top of page

What We Talk About When We Talk About UX, with apologies to Raymond Carver

Updated: May 27

Why is User Experience (UX) saddled with marketing and sales words?

UX professionals are expected to think, 'oh well, that's just the way the world is.'? This is the price of helping our stakeholders understand us? Respect us and our work?

Phooey. When visitors speak their language in your country, you accommodate if you can and if you feel like it. It’s your territory and your language.

In business, the rhetorical question is — whose territory is it?

Words have meanings. If UX professionals use the vernacular of marketing and sales, we are being expected to also adopt the extractive concepts behind those words.

UX is about value for people. Value is not assumed to be defined in the financially transactional sense. Sometimes value is even irrational.

User Experience vs. Marketing/Sales Words

Capitalism is not the only, or even the most important, frame for addressing real, complex life.

The meanings of words matter. When sales words are used from the earliest product and service development, that’s not getting to real life concepts. That is about making a sale. The difference matters in why and how a product or service is built.


People have lives. They’re not just living those lives to move money around. For now, the UX community is still settled on the imperfect word "user" for lack of a better term.


Start with the notion that you’re wrong about a lot of your product or business ideas. If you can't prove yourself wrong, maybe you're onto something.


We're not in a lawyer's office here. Definition -- "discovery: the usually pretrial disclosure of pertinent facts or documents by one or both parties to a legal action or proceeding."

We're also not thumbing through academic or consumer journals to "discover" a "problem". The People should participate or even drive the identification of gaps in their lives and build the most appropriate responses.

Now let's get into what we mean when we say “problem” and “solution”.



Note that "problem" itself is a Sales word. A true UX researcher recognizes the systemic context of what one or more people are doing and that they are dealing with a friction of some kind that is not necessarily a single "pain point". I am willing to die on this hill.



Hardware? Software? A service? A policy? A program? A combination of these?

Yes, the word "solution" is also a Sales word. Note how the following quote describes "solution selling" that leverages a research "mindset" plus a number of methods recognizable to a UX researcher, including scientific method's "hypothesis".

"Solution selling is a consultative approach to sales in which a sales rep seeks to understand the customer’s problem and then focuses on how their product can help solve that issue. It requires deep discovery and aligning your sales process to the prospect’s buying cycle."

A "solution" is a package of what a customer is buying in the context of an "offer" that includes other things like pricing, how the "solution is sold" perhaps a service agreement for maintenance, add-ons -- all the customer success stuff that keeps a customer on the customer roster. In the UX ecosystem, the word "solution" implies a static state -- the thing on the shelf. UX people never think of anything as static.

So, in UX I've stopped using the word "solution" unless that's the only word my audience understands. Because a thing being developed can be in any number of forms and configurations, I'm down to using the word "thing" until we know whether a thing being developed is a product, a service, a product and a service, or whatever.

In the UX research world, we refer to the earliest work on products as FOUNDATIONAL research. Specifically, I differentiate two parts.

  1. Generative research is Blue Ocean research which can be wide open exploration of a domain, and this part is critical - we have thought about what we might expect to find and how we might recognize what we expect to find, what characteristics it does and doesn't exhibit. In a word, Assumptions.

  2. Formative research comes later once the team has a deep understanding of what came out of the Generative research. The purpose of Formative research is address an issue given business, social, technical, and sometimes even political constraints and priorities.

  • During the Formative stage we iterate potential product or service directions, combinations of features that grant abilities to the people who will use, or participate in the use of, our Thing. We also scope our ideas to a narrow product definition so that when the time comes, those who will produce this Thing know exactly how to translate our work into a product available to the users. What is sometimes called the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) by the product development managers. How about Minimum Desirable Product to put it in the UX domain?

Here's the Design Thinking diagram showing that, starting with Desirable, a product must then also be Viable (technically capable) and Feasible (makes business sense).

This is the first and last time Design Thinking will be mentioned in this piece. Although it helpfully teaches the concept of iterative learning and prototyping, it otherwise bears faint relation to actual user-centric research and design. I've already died on this hill.


What meaningful abilities could you confer that might be adopted by real people in real life? What are people’s priorities and how should those priorities drive a thing's definition and requirements?

I talk about adoption instead of inferring a purchase by calling a potential product and service user a "customer", or in other words, people who went to a store to buy a thing and found something that seemed to approximately meet their needs and at a not-terrible price.

So here's a question. Do these people actually use your product or service in their real lives? Do they, in fact, adopt it? If they do, HOW do they integrate this product or service into their lives?

What else do people use when they use your Thing, and what did they stop using to use your thing? Do they love your Thing or could they drop it if something more appealing came along? What does it mean to “love” a certain product? Is it critical to them every day, or every 2-3 months? How can you get an honest read on any of that (the wrong answer is "survey")?

We should care about all of those points at least as much as whether a thing was purchased.

Explorers vs. Discoverers

There is indeed a difference between an Explorer and a Discoverer.

We speak of Explorers as those who venture out into the wild, usually with an assumption that 1/ turns out to be wrong, or 2/ is sometimes/some ways wrong, or 3/ is sometimes/some ways correct. Turns out that when you get out into the wild, assumptions are rarely entirely correct. And that’s a beautiful thing.

We speak of Discoverers as those who have ventured out and found…something. Past tense. Was that something what they expected to find? Hoped to find? Needed to find?

Did they leave familiar territory for a specific cause? Or was that venture to capture pure short-term glory/riches? So whether they “discovered” purple dye or gold ore, spices or tulips — what mattered was what resources their stakeholders valued.


None of this is a bizarre concept. There are THOUSANDS of people around the world who think and do research like this.

UX Researchers and Designers spend years practicing these concepts. It’s important that we communicate in ways that others can understand, but not at the expense of our own essential professions.


So. Let's define words -- what is UX? Here's a super-simplistic definition.

User experience (UX) applies a deep understanding of users of a product or service, what they need, what they value, their abilities and what abilities they want to have, and also their limitations to the development of a thing that people will use. (paraphrased from User Experience Basics |

bottom of page