"UX Design" is a convenient shorthand; or, why no one can design an experience

Headshot of Elizabeth Buie

Senior UX Consultant

4 minute read

How many times have we heard UXers say they "design user experiences"? They often point to restaurants or theme parks to illustrate their view; and I fully agree that those things are designed with experience in mind. Thing is, though — experiences happen inside the person having the experience. No one can design that for someone else.

“We design user experiences.” I wish I had a penny for every time I've heard a UXer say that. Often they cite restaurants or theme parks as examples of designed experiences; sometimes they even talk as if that settled the question. But see, here's the thing:

Experiences happen inside the person having the experience.

They also depend as much on what the person brings to the experience as they do on what is being experienced. If you can design what goes on inside the person or what they bring to the experience, you’re more powerful than I am — or you're a wizard with electrodes and an intimate knowledge of the brain.

Let’s take a look at the restaurant example. The chef has designed or specified as much as possible, not only about the food itself but also the environment — the service, of course, and details such as lighting, furniture, dishes and cutlery, linens, and staff attire. Some people say this constitutes designing the entire experience.

But there’s one critical factor that the chef cannot design: what each diner brings to the experience. Suppose that, like me, you are cursed with a biology that makes coriander/cilantro taste like soap. No matter how beautiful the food looks or how much care the chef has put into everything else about the meal, any dish containing this herb will give you a distasteful experience.

Did the chef design your unpleasant experience?

Of course not.

Yet you had an unpleasant experience.

So how do we reconcile the experience you had with what the chef designed?

In doing my PhD research, I came to a greater understanding of the structure of experience. Although I was studying a particular type of experience and some details may be specific to that, the basic structure applies to all experiences:

  • context: what sets the stage for the experience and surrounds it
  • lived experience: the person’s perceptions and reactions — sensations, thoughts, feelings, immediate actions/reactions — while the experience is unfolding
  • integration: how the person responds to experience afterwards

In their book Technology as Experience, UX researchers John McCarthy and Peter Wright characterise experience in a similar way. “Any description of an experience”, they write, “is constituted of things and events, what they [the things and events] did to those involved, and how they [those involved] responded” (p. 50). Their three factors correspond loosely to my components of context, lived experience, and integration.

So how do we reconcile your unpleasant dining experience with the chef’s intention to provide you with a good one? It’s very simple:

What the chef designed was part of the context of your experience.

By no stretch of the imagination did the chef design your whole experience — nor even all of its context. The seating design contributed to the social context by accommodating group size and fostering or inhibiting conversation, but unless the restaurant specified (or even provided) your dinner companions and isolated your group from others, they didn’t design the entire social context. Similarly, although designed factors such as lighting, music, and décor contributed to the psychological context by affecting your mood, you brought to the meal your existing knowledge, attitudes, and preferences, as well as any previous experience with that restaurant and the kind of day you’d had before you arrived. As for the other components of experience, the chef certainly aimed for you to enjoy the meal (lived experience) and to recommend the restaurant to your friends (integration), but enjoyment and recommendations cannot be designed. The chef had to trust that the designed contextual elements would achieve that influence.

Therefore, when we look at the various components of a dining experience and examine what can and cannot be designed, we have to acknowledge the extent to which the experience depends on what the diner brings to it; we must concede the impossibility of designing that. This puts the kibosh on the use of restaurants to support the notion that one can fully design an experience.

I daresay that if we conducted this analysis on theme parks, 3D films, package holidays, virtual reality games, or any other type of immersive product or service that claims to provide a specific experience, we would quickly reach the same conclusion. Wright, McCarthy, & Meekison (2003) put it succinctly:

…experience is as much a product of what the user brings to the situation as it is about the artefacts that participate in the experience. What this position implies is that we cannot design an experience. (p. 52, emphasis mine)

On the other hand, they note, “a sensitive and skilled way of understanding our users” can enable us to “design for experience” (ibid., emphasis in original).

UX work, by its very nature, involves a focus on understanding our users, and I like to think that our ways are sensitive and skilled. We engage with our audiences to discover their needs and expectations, we keep those things in mind as we design products and services, and we involve users in evaluation to see how well our designs promote the experiences for which we aim.

But ultimately, what we design belongs to what is experienced; it is part of the context of the experience. We aim to influence lived experience and integration as well, of course, yet we know we cannot fully design those components; each person will have a unique individual experience with whatever we design, based on whatever they bring to their use of it. We need to acknowledge that we are designing for experience.

“Now wait a minute!” you exclaim. “Are you saying we have to stop calling what we do ‘User Experience Design’?”

No indeed; I’m not saying that at all. “UX design” is a convenient and well-established shorthand for what we do, and I’m perfectly happy that we continue using it. We just need to keep in mind the scope of what we are actually designing.

“Fair enough”, you say, “but why does it matter? How does it affect UX work?”

Understanding what we are actually designing can help us set realistic expectations, both within our teams and with our clients. A clear grasp of what we cannot design can increase the sensitivity and empathy with which we engage with our users. And that can help us deliver better products and services to a happier audience.


McCarthy, J., & Wright, P. (2004). Technology as Experience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Wright, P., McCarthy, J., & Meekison, L. (2003). Making sense of experience. In Blythe, Monk, Overbeeke, & Wright (eds.), Funology: From Usability to Enjoyment (pp. 43-53). Springer Netherlands.
Funology book on Amazon UK (2018 edition)