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7 Must-Read UX Design Books

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If you search on Amazon for books using the key phrase “UX design”, more than 1,000 titles will appear. That’s a lot of titles to wade through if you’re looking to read about user experience! One of the most difficult parts of making a list of the best UX books is that there are so many awesome ones out there. I could write a must-read list that goes on forever.

I chose the following UX titles either because they have played a significant role in the way I view my place as a UX designer or because they address foundational design topics that every UX designer should understand. I’m leaving out a fair number that have been published in all aspects of design, from usability and research to interaction design and how to present and speak to your design decisions. This reading list is intended for you to use as a starting point.

1. Badass: Making Users Awesome by Kathy Sierra

Kathy Sierra’s book is all about the strategy for creating successful products and services. Badass: Making Users Awesome looks at how to look at a product or service from the user’s perspective.

So instead of relying on marketing tactics that might be unethical, we can create products that lead users to champion them with their friends and family. A win for everyone!

The design and layout of the book is unlike that of most — it lays out the argument with a lot of visuals. And it’s an easy read. This has led to some negative reviews complaining that the book is just a PowerPoint PDF. Lay that aside, and the message is strong. It’s a great look at the point-of-view statement and how a well-written one can be influential in creating awesome products that users love.

When you read this book, it will start to make sense why some products do really well in the market and why others don’t. It will help show you how to shift your design strategy so that it can be successful too.

2. Just Enough Research by Erika Hall

Erika Hall’s book on UX research is a joyful and informative read you could probably finish in a single day. 

This slim how-to manual, published by A Book Apart, walks the reader through the basics of user research, from talking to stakeholders in an organization through analysis and reporting. Hall’s writing style makes the topic — which can be dry in other books — fun and approachable. 

She’s also realistic in her advice to readers. She recognizes the constraints in time and budget that all UX designers face in their day to day jobs, so she proposes how best to navigate these situations and what alternative methods to employ.

Just Enough Research’s current edition was updated with a new chapter on surveys and why designers must be very careful about using these often-abused metrics in their research.

Even if you aren’t a UX researcher, this book explains how you can implement research in your process and spot your own biases so you can design a better user experience.

3. The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman

The Design of Everyday Things is a standard on most design-reading lists for a reason. This book was originally published in 1988 with the title “The Psychology of Everyday Things”. It was revised in 2013 with a major update to some of the examples to make it more relevant to today. 

Norman’s book lays the landscape for usability in human-centered design. In it, Norman lays out how human psychology affects everyday actions, why it’s natural for humans to make mistakes, and how technology can help rather than cause errors. Norman also explains human-centered design and proposes principles for good design.

I listened to this book on Audible, and a PDF accompanied the audio book so I could view the examples, which are especially helpful in understanding affordances and signifiers.

Vox produced a great video about one of the examples in the book — how doors are designed well, and how they are designed badly. If you’ve ever struggled with figuring out a door, sink, stove, switches, or other interface — the problem isn’t you. It’s the design.

Norman’s classic book explains why bad design happens, what good design is, and the constraints designers face when designing.

4. Designing with the Mind in Mind by Jeff Johnson

Sometimes designers follow a set of rules for designing user interfaces without understanding why certain patterns and methods work. This book changes that.

Jeff Johnson’s Designing with the Mind in Mind lays out the perceptual and cognitive psychology that are the foundation for intuitive interfaces.

For example, how does human perception work? How is the eye structured and how do we read? What can we do as designers to ensure that people can see the information we design?

Johnson walks through an explanation of human vision, attention, memory, and decision-making for a deep-dive into why we perceive the way we perceive. After reading this book, UX designers will have a better idea of why we have design rules so they can make educated decisions about tradeoffs between budget, time, and competing design rules.

5. About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design 4th Edition by Alan Cooper, Robert Reiman, David Cronin, and Christopher Noessel

About Face completely changed the way I think about interaction design. Admittedly, I’ve only read sections of the book, due to its length. Still, it’s a reference when I have questions about how to approach interaction design and UI design.

This book is broken into three parts. It starts with introducing goal-directed design and how to approach digital projects. Then it moves through designing for behavior and form. Lastly, it looks at the differences in designing for desktop, mobile, and web applications.

My read of the book focused on designing for behavior, and my biggest “ah-ha” moment came when reading about optimizing for intermediate users. Much of the struggle designers have is in how to manage the different needs between beginners and experts. This chapter explains that we should focus on intermediates. We should guide beginning users to become intermediates as soon as possible, and aim to provide opportunities for advanced users to use our products without holding them back.

This book includes a number of other useful concepts to consider when designing user interfaces. At 659 pages, it might be a little too much to read in one sitting, but it should be in the designer library.

6. Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug

Steve Krug’s classic book introduced me to usability and usability testing, and launched me into my current career as a UX designer. Don’t Make Me Think, Revisited: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability is now in its third edition. 

It’s short, easy to read, and a great manual for designers just getting started in usability testing. Krug wrote it based on his 30 years as a usability consultant for organizations including Apple, NPR, and the International Monetary Fund. Even if you already understand why you should do usability testing, chances are you work with people who don’t understand. This book is a great gift for those people. It explains why you should test, how to keep it simple, and how to keep it from being a budget suck. The newest edition has a new chapter about usability for mobile websites and apps, and all of the examples are updated.

