UX vs. XD
User Experience (UX) is not Experience Design (XD).
In recent years, the names of these two disciplines have become confused and conflated — with all the unfortunate results that happen when people can no longer tell one thing from another.
Imagine looking for a job. You’re a software specialist but you google “Experience Design” and find yourself looking at listings for experiential marketing. Or you’re an event marketer and you find yourself looking at listings for experts in human-computer interaction. You quickly realize that terms matter.
UX vs. XD
User Experience focuses on “enhancing user satisfaction with a product by improving the usability, accessibility, and pleasure provided in the interaction with the product.” User Experience is a process applied primarily to digital products. It tries to think through interface problems from the vantage point of the user. And while that might sound like a no-brainer, you’d be surprised how many interfaces are actually built from the vantage point of programmers. We all like to make our jobs easier.
Experience Design follows a broader mandate. It focuses on “moments of engagement, or touchpoints, between people and brands, and the ideas, emotions, and memories that these moments create.” Experience Designers are holistic problem solvers, looking at an entire brand ecosystem. The solution to the problem often involves designing an event, but it’s really about designing in a more comprehensive fashion. It’s about asking “How can I orchestrate an experience in a way that delivers results across all channels and touchpoints?
One of the points of confusion between the two disciplines is that an experience is more than a live event. It might involve a digital tactic — for example, a touchscreen display at that live event — as well as many other tactics. A performance or stunt, printed signage, a mobile app, a light show, a keynote speech, a video, even a dress code — all of these can be tactics, “moments of engagement,” that drive the perceptions, emotions, and memories of an attendee undergoing an experience.
User vs. Experiencer
Since both Experience Design and User Experience attempt to think through their respective problems from the vantage point of human beings — experiencers or users — let’s pause to look at what those audiences want.
- A user wants to accomplish something, though perhaps in a way that is aesthetically pleasing. A smartphone user, for example, might enjoy the look and feel of her device but her primary purpose is to perform a function — check email, browse the web, schedule an appointment.
- An experiencer is after something very different. She wants to feel something. She is willing to offer her time and attention to a brand in order to have that experience. At SXSW, for example, she might subject herself to messages from HBO in order to attend the over-the-top activation recreating WestWorld.
A Few Senses vs. All of Them
To what senses does User Experience appeal? To the eyes that see the shapes and colors of on-screen buttons. To the ears that hear beeps, clicks, or voice-to-speech feedback. To the finger that feels a screen or the hand that recognizes the familiar vibration an iPhone makes when a text message arrives.
To what senses does Experience Design appeal? All of them. If you’ve ever had a glass of wine at an event, you know that what goes in your mouth is as important a touchpoint as what messages your eye consumes. Or if you’ve ever attended a fashion show, you know that it has its own unique set of smells. What’s more, an experience doesn’t just appeal to the five senses. It immerses you in some way that is more than the sum of its parts. Perhaps an even better way to put it is that Experience Design doesn’t appeal to a sense at all. It appeals to emotion.
Mechanics vs. Narratives
Consider also the difference between two of the tools used by these disciplines: A UX designer uses wireframes to lay out something in two-dimensional space. An Experience Designer uses a show flow to plot it out in time.
This points to a deep underlying difference. User Experience primarily concerns a two-dimensional space: a screen. Experience Design is three-dimensional, four-dimensional, perhaps even topological. It has surfaces, but it also has environments, stages, seats, sidewalks, performers, and attendees moving in real tangible space. And from the vantage point of time, user experience enables a transaction. You click a button or touch a screen, and something happens. Experience Design puts together a narrative, tries to tell a story or (as Wikipedia puts it) “to score the arrangement of these touchpoints.”
Given how readily apparent the distinctions are, why have the terms designating the two disciplines begun to blur? An analysis of 17 years of User Experience job titles published on LinkedIn shows that UX specialists began referring to themselves as “Experience Designers” around 2011.
The causes for this aren’t clear but probably have to do with two things. First, the words overlap. Neither term has been around for a long while, so they probably have a small and slippery amount of mindshare. Second, Experience Design simply has a more elevated sound to it than User Experience. “User” designates one type of audience — the users of digital products — and also has a slight sense of being low or base, as in the feeling that occurs when one “feels used.” In contrast, Experience Design has all the nobility of its wider, broader mandate. It is more aspirational and does not confine itself to one sort of audience.
So why is it important not to confuse UX and XD?
Well, for the same reason it’s important not to confuse “square” and “rectangle.” They mean different things. A brand creating a mobile app needs UX. A brand putting on an activation needs XD. User Experience is the more specific discipline; Experience Design is the broader one.
If UX designers aspire to think beyond interfaces and toward larger brand objectives there can’t be anything wrong with that. It always helps to keep the highest purpose of our efforts in mind. But at the same time, it is important to be clear about the borderlines between the disciplines, lest brands seeking rectangles end up with squares.