Luminary UX workshop

Demystifying UX and industry terminology

Too often UX is made to sound overly technical and confusing. This is troubling because UX is about understanding the human experience and making it simpler...

Josh Smith

By Josh Smith, 11 October 20216 minute read

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

Digital is full of acronyms that may sound intimidating even if you're ingrained in the industry. Meaning people are left to assume that UX is either a technical role or an over cooked way of explaining design. Here’s what you need to know...

Don’t be put off by the labels

The terminology used to describe UX is actually quite straightforward. This acronym along with the many terms that explain the role of UX, although new to most, are attempting to describe human, rather than technical outcomes. 

The other thing to consider is that the terminology has evolved over time and is still evolving. This means that even our industry is confused about where new terms come from, and where UX starts and other specialisations end. 

It is this problem that frustrates me. Our industry has created a wall of ambiguity between us and our audience and I want that wall to come down. In the meantime, if you ever find yourself stuck, ask yourself ‘What am I trying to understand or solve for a human being?’ Describing it in those terms is far more important than what it’s called.

Below is a guide to help take the mystery out of the world of UX and its close relatives.

UX = User Experience

UX is the practice of discovering human behaviour and applying that knowledge to solve problems via the design of products and services (most often a website or app). UX was coined by psychologist and usability consultant, Donald Norman, in the 1990s and arose from the specialisations of Information Architecture (IA) and Usability Engineering, which can be summed up as making things easy to find and simple to use. In a huge step forward for our industry, over the past 30+ years UX professionals have fought to bring a human voice to the forefront of strategic decision-making and make technology fit around our lives rather than the other way around. Something for which we owe our predecessor a great deal of thanks.

Despite its name, UX is not about ‘designing (or creating) a user’s experience’, which assumes the process is driven by business and technical requirements. Although important as constraints, UX instead asks that we start by discovering a human need and make addressing that the goal of creating a great experience.

In its simplest form, the primary tools of UX are research, wireframe prototyping and testing. Research aims to gain as much information as possible about an audience's context. Wireframe prototyping seeks to articulate a solution as simply and at as low cost possible. And, testing is about evaluating how well a prototype works. 

HCD = Human Centred Design

Human Centred Design is the philosophy that underpins UX. HCD requires that the design process put 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. Since then, HCD has informed design across many different specialisations such as architecture, industrial design and digital.

UX has HCD at its foundation, which is how it has distinguished itself from traditional design and technical roles. If the people who are to use the product or service are not included in creating it, then we are not practising UX.

UI = User Interface

The term User Interface is sometimes confused with User Experience but they are not the same thing. Often seeing them combined as ‘UX/UI’ is not helping with the confusion. A UI is simply the on-screen elements that you interact with on mobile, desktop and tablet applications (we won't go into voice or gesture interfaces here). UX, as we learned above, is about much more than that.

The process of creating an application's UI absolutely starts with UX. But, it should be shared with a trained digital designer. This is a specialist skill set, requiring domain expertise in digital branding, type, iconography, illustration, animation, accessibility, design systems and working with developers to create scalable and code-ready assets.

The common handover for these crafts are wireframes, where a solution starts to take shape and from which the brand is applied to create the final UI. 

ux wireframe

Example wireframe prototype

user interface design

Example UI concept

PD = Product Design 

Product Design, not to be confused with the design of physical products, is a new discipline that has emerged from agile development and startups. Made popular by organisations such as Spotify, Product designers often come from various design backgrounds. They have a breadth of skills, are less research focused and sit within a product team, under a product manager, focused on long-term and specific improvements to a single product.

CX = Customer Experience

Customer Experience Design is concerned with how a customer interacts with a company across all their channels. This function is often driven by marketing teams 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 across every touch point. 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 and work closely with UX professionals when digital is the point of focus.

EX = Employee Experience

Employee Experience Design is about understanding employee touchpoints and developing solutions and products unique to the employee experience. EX follows the same HCD principles with an emphasis on the physical requirements and technological needs of a workplace.

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

SD = Service Design

Service Design is a combination of CX and EX. It's about understanding the needs and interactions of and between customers and employees across multiple touchpoints, most notably, in-person ones.

SD combines the understanding of human perceptions and behaviour with business functions with the goal of designing processes and orchestrating the delivery of efficient and exceptional service experiences. 

DT = Design Thinking

There’s just one last concept to define, which is Design Thinking. Coined and pioneered by the American consultancy IDEO, Design Thinking isn’t a function or outcome of UX. Rather, Design Thinking is a process used to solve problems. 

This framework allows anyone to think and problem solve like a designer. It is particularly useful for tackling complex and interconnected problems. The primary goal of Design Thinking is to put experimentation and learning first, so that we may expand our thinking, generate ideas, simplify the complex and avoid implementing the wrong thing. 

To summarise:

  • UX is the practice of understanding human perceptions, behaviours and needs in order to shape products around them.
  • UI, PD, CX, EX and SD are all related to UX. They can often be performed by a UX professional, but have their own skill sets. 
  • HCD is the guiding philosophy underpinning everything mentioned above – the idea that humans should be at the centre of any designed solution.
  • DT is the process designers follow to develop creative and innovative solutions.

Hopefully, that’s given you some clarity about the terminology within the world of UX and the understanding that underpinning all UX work, 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.

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