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What is user experience (UX)? Exploring its origin, definition and use

January 31, 2024

Scott Pelham

Video Transcript
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While there is a substantial amount of information out there on the topic of User Experience (UX), it’s not always accurate. Its definition varies among individuals and industries, making it challenging to establish a definitive and universally agreed-upon understanding. In addition, there are ongoing discussions regarding the characterisation of “best practice” in UX, as well as the ways in which UX frameworks and methods can effectively facilitate its integration into projects, products, and services. So how can you know what’s relevant and accurate?

This article aims to provide a research-backed understanding of where UX came from, how it’s defined and what it looks like in practice.


User Experience (UX) sits at the core of all our digital interactions[1]. You could be navigating a website, using an application, or simply engaging with a product, but it’s UX that separates a frustrating encounter from an enjoyable one.

Now, when it comes to businesses, the concept of providing a good product experience for customers is nothing new – good businesses have strived to do that since the dawn of time. However, the term “user experience”, particularly in the context of modern digital products, is a recent addition, emerging in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

A graph showing the rate of UX publications over time. The graph initially shows 28 UX related articles published between 1984-1989 and leads to show over 10,000 UX related articles published between 2019-2024.
Citation Report graphic is derived from Clarivate Web of Science, Copyright Clarivate 2024. All rights reserved.

Around this time, personal computing had a surge in use, and led to more and more people engaging with computers on a daily basis[2]. This was the introduction of a concept called Human-Computer Interaction (HCI).

Human-Computer Interaction highlighted the engineering and functional challenges associated with using machines. However, over time, and as technology advanced, there was a notable shift from engineering-centric concerns to design oriented issues. Essentially, there was a understanding that how we interact with products played an important role. Businesses realised that to get customers to use their product, and keep using it, the quality of their interactions and overall experience was important for the product’s uptake and retention. As such, a greater emphasis needed to be placed on the user of the product [3].

Fast forward to today, and every click, tap, and swipe we make has been influenced by HCI. But HCI is not UX. It is now just one dynamic element among various factors included in the broader scope of UX[4]. HCI comes from this background of computer science and engineering and its goal was to facilitate an interaction between a person and a machine. For UX, it’s not about just facilitating an interaction, but it’s about considering all the components that will make that interaction a good experience.

So, this can include things like great aesthetics, performance, high quality content, the structure of information, and other components too. What has happened is that user experience has evolved from HCI and turned into this comprehensive umbrella term that encapsulates all these components into one.

User experience doesn’t have an official definition, at least not one that everyone can agree on.

Defining UX

Defining UX proves interesting because, despite its seemingly straightforward nature, navigating the concept can be somewhat intricate. In addition to being this overarching umbrella term, UX is also heavily content-dependent – its components, requirements and its application are unique in every scenario, so we see a varied application across different disciplines like sociology, information and communication technology (ICT), psychology, and design[5]. Not only this, we also see variation in the components used to influence user experience.

If we look at this through the lens of HCI, historically we had a much smaller spectrum of components that could be influenced, and the goal was somewhat simpler too. We had to have a usable and effective system during an interaction. However, it’s possible to have a usable and effective system that people dislike using and have a bad experience with, so this doesn’t really capture UX.

When it comes to modern day products and systems, we have much more complex and dynamic moving parts. It’s not just about the physical interactions anymore. The lead up to that interaction needs to be considered, as does what happens after it, as well as psychological, emotional, and other human factors. Because while these factors may not be directly tied to the product or service, they still impact the overall experience of that product or service.

So, how can you define something with so many moving parts and changing requirements? Well, that’s the thing, user experience doesn’t have an official definition, at least not one that everyone can agree on[6][7][8][9].

The closest “official” definition currently available is provided by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). While they don’t explicitly define “user experience”, they do define something similar, which is “Human-centred design for interactive systems”. According to the ISO, this is defined as the “perceptions and responses from the use of a product”. The scope of which covers all “computer-based system” – anything from websites to vending machines[10].

Some researchers align themselves with the ISO’s definition, but in their definition also include interactions that happen before and after the use of a product – not just during its use[11]. For example, if you ran an ecommerce store, the user experience isn’t limited to the design and development of the website. It could include things like product management, the flow of checkout and payment, shipping and logistics, and after-sales support. All these elements are going to impact the experience of the customer. So the inclusion of this as part of UX’s definition makes sense to me.

On the other hand, some researchers argue against tying UX to a singular definition like the one from the ISO, and instead advocate for one that somehow reflects its subjective and dynamic nature. But, as for how you would create a definition like that, I have no idea.

Nevertheless, despite variations in definitions, one thing UX researchers agree on is that the concept of UX is "dynamic, context-dependent, and subjective"[12].

User experience is the practice of creating and fostering a positive relationship between a user and a designed system.

UX in practice

Let’s dig deeper into what user experience looks like when it’s implemented into a situation or a project. What we see across the board is that when user experience methods are applied in a project, its primary aim is to create a positive relationship between the user and a designed system [13].

So, how do we create a positive relationship?

This user-system relationship is influenced by four key variables: the individual, the situation, the product itself, and time.

Let’s explore an example. Let’s say I’m a UX designer working on a government website.

The Individual

As an individual, my approach to this project will be shaped by my own experiences and preferred ways of working, and how I tackle the project will vary if I bring ten years of government experience to the table compared to if it’s my first government project.

The Situation

Considering the situation, this includes everything outside the individual and the project itself that could potentially influence the project’s quality. So, factors like the size of the team, the working dynamics, available resources, or budget constraints. Essentially, this is anything that could impact the outcome of the project.

As this example is government based, I would also need to consider components that are specific to the public sector. So, there may be specific digital service standards or accessibility standards that are a requirement in government, but not necessarily a requirement in the private sector.

The Product

As for the product, we know we’re dealing with a government website. So, the focus will be on factors that influence a website’s UX. This includes components like information architecture and how information is organised[14]; visual design aspects such as the colour scheme, typography, and overall aesthetics[15][16][17]; usability considerations to ensure users can easily find the information they seek[18]; accessibility features to make information accessible to users with varying abilities[19]; the layout, structure, and delivery of written content[20][21]; performance and speed of the website[22]; and security measures[23].

What’s important to note is that if the designed system wasn’t a website, then these components may differ, and their respective importance and relevance could vary. This aligns with observations in other research, as indicated in a bibliometric study showing the cross-disciplinary diversity in the application of UX[24], and where these variables are specifically referenced[25].


Lastly, there’s the time factor – arguably the most significant contributor to design quality. Is there enough time to do quality design work based on the scope of the project? Hopefully the answer is always yes, but if it isn’t, then there are not doubt going to be UX issues with the project, and compromises will need to occur at some point.

As UX designers, if we want to create a positive relationship between a user and a designed system, we need to control and manage these variables as best we can.


So, what actually is user experience?

If I had to sum it up in a sentence, based on what we know from research, I’d define it as:

The practice of creating and fostering a positive relationship between a user and a designed system.

That’s as simple as I can put it. But, if I can add a bit more detail, I would say that it also includes all factors that could influence a contextually dependent relationship.

And so, the art of user experience design is to first, discover more about that relationship, and second, use a bank of frameworks and methods to influence that relationship.

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Scott Pelham

Digital Director

Scott is a user experience (UX) professional currently undertaking a research PhD on the use of UX in government.

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