perfect ideas all on your own. We find the magic and inspiration by taking attention away from ourselves and focusing on the people we design for. They tell us the answers, show us where to improve, and give us the blueprint for delight.

A User Experience Example: Analog and Digital


Pretend this restaurant has the following issues:

  • The entrance to the kitchen, the front door to the restaurant and the main bathrooms are all in the same corner
  • You can’t read or understand the menu
  • Sometimes you place an order and get what you expect, and other times you get something different with no explanation

Now imagine you’re using an app on your phone. Can you relate to these user experience issues?


Pretend the app has the following issues:

  • The interface is so cluttered and busy that you can’t figure out how to do what you need to do.
  • The words in the menu don’t match with your thinking (so you don’t know where to go)
  • Sometimes the app saves what you just did perfectly, other times not at all

As it turns out, the restaurant and the app have very similar ux problems – the cause may also be similar (not taking a user centred approach to designing the experience).

A Restaurant An App The Problem
Crowded main entryway Cluttered interface Navigation & Flow
Order varies without warning Sometimes doesn’t save Unpredictability
Unreadable menu Navigation has odd labels Language issues

Let’s take a moment to put this UX thing into a more real world context shall we? User experience isn’t just limited to digital products – here’ we’re going to compare a ‘real life’ experience to a digital one and see that the root problems are the same. The only difference is one is that one is digital and the other is not. To start, imagine a restaurant.

The UX Design Process

Knowing that the goal of UX is designing with humans in mind and that the expected results are more usable and more pleasant products and services – the remaining gap to fill is how to get there. While specifics differ from one designer or one organization to another, UX methods tend to follow similar broad strokes. The design process uncovers many opportunities for businesses, whether that’s cost reduction or seizing new opportunities (we created an article to help calculate the ROI of UX research and design, if you’re curious to find out more).

Phase 1: Discovery

An important first phase in any project, design or otherwise. In UX, discovery involves doing as much initial research as possible to get a deep understanding of what we’re looking at. Understanding the context of a problem is key to understanding the problem itself and its potential solutions. Here a few research activities UX designers often perform during this phase:

What it is

Having a conversation with key people involved in making the project a reality.

How it helps

These interviews help us get more information about the challenge at hand and understand what it takes to make the project successful. This is also where we ask about or confirm project constraints.

What it is

Looking into direct or indirect competitors and the industry at large.

How it helps

This research helps us understand what other organizations have done well or have done poorly, and what market trends may influence the design.

What it is

Speaking with current or potential users and asking questions:

  • About a specific product or topic
  • About a general topic

How it helps

Interviews help us understand user needs, motivations, situations, workflows etc.

We might try to understand their particular pain points, how they approach solving certain problems, what they find delightful, etc.

What it is

A set list of questions for current users or potential users to answer – usually online.

How it helps

Surveys can help us build up statistics about user beliefs and behaviours and confirm with more certainty what some users may already have told us in interviews.

What it is

Observing people in their natural habitat to understand how they do things.

How it helps

Looking at how people do things in their personal environment can help us identify things that users are not aware of because it’s so normal for them. We can get insights from their habits, how they overcome certain challenges or how they do things in their own unique way.

Phase 2: Definition

This is where UX designers think about what they’ve seen or heard during the discovery phase and begin putting things together into insights that will inform what they design. If you’ve seen cliché photos of designers drawing on and pointing at post-it notes, that’s what happens during the definition phase.

What it is

There are a hundred ways to map and diagram, but the basic idea is to visually summarize a complex idea/scenario and its different parts. (This includes user flows, task flows, process flows and mapping out other relevant logic)

How it helps

Getting things on paper has been linked with better processing of information (source: The Atlantic & APA). Mapping helps designers see how everything fits together and where there might be opportunities for innovation or improvement.

What it is

A written ‘portrait’ of a user or type of user, based on the people or behaviours you’ve encountered in research

How it helps

They serve as reminders of your users’ life context and details that might impact or be impacted by your design decisions

What it is

These are typically short sentences that help communicate the who, what and how of certain tasks to be accomplished. ex. As an Admin,  I want to invite other users, so that my team can collaborate.

