Why User Experience Cannot Be Designed


A lot of designers seem to be talking about user experience (UX) these days. We’re supposed to delight our users, even provide them with magic, so that they love our websites, apps and start-ups. User experience is a very blurry concept. Consequently, many people use the term incorrectly. Furthermore, many designers seem to have a firm (and often unrealistic) belief in how they can craft the user experience of their product. However, UX depends not only on how something is designed, but also other aspects. In this article, I will try to clarify why UX cannot be designed.

Heterogeneous Interpretations of UX

I recently visited the elegant website of a design agency. The website looked great, and the agency has been showcased several times. I am sure it delivers high-quality products. But when it presents its UX work, the agency talks about UX as if it were equal to information architecture (IA): site maps, wireframes and all that. This may not be fundamentally wrong, but it narrows UX to something less than what it really is.

The perception might not be representative of our industry, but it illustrates that UX is perceived in different ways and that it is sometimes used as a buzzword for usability (for more, see Hans-Christian Jetter and Jens Gerken’s article “A simplified model of user experience for practical application1”). But UX is not only about human-computer interaction (HCI), usability or IA, albeit usability probably is the most important factor that shapes UX.

Some research indicates that perceptions of UX are different. Still, everyone tends to agree that UX takes a broader approach to communication between computer and human than traditional HCI (see Effie Lai-Chong Law et al’s article “Understanding, scoping and defining user experience: a survey approach2”). Whereas HCI is concerned with task solution, final goals and achievements, UX goes beyond these. UX takes other aspects into consideration as well, such as emotional, hedonic, aesthetic, affective and experiential variables. Usability in general can be measured, but many of the other variables integral to UX are not as easy to measure.

Hassenzahl’s Model Of UX

Hassenzahl’s "Model of User Experience"
Hassenzahl’s “Model of User Experience”.

Several models of UX have been suggested, some of which are based on Hassenzahl’s model193. This model assumes that each user assigns some attributes to a product or service when using it. As we will see, these attributes are different for each individual user. UX is the consequences of these attributes plus the situation in which the product is used.

The attributes can all be grouped into four main categories: manipulation, identification, stimulation and evocation. These categories can, on a higher level, be grouped into pragmatic and hedonic attributes. Whereas the pragmatic attributes relate to the practical usage and functions of the product, the hedonic attributes relate to the user’s psychological well-being. Understanding the divide can help us to understand how to design products with respect to UX, and the split also clarifies why UX itself cannot be designed.


Hassenzahl explains the hedonic and pragmatic qualities with a hammer metaphor. The pragmatic qualities are the function and a way for us to use that function. However, a hammer can also have hedonic qualities; for instance, if it is used to communicate professionalism or to elicit memories. (Image: Velo Steve5)

In this model, the pragmatic attributes relate to manipulation of the software. Essentially, manipulation is about the core functionalities of a product and the ways to use those functions. Typically, we relate these attributes to usability. A consequence of pragmatic qualities is satisfaction. Satisfaction emerges if a user uses a product or service to achieve certain goals and the product or service fulfills those goals.

Examples of attributes that are typically assigned to websites (and software in general) are “supporting,” “useful,” “clear” and “controllable.” The purpose of a product should be clear, and the user should understand how to use it. To this end, manipulation is often considered the most important attribute that contributes to the UX.


Although manipulation is important, a product can have other functions as well. The first of these is called identification. Think about it: many of the items connected to you right now could probably be used to get an idea of who you are and what you care about, even though some of them would be more important or descriptive than others. The secondary function of an object is to communicate your identity to others. Therefore, to fulfill this function, objects need to enable users to express themselves.

The growth of social media can be explained by this identification function. Previously, we used personal websites to tell the world about our hobbies and pets. Now, we use social media.

Facebook, blogs and many other online services help us to communicate who we are and what we do; the products are designed to support this identification need. MySpace, for example, takes advantage of this identification function; it allows users to customize their profiles in order to express themselves. WordPress and other platforms let bloggers select themes and express themselves through content, just as users do through status updates on Facebook, Twitter and all the other social platforms out there.


Gmail notifies users when they forget to attach a file to an email.

The Pareto principle6, also known as the 80-20 rule, states that 80% of the available resources are typically used by 20% of the operations7. It has been suggested, therefore, that in traditional usability engineering, features should have to fight to be included8, because the vast majority of them are rarely used anyway.

