Experience can’t be designed: free yourself from UX

In grad school, I learned from a great marketing teacher, Steve Diller. He had learned from Louis Cheskin (if you’re in design or research, you should read up on Cheskin). This was old school marketing (ahem, actual marketing) that more closely resembles today’s scope of design. I had once labeled myself a UX Designer so I was a bit annoyed when Diller said, “you can’t design experience.”

two images: a man uses a phone on a busy street; a woman uses a computer in a quiet living room.
Street photo by Arthur Edelmans on Unsplash. (user / context). Couch photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash.

Since the inception of “UX Design” as a profession, there have been arguments that you can’t design an experience. “UX is the consequences of these attributes [of a design].” The acknowledgement is that there is user and context variability that we can’t control. Steve and I had a few good-natured arguments on the topic:

“Experience is subjective, it’s in the eyes of the beholder. You can only attempt to influence it.”

“But that’s what UX design is, we design to influence a user’s experience with the product.”

“Experience is also tied up in the brand and so many interactions that come before and after the product.”

“Yeah but we can design the branding, we can design our content strategy and GTM, we can design the engagement.”

“Everyone’s experience is different; it will depend on who they are, their pyschographics, their needs at the moment.”

“But we can segment, we can make the experience suit different users.”

I see a lot of “but’s” in my arguments. I was pretty sure I was right back then, that you can still “design for UX,” but over the years I’ve come around to Diller’s line of thinking. Far from rendering UX obsolete or giving up on making great products, letting go of this notion of UX can free us to make a greater impact and raise the bar for the design profession. My argument is that we should not design “for UX” at all, but to design for business outcomes.

These are not the droids you’re looking for

Let’s be honest, who hasn’t switched their title from Product to UX and back again? Who hasn’t had two versions of their resume for different job applications?

Still, there’s a not-too-fuzzy line between “product” and “UX” that’s been explored and explained. (The gist is that product is broader, dealing with the business case; UX is a central subcomponent that specializes in usability and interaction within flows). You’re more likely to see Product Design opportunities at startups and more UX roles within larger companies where there is a greater division of labor.

The former is what we choose to build, the latter is how we build it well. Both fall short of why we build it. So, with an unintentional plug for Simon Sinek, start with why.

Why we specialized

Sometimes I cringe remembering that long ago, I advertised my services as a graphic designer, or… ugh, web designer. Though really, there’s no shame in it, certainly not now when it can be a clear statement of work. Once upon a time, it was more blurry.

UX had to happen for three reasons:

  • Complexity
  • Capability
  • Competition

The increasing complexity of software meant we were going from static screens to multi-step, multi-fork flows. Usability suddenly mattered. If you’ve been doing your taxes for 20 years, you might remember what TurboTax used to look like. Here’s a fun look back to 1991.

My hunch is that a revolution in capability hit home in 2014 with the release of both HTML5 and Swift. (If you were designing then too, let me know if you can back this up). Though capabilities had been increasing YoY, that’s when there was a leap forward. Technology offered new design opportunities. Around the same time, there was a proliferation of bootcamps teaching UX.

Google Trends chart from 2004 to the present, showing the increase in “UX design” searches. It begins to increase around 2012–13, doubling around 2014, and continuing upward to the present.
Google Trends for “UX design” search queries.

The two factors above contributed to increased competition. This applied to startups needing to differentiate — gone were the days of merely digitizing an analog product. There was comparable competition for designers in the job market.

A correlation to the chart above was our emergence from the recession and the money machine that let startups “invest in UX.”

Taking UX out of the glossary

The specialization of UX Design and the need for good user experience will never go away. I would never advocate for that. Quite the opposite, UX is more important than ever. That’s why we need to stop saying it.

In more product discussions than I care to remember, I’ve argued for “good UX.” This has been a recipe for losing. My debate opponent (usually a friend in the Product org) would argue, sometimes cogently and sometimes nonsensically, on behalf of revenue and data. I would lose because they had numbers — however made up — on their side and I had gut feelings on my side. To be fair, the org chart usually meant it was their neck under the guillotine.

Don’t worry, I’m on your side: Good UX is good for business. But it can be communicated better.

Design for business impact

Instead, make the case for designing and developing the most valuable touchpoints for business impact. If you’re a designer — either Product or UX, you can make business decisions within the product. If you’re in leadership — design or otherwise, champion the bottom line across every customer touchpoint.

This will ruffle feathers, but it’s on us to be tireless advocates for the brand. This means consistency and strategic content across channels. Take part in acquisition funnels, from landing pages through registration forms. And when we get to the UX, just don’t mention the UX.

  • We’ll design for activation, including orientation and zero states.
  • We’ll design wayfinding and error handling, improving ARPU by increasing the number of paying users.
  • We can design for retention by preventing scenarios that make users think they’re making mistakes (this happens more than you might think).

We do this through Object Oriented UX, but of course we can’t call it that anymore. How about Object Oriented Operability — meet modern expectations by meeting [the flexibility of] mental models with a system of objects, not linear actions.

  • Design to prevent churn (if users assume your product is broken, they won’t stick around) with such minimal investments as loading states, micro-animations, or confirmation interactions.

While revenue estimates for new features are, at best, guesstimates, you can put realistic dollar projections around individual touchpoints with even the most basic analytics.

We were never designing a user’s experience

We were always hoping to positively influence experience amidst the baggage that gets accrued before and after, around and around.

Likely more impactful to the user experience: the interoperability of front-end and back-end objects, the sequencing of data or API calls, the reduction of latency, and the triggers of notifications or statuses. If none of these words sound familiar, that’s because they’re not usually part of design. Still, software architects strategize all of the above — they call this phase of development… design.

More things that aren’t in the realm of design but must be designed, ultimately for the user: financial strategies, business models, sales calls, help documentation, customer support, engagement marketing… everything from your meeting cadence to your tweeting cadence.

When you think of all of the above, the big picture, it’s easy to see how impossible it is to design experience.

Two pictures side by side: an aerial view of a forest and second, a bunch of individual trees within the forest.
Forest by Dave Hoefler on Unsplash. Trees by Michael Krahn on Unsplash

Once you remove the notion of user experience design from your approach, instead designing customer touchpoints for business impact, the more you’ll be speaking the same language as the C-suite. You’ll get your way more often. More importantly, you’ll demonstrate that other orgs also need to design their processes and outputs.

Ultimately, this will be what makes companies rather than breaks companies.

Sensation transference

This was one of Cheskin’s theories, well established through his research. Sensation transference suggests that all the tangential experiences a customer has with a brand will be transferred to their experience of the product. So, it’s either out of your hands, or it’s all in your hands.

Should we call it brand-marketing-acquisition-finance-product-service-growth-touchpoint design? Nah, how about just Design.

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