"How do I explain what UX is?!"

Ashlea McKay

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"Dear UX Agony Aunt How would you explain User Experience in one line to people who don't know? In other words, how do you tell them what you do in 1 or 2 sentences?" — Céline

Dear Céline, That’s always a tricky one! The blank stares, the raised eyebrows, the ‘Is that graphic design?’ type questions that inevitably follow...Oh, and the awkward silences (cue the sound of crickets)! Girl, I've been there. I’ve had lots of experience explaining what UX is to everyone from well-meaning elderly relatives to chatty cab drivers. Now, there's is no one-size-fits-all explanation. What satisfies the curiosity of one person may perplex the dainty brain of another. So I suggest carrying a handbag of wordy tools you can mix and match — depending on who is asking. Give them something to relate to (because we know people listen better when things are about them!). Try an analogy based on practices in their industry, or ask them about their favorite products and point to touches of UX design. And be excited about it, because if you’re enthusiastic about it, they’ll think they’re missing out on something (which they totally are) and hang on your every word. To get you started on building your own 'What is UX?' repertoire, here's a few ideas for how you could answer questions from people in different corners of your life. ax agony aunt

1. The Curious Colleague

I use this one on my co-workers and clients who are in the web and design business headspace but have no idea what UX is. I heard this at a conference and I so admire its its elegance that it’s become a favourite of mine: "User Experience is about striking that perfect balance between the needs of the user, the requirements of the business, and any technological constraints we may be facing."

2. The Clueless (but well meaning) Parent/Sibling/Great-Uncle/Neighbour/Friend

There are two different approaches I use on my family and friends. I can talk for a bit longer These can take a bit longer  because they tend to be more forgiving and less likely to interrupt me when I’m talking: "I design products and services that make things easier for people. Take this aluminium drink bottle [insert product with relevance to audience here]. It comes in a few different sizes. It has a screw in lid with a seal so it won’t leak my favourite pine lime cordial in my bag. It keeps my drink cool. It’s good for the environment. And it’s made to last. None of these things happened by accident. The drink bottle was designed with intent, based on evidence of what people want in a drink bottle. Thus, user experience design." Or "I design products and services that make things easier for people. Take this aluminium drink bottle [insert product with relevance to audience here]. There is no way I could just design it and expect people to use it without understanding who is going to be using and why. User experience is about knowing just that."

3. The Visual Design Snob

This one is for people who think user experience design is all about making things look pretty, slick, and 'on-trend'. It’s also useful as a follow up comment if one of the above strategies misses the mark. "User experience involves applying design thinking to solve real problems faced by real people, and using visual design elements to amplify and support user-centric foundations. It isn’t about the pretty and it doesn’t happen by accident — it’s about understanding who is going to be using it and what they need it to do for them.' Good luck, Céline! Do let me know how it goes. And hey, don't be shy! For those readers who have their own foolproof responses, comment away...

Ashlea McKay
  • Ashlea McKay
  • Ashlea McKay is a Senior User Experience (UX) writer, researcher and keynote speaker with a background in industrial design. Ashlea is also Autistic and has held state and national level volunteer leadership positions in the Diversity & Inclusion space. Ashlea is the Chief Columnist and Co-Founder of UX advice column, UX Agony Aunt which can be viewed on the Optimal Workshop blog. A well respected UX thought leader, she is passionate about mentoring and is heavily involved in the global UX community. Ashlea is currently writing a book about her experiences and ideas as an Autistic UX professional. Based in Canberra Australia, Ashlea is an art and craft obsessed cat lady with a love of vintage fashion who missed her calling as a hairdresser.

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