This is necessarily not the case with UX, because rarely used functions can fill a hedonic function called stimulation. Rarely used functions can stimulate the user and satisfy the human urge for personal development and more skills. Certain objects could help us in doing so by providing insights and surprises.

From this perspective, unused functions should not be dropped from software merely because they are used once in a blue moon. If they are kept, they could one day be discovered by a user and give them a surprise and positive user experience. As a result, the user might think “What a brilliant application this is!” and love it even more.

In fact, this is exactly what I thought (and found myself tweeting9) when Gmail notified me that I had forgotten to attach the file I’d mentioned in an email. If you do a Twitter search for “gmail attachment10,” you’ll probably find many others11 who12 feel13 the14 same15.

Furthermore, I think “Pretty cool!” when YouTube enhances its presence by modifying its logo on Super Bowl Sunday (or Valentine’s Day). I also discovered something new when MailChimp’s monkey whispered, “Psst, Helge, I heard a rumor…” and linked me to a Bananarama song16 on YouTube. There are many examples, but the best “stimulating” functions are probably those that are unexpected but still welcome (like the Gmail notification).


Souvenirs tend to have weak manipulative qualities, but they can be evocative when they elicit memories. (Image: meddygarnet18)

The fourth function that a product can have, according to Hassenzahl’s model193, is evocation, which is about recalling the past through memory. We enjoy talking and thinking about the good old days (even yesterday), and we want objects to help us with this. Even weird, dusty and practically useless souvenirs (with weak manipulative qualities) have evocative function because they help us to recall the past.

In design, we can certainly give a website a vintage look and feel to remind us of our childhood, high school or the ’60s… or the ’30s. But even websites with a modern and minimalist design can have evocative attributes. For instance, don’t Facebook and Flickr (by way of their users and your friends) provide you with a huge number of pictures from the past, some of which are highly evocative?

Thus, UX Cannot Be Designed

The MailChimp monkey’s words will probably appeal to some users more than others.

Having said all this, why is it argued that UX cannot be designed? It’s because UX depends not only on the product itself, but on the user and the situation in which they use the product.

You Cannot Design the User

Users are different. Some are able to easily use a website to perform their task. Other simply are not. The stimulation that a product provides depends on the individual user’s experience with similar products. Users compare websites and have different expectations. Furthermore, they have different goals, and so they use what you have made in different modes.

Think about it: when judging the food and service at a restaurant, you will always compare what you experience to other restaurants you have been to. They have shaped your experience. Your companions compare it to their previous experiences, which are certainly different from yours. The same goes for software, websites and apps. Evocative qualities vary even more, simply because all users have a unique history and unique memories.

You Cannot Design the Situation

UX also depends on the context in which the product is used. A situation goes beyond what can be designed. It can determine why a product is being used, and it can shape a user’s expectations.

On some occasions, you may want to explore and take advantage of the wealth of features in WordPress. In other situations, the same functions may make things too complex for you. On some occasions, you may find it totally cool that the MailChimp monkey tells you randomly that, “It’s five o’clock somewhere,” but in other cases it would feel entirely weird and annoying, because you are using the application in a different mode.

Furthermore, UX evolves over time. The first time a user tries an application, they may be confused by it and have a slightly negative experience. Later, when they get used to it and discover its wealth of features and potential and learn how to handle it, they might get emotionally attached to it, and the UX would become more positive.

We Can Design For UX

Are roller coasters fun, thrilling and exciting or just breathtakingly scary? It’s hard to tell. (Image: foilman21)

Many designers label themselves “UX designers.” This implies great confidence in the capabilities of the designer; it suggests that the user experience can be designed. But as explained, we cannot do this. Instead, we can design for UX. We can design the product or service, and we can have a certain kind of user experience in mind when we design it. However, there is no guarantee that our product will be appreciated the way we want it to be (again, see Hassenzahl). We can shape neither our users’ expectations nor the situation in which they use what we have designed.

It is certainly possible to have a fairly good idea of the potential ways a user will judge what we make, as Oliver Reichenstein points out22. Movies, rhetoric and branding demonstrate as much: they predict certain experiences, and they often achieve their goals, too.