How it helps

By understanding which users try to accomplish specific things in specific ways, we get a better idea of functionalities or features that are crucial to completing these tasks.

Phase 3: Design

This is the stage most people get excited about; when ideas begin to materialize and it starts to feel like there may actually be a light at the end of the tunnel. An important principle in UX design is testing and validating ideas. Checking in with your users at multiple points throughout the design phase helps confirm that you’ve made sound design decisions and highlights how you can improve and refine your design over many iterations.

What it is

Wireframes are probably one of the most well-known design deliverables. They are essentially an initial rough draft of how your final product might look or work.

How it helps

They are most helpful as tools for discussion and explanation. They can help designers communicate and confirm content types, sequences, how interactions might work (when a user does X, Y happens), etc.

What it is

Prototyping can be done at various levels of detail – but it usually involves having someone play or work going through an unfinished concept, pretending that they are doing it in a real-life context.

How it helps

Prototypes can help find weaknesses, gaps, flaws in logic and other problems you hadn’t thought of while designing.

What it is

Having a current or potential user work through an almost-final or live design step-by-step to see whether it is easy for them to use.

How it helps

Usability tests help make sure people can understand the intent of a design, the layout, the copy, the interactions – and whether it helps them accomplish what they’ve set out to do.

What it is

Files or knowledge provided to whoever is dealing with developing, implementing or maintaining a design.

How it helps

Keeping track of design decisions and logic prevents confusion for everyone. It’s essential when doing complex design work to be able to explain why something was designed the way it was and what are the various parts that go into it.

Phase 4: Do it again!

Design is never done is the motto here. When UX designers deliver a piece of work (even if it’s been tested, tweaked and refined a hundred times) they know that it will eventually have to be updated or reworked. Tech and culture evolve continuously – and design work isn’t immune to becoming obsolete or having to be replaced by something better.

How does this fit in with the development workflow?

If you’ve been struggling to implement complex features that your users find intuitive to use, we have put together a course (UX Skills for Developers) that will help improve your implementation and overall usability.

State of UX: Present and Future

We’ve seen an uptick in our field in the last 10 years, as designers campaigned tirelessly for representation in product development and organizations overall (like government). Their efforts also coincided with a few other dynamics:

  • Ubiquity of mobile devices
    • As mobile device use has gone through the roof with 81% of Americans having smartphones in 2019 (source: PEW Research), our standards in their ease of use have also become more and more sophisticated
  • Software as a service (SAAS) business models increasing in the software world (see projections for growth here: zdnet)
    • Software switched from being purchased with a perpetual license to a subscription service (source: wikipedia), which means that selling users on a particular software became less of an upfront process and more of an ongoing process – where software competitors have to fight to retain their customers.

As a result, we’re seeing more demand for our work. We’re creating design systems to scale production work, the notion of design thinking is making its way through even large corporations, and specialist roles like UX Writer are emerging.

Interestingly, we’ve even started to look at UX design as an organizational culture paradigm – with various levels of UX maturity being measured. There’s a spectrum that begins with adoption as production (make it pretty) all the way to full integration of user-first philosophy. Nngroup has a good breakdown here.

Startup culture often promotes user-centred philosophy – so startups are keen to adopt this approach early on (even if they don’t know a lot about it), but established companies often have to experience a cultural transformation to integrate a user-centred approach.

Looking Into The Distance

If we look at the last 15 years of innovation, it’s not hard to believe that we are at the beginning of a great technological advancement era (look at the technologies we’ve invented in the last 100 years – what will the next 100 look like. We may be heading towards an age of hovercrafts, robots, and medical innovation that’s almost impossible to imagine.

Already we’ve seen some tell tale signs of being in a wild wild west of technology: issues with privacy, tech addiction, manipulation of what people see online for example. We’ve also seen less serious versions of ‘going digital’ where the website or app emulates an existing process which is very unfriendly for users. Our question as designers, is:

How can we usher in this technological era, and steer the ship in a direction that is fundamentally human-centred so that we can build a bright future together?


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