UX design isn’t an umbrella

Oh look – now I’ve defined design it turns out I’m the most important person in the organisation! 

Designers love defining design because it mean they can define design to be anything and probably everything.

This is the second installment of what UX Design isn’t; the first was UX design isn’t UCD.


There are plenty of UX design analogy diagrams. But on of the most common is the UX Umbrella created/popularised by Dan Willis. UX designers love the umbrella analogy because it subsumes all the other design disciplines under the UX title. Instant promotion #WINNING The seeds for type of understanding were probably sown by Jesse James Garret’s “Elements of User Experience” diagram from 2000:

A crop of Garret’s Element of User Experience diagram

Neither diagram contains UX Design as a discipline.

In 2000 the digital landscape was wildly different and simpler than it is now and UX Design hadn’t emerged properly as a separate discipline. Jesse James Garret’s diagram is out of date – it’s an artifact from a different digital era. Lets move on.

The Umbrella analogy seems to be dominant, or at least common place, today. It falls prey to the expansionist definition of UX Design: everthing we see, feel, hear or smell makes up our experience of a product, so any descision that affects anything must be experience design. Right? As attractive as this land-grabbing definition is, there are two problems:

  1. Something that means everything and anything ends up meaning nothing. UX Design starts being spoken about in airy-fairy bullshit platitudes that cause it to undervalued.
  2. UX Design is left out of our mental models of design disciplines. It’s reduced to being the after-thought biggest-circle on the design-world Venn diagram. Cobbled together from bits and peice of other design professions but with nothing unique or new to bring to the table.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that, firstly, UX Design isn’t the most important thing in the world and, secondly, it does add something of genuine value to design processes. UX Design needs to be demoted so that it sits along side the other design disciplines as an equal. IA isn’t a subset of UX Design, Visual Design isn’t a subset of UX Design, Copy Writing isn’t a subset of UX Design. But UX design does exists as a real practice along side of other design disciplines. It is practiced in their context. They are practiced in it’s context

An updated model of how UX design relates to other design disciplines

I’ve avoided defining what UX Design actually is. That will be for another post, but for now, consider it to be the process that leads to deliverables that could only come from a UX design process. Things like experience maps & (behaviour focussed) user journey diagrams. There is no design discipline show on the Umbrella diagram or Jesse James Garret’s that would come up with an experience map (Unless you see information architecture as Big IA in which case we’re back at the start…)

Note: the role of a UX Designer something different than the practice of UX Design. UX Designers are often hired to be design generalists with a wide range of skills and be the person that does whatever research and design tasks are needed to make the project a success – sometimes that means lots of UX Design but just as often can mean very little. Just because a UX designer does something doesn’t make it UX design.

This is part of three “UX Design isn’t …” posts. The complete set is:

Next I’ll try to say what UX Design is.


Comments (1)

  1. Vlad Malik

    Hey there,

    To say “UX Design means everything” is overstating the case. It doesn’t mean everything, but it DOES mean something and serve a purpose. Proof: It’s in common use. If it meant nothing and was problematic, it wouldn’t be part of our language.

    All fields are broad. Does the term “social science” mean nothing? Should we dictate a redefinition and change how people talk? Some words are abstract, some change meaning in context. That’s not a problem. That’s how language works.

    Language is filled with redundancy and ambiguity. Why don’t we just accept “UX Design” for what it is: a useful bunch of words? There is no need forcing distinctions upon ourselves.

    You might argue that “UX Design” is not an appropriate term in some cases where precision is required or miscommunication would be costly. That would be a valid point. That’s true of all terms. Circumstances always change what we say and how we say it. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with one choice or another. They are just tools in a toolbox.

    I just don’t think there much use fighting language. If the use or meaning of UX changes, it’ll happen naturally like any other language change. The term will change or be replaced in response to new circumstances. It won’t happen as a result of any arguments.

    I say “UX Design” sometimes. When I do, I know what I mean to say and I think it’s the best phrase to say it. I believe people understand what I mean. I personally don’t see a problem.