However, a thrilling movie is probably more thrilling in the theater than at home, because the physical environment (i.e. the situation that shapes the UX) is different. In the same way, the effectiveness of an advertisement will always depend on the context in which it is consumed and the critical sense and knowledge of the consumer (i.e. the user’s prior experience). The commercials are designed to elicit certain experiences, but their level of success does not depend solely on the commercials themselves.

The difference between designing UX and designing for UX is subtle but important. It can help us understand and remind us of our limitations. It can help us think of how we want the UX to be.

It has been suggested, for instance, that UX is the sum of certain factors, such as fun, emotion, usability, motivation, co-experience, user involvement and user engagement (for more, see Marianna Obrist et al’s article “Evaluating user-generated content creation across contexts and cultures”). In turn, we must address some of these factors when we design for UX, depending on how we want our product to be perceived. If we want an application to be fun, then we need to add some features that will entertain; a joke, a challenging quiz, a funny video, a competitive aspect or something else. We should keep in mind, however, that, as designers, we can never really predict that the application will be perceived as fun by the user. Users have different standards, and sometimes they aren’t even willing to be entertained.

Extra Credit: How To Design For UX

Peter Morville’s “Facets of User Experience.” (Image: Semantic Studios23)

Understand UX

If we want to design for UX, then we need to understand what UX is all about. For example, knowing which variables make users judge a product might be advantageous, and Hassenzahl’s UX model is one such model for this.

Other models have been suggested as well, such as Peter Morville’s “seven facets of user experience24.” Here, UX is split into useful, usable, desirable, findable, accessible, credible and valuable. As you may have noticed, these facets fit Hassenzahl’s model pretty well: useful, usable, findable, credible  and accessible could all be considered as pragmatic (i.e. utilitarian and usability-related) qualities, while desirable and valuable would qualify as hedonic (well-being-related) qualities.

As mentioned, UX has also been viewed as the sum of particular factors. Other models have been suggested as well, some of which are linked to at the bottom of this article.

Understand Users

Following this, we need to understand our users. Traditional methods are certainly applicable, such as user research with surveys, interviews and observation. Also, personas have been suggested as a means of designing for UX, as have UX patterns. Smashing Magazine has already presented a round-up of methods25.

Exceed Expectations

Finally, give users what they want — and a little more. In addition to enabling users to use your service effectively and efficiently, make them also think, “Wow, this application is genius.” Exceed their expectations desirably. If you do so, they will use your website or app not because they have to but because they want to.

Other Resources

To learn more about UX, you may want to read the following:



  1. 1 http://www.inf.uni-konstanz.de/gk/people/member/abstract.html?JeGe06
  2. 2 http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1518813
  3. 3 http://books.google.com/books?id=QKYPdcI-av8C&lpg=PA31&ots=fhpyp6-jRi&dq=Hassenzahls%20model&hl=no&pg=PA31#v=onepage&q&f=false
  4. 4 http://www.flickr.com/photos/juniorvelo/4490511204/
  5. 5 http://www.flickr.com/photos/juniorvelo/4490511204/
  6. 6 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pareto_principle
  7. 7 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Optimization_(computer_science)#Bottlenecks
  8. 8 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2009/10/07/minimizing-complexity-in-user-interfaces/
  9. 9 http://twitter.com/#!/helgefredheim/status/11469201860460544
  10. 10 http://twitter.com/#!/search/gmail%20attachment
  11. 11 http://twitter.com/#!/JavaSTL/status/35398659679985664
  12. 12 http://twitter.com/#!/TwittyTracie/status/35252557043474432
  13. 13 http://twitter.com/#!/c_wolf/status/35210659595558912
  14. 14 http://twitter.com/#!/meifern_c/status/35210362295029760
  15. 15 http://twitter.com/#!/tweetneal/status/35013688117174274
  16. 16 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IddaRTuYRW4
  17. 17 http://www.flickr.com/photos/meddygarnet/4418221737/
  18. 18 http://www.flickr.com/photos/meddygarnet/4418221737/
  19. 19 http://books.google.com/books?id=QKYPdcI-av8C&lpg=PA31&ots=fhpyp6-jRi&dq=Hassenzahls%20model&hl=no&pg=PA31#v=onepage&q&f=false
  20. 20 http://www.flickr.com/photos/foilman/2762577980/
  21. 21 http://www.flickr.com/photos/foilman/2762577980/
  22. 22 http://www.informationarchitects.jp/en/can-experience-be-designed/
  23. 23 http://semanticstudios.com/publications/semantics/000029.php
  24. 24 http://semanticstudios.com/publications/semantics/000029.php
  25. 25 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2010/10/05/what-is-user-experience-design-overview-tools-and-resources/
  26. 26 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2010/10/05/what-is-user-experience-design-overview-tools-and-resources/
  27. 27 http://www.uxbooth.com/blog/8-must-see-ux-diagrams/
  28. 28 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2008/10/07/retro-and-vintage-in-modern-web-design/
  29. 29 http://uxmyths.com/
  30. 30 http://books.google.com/books?id=QKYPdcI-av8C&lpg=PA31&ots=fhpyp6-jRi&dq=Hassenzahls%20model&hl=no&pg=PA31#v=onepage&q&f=false

