Just What the Heck is UX?

I’m not here to quibble about definitions or job titles. If you want to do that, go and have a nice day. Seriously. Having a nice day is more fun than quibbling.

Back in the days when I was a lowly Technical Writer1, I was spending my days writing Help files and manuals for software. I also wrote “Announcement Memos,” which communicated changes to policy, process … actually, pretty much any change that the end-users needed to know about.

I recall being particularly miffed about writing Help for screens which were designed poorly. Surely, there must be a better way!

About a year into my job as a Tech Writer, an opportunity opened to move over to the IDS team. IDS. Awesome title. User Experience (UX) had been coined as a term a few years prior, but hadn’t really made it mainstream as a job title. Kind of like how information architecture used to be just an activity/deliverable on a project and now it’s something you can do professionally.

The Interface Design Specialist team was about 30 people or so. We were farmed out to projects. During my time there we didn’t tend to focus on a single product. We also defined Interface as “something between a thing and the person using the thing.” In my time there, I did a lot of digital work, but I also did a lot of other things like: physical product testing, redesigning the customer experience in a retail setting, and redesigning processes.

We weren’t limited in our thinking of what constituted a user’s experience.

Today’s Limitations

Today, and for a while now2, UX has been a digital-only profession. “Interface” has come to mean “Screen.” I talk with a lot of UX Designers and I often ask them about the types of projects they work on. All digital. Nary a one of them has worked on a physical product3 or created an in-person service process.

That’s both okay and a missed opportunity.

UX has never been digital-only to me and in a lot of ways I find the shift to digital-only to be surprising. Along with the idea that digital will solve all the problems because it’s so cheap and we can fail fast and launch and learn and it’s all we know how to do anyway so hammer/nail metaphor, and so on…

People need jobs and the jobs are mostly centered around digital solutions to poorly-framed (or not framed at all) problems.

That’s both okay and a missed opportunity.


I was very lucky that when I moved into IDSland, as I used to call it, I was trained by the people who wrote the books on UX-before-it-was-UX. Probably books many of you are not familiar with.

Of particular note were week(s)-long classes taught by:

  • Ginny Redish on interviewing techniques and task analysis.
  • Jeff Rubin on usability testing.
  • Robert Bailey on all things core to human factors.

Because of how I started (the training I received, the expectations put on me), I am grateful to have not focused solely on digital projects. Now that I run a Service Design consultancy, it’s interesting to look back and realize, in many ways, I was working as a Service Designer. And let’s not get started on the “differences”4 between Service Design and UX…

Consulting Helper

Personally, I don’t really care what my title is or what your title is. The best title I can think of for what I do, what many of us do, is “Helper.” But that probably would cause too many responses of “say what now?”

I like to help. Doesn’t matter too much to me what I’m helping with as long as it is moving people forward and/or giving them more time. Time being super important to me right now.5 Doesn’t matter if it’s a process, a digital product, a physical product, a service, or a career… I like to help. And I like the variety.

Which is why I chose to focus on Service Design. For now. I feel it’s the one thing that allows for multiple touchpoints (a Service Design term, to be sure) to be addressed in my work with clients.

Major Generalist

I’m not thrilled with the term “generalist” but it works to convey the idea that I wish people who work in human-centered disciplines would take more of a generalist perspective to their work.

I see people who are Design Researchers by day who have little interest in other areas of focus. Same with Information Architects, and Service Designers, and Interaction Designers, and, and, and.

Part of me gets it. Y’all work in a space where you are required to specialize and there’s no call for you, as a UX Designer, to learn about usability testing.6 When you get off work, why would you spend time at a meetup that doesn’t help you move forward in your day job?

I don’t think everyone should have the same professional experience as me, but I think a lot of you are missing out on some interesting opportunities to help by focusing solely on digital or solely on a single touchpoint/activity/set of deliverables.

There’s something really rewarding about being a generalist. It allows you to experience multiple ways of seeing.

This is part of the reason I started PDXHCD.7 In this case, I’m firmly planting my foot on the ground that the D in HCD stands for Discipline, not Design. We want to bring in as many people as possible. From “classic” UXers, to people working on Employee Experience projects.

We’re focusing local to Portland and trying to 1) get the local groups to work better together, 2) get the local groups to improve their level of quality for events, and 3) provide a space for professional development and exposure to those multiple ways of seeing.

I’m really looking forward to seeing what this effort becomes.

Just what the heck is UX anyway?

It’s a convenient way for me to communicate what I do, but unfortunately it is too specific to communicate what I do. It’s a profession. It’s a process. It’s a set of methods, activities, tools, and deliverables.

It’s a lot of things and it isn’t what it should be. We get caught up in debates on names of things, who is responsible for what, and what level of understanding and capability you need to do this work. Probably the only one we should be debating is that last one.

I know what UX is and I also do not recognize what it is. Ultimately, it’s a question best put to rest. A better question will always be: how can we help? And, related, how do we become better helpers?

1 Lowly in the sense that I was a cog in a giant machine of a company, not that being a Tech Writer is a lowly profession.
2 I blame the introduction of the iPhone and the Appification™ of all things.
3 Why are there so many Product Designer positions open that only work on digital? What does that title mean?!
4 Many Service Designers will say they don’t do UX. And what UX is now, I get it. But I still feel everyone has more in common than differences.
5 https://medium.com/@matto/make-with-love-58ea4d16a427
6 This is one of the topics that drives me crazy the most. “Senior” UX Designers who’ve not done research or testing. “I’ve never had the opportunity to talk to customers…” [picard facepalm]
7 The site is just a calendar for now. We started in January and are volunteer-driven, so it will take a bit to form-out who we are and what we do. But there is a plan!