Demystifying UX and industry terminology

The words used to label and describe User Experience can sound technical and even dehumanising to people unfamiliar with them. This is unfortunate because UX is primarily about understanding the human experience and making it simpler and more straightforward.

Josh Smith

By Josh Smith, 7 minute read

Is UX the same as UI? And what about PD, CX, EX, SD, DT and HCD? What do you need to know about them? What do these things even mean? 

The world of UX is populated with acronyms that may sound intimidating and confusing if you're not part of the industry. Many people assume that UX is either a very technical process involving boxes and arrows or just a component of interface design. While interface design may be an outcome of UX it is not, at all, the whole story. Here’s what you need to know...

Don’t be confused or put off by the labels

The terminology used to describe UX process and methodology is actually quite straightforward. The most important thing to remember is that although the words and labels may sound technical, they are actually describing a human, not a mechanical, process and are best understood in simple human terms.

The other thing to consider is that not only has the terminology evolved over time, it is still evolving. This means that even people in the industry are sometimes confused about where new terms come from, why our industry is creating this extra complexity, and where UX starts and other specialisations end.

It is this problem that frustrates me as a UX Designer. Our industry has created a wall of ambiguity between us and our audience and I want that wall to be taken down. If you ever find yourself stuck, just ask yourself ‘What am I trying to understand or solve for a person?’, and don’t worry about what it's called.

Below is a guide to hopefully help take the mystery out of the world of UX.

UX = User Experience

UX is the overarching term to describe the practice of understanding human behaviour  and applying that knowledge to solve human problems via the design of products (usually a digital product such as a website or an app). UX was coined by psychologist and usability consultant, Donald Norman, in the 1990s and arose from the specialisations of Usability Engineering and Information Architecture, which were primarily concerned with making products useful and usable.

UX is not about ‘designing a user’s experience’, which assumes the process is driven primarily by business, technical and design considerations. Instead, UX is led by a discovered human need to be met or a problem to be addressed which is solved through  design.

The key takeout is that the function of UX is about the human experience, and UX practices are simply the tools employed to understand and solve problems.

The primary tools of UX are research, prototyping and testing. Research aims to gain as much information as possible about the human problem the product will need to solve. Prototyping seeks to articulate a solution as simply and at as low a cost as possible. Testing is about understanding how well a product (or a part of a product) solves the problem. These tools are primarily used to create and refine solutions around a human need.

HCD = Human Centred Design

Human Centred Design is the philosophy that underpins UX. HCD requires that the design process puts humans at the centre of all activities and decisions by including them in the process. This idea was developed in 1958 by Professor John E Arnold at Sanford University who proposed that engineering design should be human centred. Since then, HCD has informed design across many different specialisations such as architecture, industrial design and digital interface development.

UX is driven by HCD to understand how people understand, experience and think about their world in order to create products that make people’s world easier, more satisfying and aesthetically pleasing.

UI = User Interface

The term User Interface is sometimes confused with User Experience but they are different things. User Interface (sometimes referred to as User Interface Design) is the final visual execution of touch and cursor enabled interfaces (we won't go into voice or gesture interfaces here). UI is about how digital products look and feel and how accessible content is within a product. UI is largely influenced by brand consideration and graphic design principles such as layout, hierarchy, colour, contrast and motion. A UI Designer will also have expertise in working with developers, ensuring that design is ready for code.

The work of UI and UX designers are tightly interwoven, often working alongside one another. And, in small teams, these roles can often be performed by the same person. The common intersection of these crafts are wireframes, where the solution starts to take shape and from which the brand aesthetic is applied. 

ux wireframe

Example wireframe prototype

user interface design

Example UI concept

PD = Product Design 

Product Design is a new discipline that has emerged from Agile development. Product designers often come from a UI or UX background. They typically have a wide breadth of skills, less research depth and sit within a product team, focused on long-term and specific improvements to a single product.

CX = Customer Experience

Customer Experience (also called Customer Experience Design) is concerned with how a customer interacts with a company's brand across all their channels. This function is often driven by a marketing team and is informed by brand constructs such as personality, tone, values and beliefs. 

CX is about delivering an experience to a person that not only solves their problem but does so in a way that is consistent with the unique attributes, style and promises of a brand. It’s about making sure the customer doesn’t just have a good experience but that they have the right experience throughout their relationship with an organisation.

Because of this, CX designers are often concerned with measuring long-term customer satisfaction and highlighting opportunities for product, service and marketing initiatives.

EX = Employee Experience

Employee Experience (Employee Experience Design or Employee Experience Management) is about understanding employee touchpoints and developing solutions and products to enhance the employee experiences in the workplace. EX spans human perceptions, cultural considerations, physical requirements and technological needs.

Practically, EX might be expressed through the development of an intranet or sales app to solve employee problems and create greater engagement, productivity, job satisfaction and enhance customer service. 

SD = Service Design

Service Design is a combination of CX and EX. It's about understanding the needs and interactions of both customers and employees across multiple touchpoints to address existing or potential problems. 

SD combines the understanding of human perceptions and behaviour with business functions with the goal of designing solutions to support the delivery of exceptional product or service experiences. 

DT = Design Thinking

There’s just one last concept to define which is Design Thinking. DT isn’t a function or outcome of UX. Rather, Design Thinking is the process and toolkit used by design professionals to translate insights about people’s needs into solutions that meet them. 

DT is essentially a framework and process that allows anyone to think and create like a designer. It is a particularly useful methodology for tackling problems that are complex, interconnected or that may not be fully defined or apparent upfront. The primary goal of Design Thinking is to expand our thinking and avoid the pitfalls of tunnel vision and missed opportunities. 

It’s all about people and making life better

To summarise:

  • UX is the practice of understanding human perceptions, behaviours and needs in order to solve a human problem with digital products.
  • HCD is the guiding philosophy underpinning UX – the idea that humans should be at the centre of any design solution.
  • UI, PD, CX, EX and SD are all related to UX. They’re similar specialisations that can often be performed by a UX professional, but have their own skill sets. 
  • DT is the toolkit UX professionals use to develop creative and innovative solutions.

Hopefully, that’s given you some clarity about the terminology within the world of UX. The key takeout is that UX is a profession with an approach and methodology that is applied to solve many different problems. 

Underpinning all UX activity, however, is the one guiding premise – in order to develop the right solution, we need to clearly understand the human problem we are attempting to solve. UX is therefore primarily about making the human experience better.