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Helge Fredheim is a front-end developer at Bekk Consulting and a MSc student at the University of Oslo, Norway. His thesis on UX patterns was written in Baltimore MD, USA.

  1. 1

    Wow, comments are exciting! I do love Smashing not only for its great content but for people out here.

    Close to the article. “As mentioned previously, simply put: UX = Design + User + Context. We, as designers, can design the design. We can neither design the user nor the context.” by Helge Fredheim

    I have a question – what about educating a user? We as designers (fashion designers, architectures, web-designers, landscape designers , UI/UX designers , etc – the whole bunch ) just work for users , or it’s a two-way conversion?

    First iPhone, FaceBook interface changes, Gmail at its very start, Instant search, Google Wave – these things educate users , not the User , but all of them. They were so destructive, so strange, Users did not believe in them , but now users are afraid to loose them. User experience is dynamic, it changes over time as the circumstances change. But there are reasons for these changes … If we are after users , we’ll fail. Someone need to have strength to lead the way.

  2. 52

    “It boils down to semantics and i doubt most UX designers think they literally design every users exact experience.”

    Couldn’t have put it better myself!

  3. 103

    Thanks Helge, for such a great and very informative article. The comments are also great filled with information to review. Look forward to more.


    Carmella English

  4. 154

    Ever notice how buzz words in this industry are fuzzy and unclear, and a bunch of people claim to be experts at it when nobody really knows what it means?

    But then after a while a real, tangible definition starts to emerge and the industry eventually agrees on a standard..

    Remember “usability”, “web standards” “web 2.0″? These were all buzz words at first, and they too lacked a real definition – and many claimed to be experts.
    Now we all accept these these as well defined professional terminology.

    This is the natural process of defining new ways of thinking as the industry changes. Soon UX will solidify and we’ll all be talking about the next buzz word. Until then, there’s not really a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ method..the only measure is effectiveness. Designing the experience or “for” the experience.. either way it doesn’t really matter at this stage.

  5. 205

    This was a really interesting article! Thanks for sharing your insight.

  6. 256

    Christian Saylor

    May 24, 2011 6:43 am

    The entire discipline around UX is like telling a great story. All great stories have four key elements: 1. Lead Character 2. Ambition 3. Conflict 4. Resolution. These are the basic building blocks of great UX. We have to have some working knowledge of the people we’re designing for; the lead characters in the story we’re trying to tell. What are the key motivators (ambition) that drive them to use a certain product over another. What kinds of tension exists that prevent them from moving forward (financial, technical, strategic…). When we fully research and understand the end user the resolution designs itself. It is and will always be, first and foremost, about understanding the audience and their expectations of the brand. When brand is aligned with user expectations then answers begin to reveal themselves.

  7. 307


  8. 358

    Thanks for sharing :-)

  9. 409

    Community for UX (User experience) Design – UX Next Conference in Chennai,India on 16th July 2011 organised by Society for Rich Internet Application – Rich User Interface http://www.facebook.com/uxnext.in

  10. 460

    Great article. It makes the term ‘UX’ more clearer.

  11. 511

    Thanks Helge for sharing this article.
    This is really a good help.

  12. 562

    Great article, thanks!

    I define “experience” as a quality we can explore by research, plan for as an idealisation, and influence with what we produce – but not design. The results of a design project will in any case be just a small part of what people experience.

    One misconception with the term “UX Design” is that it would imply designing experiences. We do not design experiences any more than industrial designers designing industries.

    I noticed you’re a developer by trade – that’s great, we need more Hybrid Thinkers!


