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Why UX is not about design

Patrizia Bertini

Patrizia Bertini

Often when the concept of user experience (UX) is discussed, a common misconception is expressed.

It is often thought that user experience is a fancy synonym for design. This is not the case. User experience doesn't start with design, but with the knowledge that informs the design process. Before someone is a user of a product they are an individual, and it's this prior active engagement of the user that is key to imagining and designing a product that will fit their needs and deliver an experience that meets or exceeds expectations.

The focus of UX is on users' experience, how they feel when using and interacting with a service or product, and about how that service or product fits within their lives, influences behaviour and changes expectations.

What is user experience?

Experience itself is defined as 'knowledge gained by repeated trials' and UX is what we learn from observing, testing and interacting with users. Active engagement of the user is a necessity in the process of defining, imagining, ideating and designing a product or service that will answer an unmet opportunity. The user is the core element that informs and determines strategy, intent and execution of a plan that eventually comes to life in a product or service.

Good UX incorporates a deep and thorough understanding, an in-depth view of exactly who users are. This involves their behaviours, attitudes, expectations, latent needs and mental models.

In short, it requires research through product testing, hands-on experiences, focus groups, ethnographic studies, and data analysis. A successful UX project starts and ends with research and is characterised by a genuine and on-going interaction with people.

Why UX is not design

UX is what we learn from observing, testing and interacting with users

UX is what we learn from observing, testing and interacting with users

Design is a product or service oriented approach that may remain a fascinating and intellectual exercise.

An example of this unique way of thinking is Bruno Munari, one of the most original and innovative Italian designers, and the creator of some amazing design experiments. Talking forks and the Useless machines, for instance, are exquisite examples of pure design, where the designer plays with forms and shapes to reinvent the object.

However, UX is not about the form. It's not even only about the function the object performs, but about the interaction between object and user, and the experience delivered.

Means to an end

Illustration by Mike Chipperfield,

Illustration by Mike Chipperfield,

Saying this, the contrast between design and user experience doesn't stop there. In UX the product or service is a means to an end, a functional, seamless form that performs an action and improves people's lives.

In the long debate between form and function in design, UX actually goes a step further because its aim is to hide function in form, and form in an interaction delighting the user.

It's evident that user experience is what we could call a more human to human approach; it's about understanding, anticipating and providing solutions that, through invisible and subtle interactions, seamlessly integrate with the user's world of social and practical needs.

Little details

This can be achieved only by meeting the user and gaining this understanding, it takes those involved to engage, observe, discuss and challenge.

The rise of qualitative research methods, such as ethnographic studies, demonstrates that UX is not just design but a wide, encompassing strategy focused on little details that make the difference.

While perhaps invisible, these details, if captured, can give birth to game-changing products and services.

Words: Patrizia Bertini

European Director of Research and Insight at Wipro Digital, Patrizia Bertini combines 15+ years of experiences around Europe both in academia and leading research centers and as a user researcher, experience designer and UX consultant mainly for the CA, Finance, and Public sector. She can be reached at @Legoviews.

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