Experiencing the Misconceptions of User Experience Design

Information Architecture Institute’s Advisor and UX “it girl” extraordinaire, Whitney Hess authored an article on Mashable yesterday that’s gotten a lot of buzz.  My description of Whitney isn’t facetious; she does a lot for our community to expand awareness and help make splashes where they aren’t being made.

We could all take a page from her book, frankly.

Sometime around Thanksgiving, I got a twitter Direct Message from Whit asking me what I thought was “the biggest misconception in UXD”.

I chuckled because I’d been working through this for a very long time, and I’d been having a number of conversations with Matthew Milan about this very same topic and how I really believe that we sell ourselves short by locking ourselves into “just” the user.

Whitney’s quote from me in the article as follows:

…just about the user

Russ Unger, experience design strategist, likes to say that the biggest misconception of UX design is the “U.” “There are a set of business objectives that are needing to be met—and we’re designing to that, as well,” he explains. “We just can’t always do what is best for the users. We have to try to make sure that we are presenting an overall experience that can meet as many goals and needs as possible for the business and the users.”As user experience designers we have to find the sweet spot between the user’s needs and the business goals, and furthermore ensure that the design is on brand.

Whit did a great job of distilling it down; I didn’t expect that what I had sent her would be carved in stone, but I definitely feel that the lengthier version gives a bit more insight and further explains my perspective (and as I mentioned to her, gives me something to blog about, too!).

I sent Whitney the following response:

Biggest misconception?

One of the biggest misconceptions I see is that people are getting too deep into “User” Experience Design.  That is, most times, we are solving a business problem and wrapping something useful and usable around it. There are a set of business objectives that are needing to be met—and we’re designing to that, as well.  In many cases, this forces “User” Experience Designers to choose between the lesser of evils and not really put forth what might be considered (by them) as the best possible solution.  I believe any of us in the field could nitpick on any site or application and make a snap judgment—but we would not know what business objective forced that design decision.

As an example:  I once worked for a large media company that identified banner ads as a revenue stream.  This required a large “island” ad to be placed on the page, and forgive me for even saying this, above the fold (not my requirement).  Some designers rebelled against this, but the way I saw this was that there is an ad on a page that had the potential to bring in enough revenue to pay multiple salaries each year—that’s ultimately a good thing, right?

I see us as Experience Designers, who truly try to provide what is best for a user—while making sure business objectives are met.  Unfortunately, we just can’t always do what is best for the users, so we have to try to make sure that we are presenting an overall experience that can meet as many goals and needs as possible for the business and the users.

Whitney edited this down to fit into her pretty lengthy article–which, by the way, had my name listed amongst people that I’m fortunate enough to be able to say that I’ve met, I’ve had conversations with, I’ve become friends with and who are my heroes in the industry. Author, of course, included, and ranking right up there near the top.

I’m more than a little honored to be amongst those people listed, and I’m flattered to have given a response that was considered insightful enough to be listed.

But, I have to say, I very specifically meant that the U–the USER part–of User Experience Design is one of the misconceptions that I see.

We don’t always have the fortune of working for the Users. We sometimes work for the Business requirements and the business objectives.  We are creating experiences for their users that are compelling the users to buy something.

Look, we’re a cost to companies, and they see it as a needed cost because we have the potential to save them money downstream by working toward the best interests of their users–to meet goals and objectives of the company.

We’re working with all that stuff. We’re working to simplify processes. We sometimes have to pick the lesser of many evils–and we do that, to a degree, for the user.

And the user isn’t always a customer, either.


  1. One that buys goods or services.
  2. Informal An individual with whom one must deal: a tough customer.

That’s far too narrow of a focus–for me.

Sometimes, the user is just a visitor. Sometimes, we identify business processes and/or communication processes (think to yourself how the editorial process might work for a large-scale CMS). Sometimes it’s a consumer–and that doesn’t have to be a customer. Sometimes the user is someone looking for information, and you can rationalize that however you’d like, but it’s not a customer.

Otherwise, it would be often called Customer Experience Design.

From where I sit, and from where I’ll be sitting soon, it’s Experience Design, Experience Strategy and/or Experience Planning. Who we do it for…  That may vary.

We’re always going to try to connect the dots with as much efficiency and clarity as possible, and that’s what is important.

7 Responses to “Experiencing the Misconceptions of User Experience Design”

  1. You’re making a lot of excellent points here, Russ.

    I think a lot of us have come into that banner-ad scenario. The key (to me, anyway) is not to look at it as a banner ad and shrug, but as real estate that brand decided to open in that environment.

    The technical parameters have been set: so how can we advocate on behalf of the audience given this space? What parts of the narrative will be useful, fun, or add to the experience of the setting they’re in?


  2. Russ, thanks for the link love, and for your insightful contributions to the piece. I also grapple with the term “user” and somehow haven’t yet managed to drop it from my self-imposed title yet. I guess I keep it there to differentiate from event planners — check out EventQuest (http://www.eventquest.com/). My friend worked there and was responsible for “experiential marketing” for clients like Mercedes Benz. They’d take over a showroom and create temporary spaces that evoked the brand. Interesting stuff, but it’s all about selling the product.

    In my blog tagline, I use the term “human experience,” but even that is vague and rather lofty. The human experience is about life and death and sickness and love and success and happiness. I’d like to think that while our work is certainly important, we aren’t drastically changing the human condition.

    So yeah, I’m stuck. I haven’t found a word I really like, that better describes that we’re making stuff to help make people’s lives better. Maybe I’ll just leave it at that.


  3. I also meant to say thanks for all your kind words. It really means a lot.


  4. That’s a good point, Russ. IMHO, it’s is the concept of “working for” that generates a little bit of confusion.

    What you write is true: “We don’t always have the fortune of working for the Users”: but it’s true as long as we think that “working for” means building something that’s 100% interesting and useful for our target in the short-term period, putting in the spotlight just the user’s needs. In the agency environment, it’s unusual to work directly for the user: the real priority is the client’s need.

    This doesn’t mean the user / consumer is not the most important thing. It’s the opposite: users are crucial.

    Brands build relationship with consumers, the agency works for the client, but with the objective of building a relationship between the brand and the client.

    In other words, giving priority to the client means very often giving priority to the consumer. This is why Experience Design considers the User as a fundamental part. The agency must listen, embrace and energize the community of consumers in order to meet the brand objectives.

    We don’t always work directly for the user in every single thing we do, but I think that – if we step back and see the big picture – we work for the user (even if sometimes indirectly).


  5. Stefano, think of it as the structure of markup language.

    HTML is a subset of ML, right?

    UX is a subset of X.

    That’s where I’m heading with my thinking.


  6. Thank you so much for addressing this topic, Russ.

    The end-users’ needs should be defined by market research, not gut. Design should be based on the data provided on the customer. Always ask for solid customer insights based on CRM, focus groups and usability results.

    It’s important to understand the goal of a site, portal and/or page before designing, especially passing judgement. In the end, it is the designer’s job to align the business objective with the end-users’ needs.


  7. Is “stakeholder” is a better term than “user” or “customer”?


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