  13. 613

    i agree. We do not design user experiences. The term UX Designer is a misnomer of sorts. Unfortunately it’s become an industry standard.

    Simply put. We design digital products with the aim to have a positive impact on the user experience. It’s up to the user to define whether or not that is going to be successful or satisfying.

    • 664

      So this article reminds me of the work of Uta Brandes about Non Intentional Design. This is a collection of artefacts that are used in an unexpected way. As designers we should not overestimate our possibilities. The everyday use of the product is determined by the user. But the carefully study of this use or misuse tells us a lot about wishes and desires of the users.

  14. 715

    So you can *create* a user experience, you can design FOR a user experience, you can even *model* a user experience, you just can’t *design* one directly?

    You’re kidding, right?

    Ferocious quibbling over a comma, when the rest of War & Peace or Hamlet awaits.

    An experience is designed, but a user may interpret the experience differently. A roller coaster is a start-to-finish series of sensations and g-forces that does not vary from one person to the next if he/she is sitting in the same seat. You experience that ride. One person may be thrilled, another sick, yet another terrified.

    So goes subjective reality.

    Most of us draw the line at creating an objective experience for the users to …well, experience, and you choose to say there is no line, because users are all subjective?

    I say potato, you say, OMFG! Not everyone likes potatoes!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  15. 766

    You can conduct a scientific study. The study can be generalizable to various degrees. There are variables in usability and even more if talking about the entire user experience. At our school the program was in the applied experimental psychology department and I think thats a good place for it. Learning measurement and how to conduct an experiment along with its limitations is important foundation for those getting into the field. No one can account for all users and all aspects of how they will use your product. But you can improve. I think it completely worth mentioning that you can’t completely control how the person experiences your product but you can influence it to greater degrees. I felt like this is a semantic argument at the beginning of the article but now kind of agree with what it is trying to accomplish. There are a lot of buzzwords that come along and become overused by people in the industry. I hate that because then the art and science that make up things like user experience often gets ignored and projects are just supposed to end up awesome (whatever that means in whatever context). So I did enjoy the article. I do think there can be ways to measure improvements however even if they are often qualitative.

  16. 817

    Thanks for this clear article, I enjoyed reading it, also the comments. I do not (at least for now) believe in such arguments in the field, but find such an article useful to give insight.
    I’d also like to suggest 2 more (academic) models on UX:
    – Beyond Usability–Measuring Aspects of User Experience
    P.G. Zimmermann (PhD thesis-2008)
    – User experience of interaction with technical systems
    Sascha Mahlke (PhD thesis- 2008)

  17. 868

    I agree and disagree with this statement above, that User Experience Cannot Be Designed.

    If “User Experience” is the process, we can design it :) Design is planning and drawing something and we can plan and draw the process. If “User Experience” is an subjective event, it’s just the result of process preceded to it.

    Do we design user experience? Yes, we do.
    Do we design specific subjective emotional state of user? Not, as this is sum of multiple variables. But we can design for specific emotional state.

  18. 919

    While an interesting perspective, my view is the title reflects an earnest attempt to improve the experience of using [fill in the blank]. I see nothing wrong with it.

    However, since one of “our” primary objectives is to help employers and clients understand what we do and we continue to collectively fail miserably at that critical task, debating the finer points and/or semantics about what the term UX Design means or doesn’t mean, can or can’t be seems a bit pointless to me. Sorry.

    I’ve spent a significant portion of my 15year+ professional career explaining what it is I do, why it is of benefit, the processes, etc. to employers, managers, recruiters. They don’t particularly care about the title as long as the title d’jour gets them the skill set they think they want.

    I think a more fruitful discussion would be how to identify simple, coherent functional titles that speak to our audience instead of us. Isn’t that part of our charter?

  19. 970

    Great article. User experience applies to the science of architecting product and service experiences. Wireframes and sitemaps are simply deliverables. It is like saying Photoshop is design!

  20. 1021

    What designers are missing is this — UX’s foundation is research. Web designers aren’t researching what is efficient, what is best practice, what has highest conversion, what the best contextual user experience is, what the interaction is, and so on. Web designers tend to over-simplify (or over-complicate) an experience to make a design work for them.

    Wireframes, architecture, content organization, competitive analysis, etc is based on using research that’s available, conducting research, and deriving recommendations and strategy from the research. That strategy is applied to non-designed wireframes – designers should then base their compositions off research-driven UX.


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