If you want to take it a step further, consider Krug’s second book, Rocket Surgery Made Easy: The Do-It-Yourself Guide to Finding and Fixing Usability Problems. This book explains everything you need to know to get started with usability testing with little or no cost. It includes how to recruit, how to conduct a test session, and how to involve your team. 

7. Change by Design by Tim Brown

IDEO CEO Tim Brown explains design thinking and how it should be used at every level of a business. This isn’t a manual for designers. It’s geared towards people outside of the industry, but I included it on this list because of the examples.

IDEO is a well-known human-centered design firm, and the examples Brown provides are straight from IDEO’s project list. While sometimes it feels more like a sales pitch, the case studies are interesting examples of how design thinking is applied.

UX designers who read this book can look at design thinking from a perspective outside the industry and use the examples to explain how design thinking can be used in every industry and in every discipline — it’s not just for designers.

Conclusion

I couldn’t include all of my favorite user experience books on this list. There are just too many amazing titles, and I already have about three times as many on my “to-read” list. These must-read UX design books are a great place to get started if you’re looking for some summer reading to help you advance your design career.


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8 Best UX Design Portfolio Examples

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The UX portfolio website has superseded the business card as a UX designer’s most essential professional networking tool. Especially these days, as the UX design industry pivots abruptly to a predominantly remote professio­­­n, UX designers communicate their professional identities virtually through their online presence to navigate the constricted job market successfully. 

In my middling work experience as a UX designer over the years, I’ve been involved in countless UX portfolio reviews on both sides of the hiring process. Having personally benefited from industry mentorship in my own career, I’m excited to share what inside intelligence I can back with the design community, to encourage emerging UX designers to represent themselves more effectively to hiring managers and potential clients.

As with any other good user experience, a UX portfolio website should consider the user’s mindset during a visit. Bear in mind, companies typically automate their hiring processes using HR software, with workflows designed to evaluate as many qualified applicants as quickly as possible. Conciseness is merciful to reviewers digging through a pile of applications. The reviewer expects immediate access to all the information they need to accomplish their evaluation. Within twenty seconds, they should understand your pitch, get a sense for your work, and have your contact information at their fingertips, ready to take the next step in their hiring workflow.

For full disclosure, I’ve pulled all of these examples from my own personal orbit, and included friends and colleagues who I respect and want to uplift. Let’s take a look at how each designer’s site uniquely succeeds, and look for patterns to model a great UX design portfolio.

1. Total class: Liya Xu

Liya Xu is an accomplished UX designer and Amazon alum, now returning to graduate school to study design management at Pratt. She leverages her technical know-how combined with her visual sensibility to craft all-around excellent applications. Really, check out her work.

This online design portfolio has the character of a fashion spread, with well-selected attributes and succinctly written content. She allows the viewer plenty of breathing room in the empty space of the layout, to process the impact of her UX portfolio content. The case studies fall in reverse chronological order, most recent and impressive work at the top. A visitor gains immediate access to an example of work “above the fold,” peeking up from the bottom of the home screen. The experience conveys an overall modern, professional effect.

2. Authenticity: Seka Sekanwagi

Seka Sekanwagi works at Cash App as a UX researcher and comes from a well-rounded background in product design, interaction design, UX, and UI. His degree is actually in industrial design, the crafting of objects and tools, and he brings that same human-centered mindset to his work. A genuine empathetic interest in other people drives his user research, questioning the meaning behind core user needs and translating them into tangible quality improvements.

The imagery and copywriting of Seka’s design portfolio establish his credibility while expressing his individuality. Selectively-edited messaging demonstrates the level of thoughtfulness that goes into his work output. He formats his work qualifications in simple typesetting, reducing the cognitive load on the visitor, and inviting them to review his qualifications at their leisure.

3. Perfect Pitch: Roochita Chachra

Roochita Chachra is an Austin-based UX designer and recent General Assembly immersive graduate who is highly active in the local creative community. Roochita enters UX design from the adjacent worlds of graphic design and digital marketing and is transitioning her career focus to allow her more opportunity to conduct user research, prototype, and problem-solve.

Whenever repositioning for a new avenue of design, it takes self-restraint to hide old projects which don’t reflect your updated professional image. A UX design portfolio needs to represent the type of work you’re looking for, not just what you’ve done. Roochita focuses hers on the UX design process, and supports it with plenty of explanations and artifacts to show the output.

4. Pure Enthusiasm: Ljupcho Sulev

Ljupcho Sulev approaches his design work with a passion and a positive attitude. Originally from Macedonia, he works for SoftServe out of Sofia, Bulgaria. I had the opportunity to collaborate with Ljupcho on a project, conducting user interviews and analyzing research side-by-side for weeks. His sunny disposition brightens the spirits of his team members and elevates the work.

Ljupcho’s profile is sparse and direct. He highlights his career achievements by pairing photography with bold infographics, letting his enthusiasm pop off the screen. The minimal design aesthetic allows the content to take priority over the visuals. 

5. Scannability: Aimen Awan

Aimen Awan is a UX designer with a background in software engineering and information experience design. Aimen optimizes her case studies for the viewer to scan quickly, with summaries at the top denoting her role and responsibilities on the project. Scrolling down the page, project artifacts illustrate the design process, increasing the fidelity successively up to the final product.

When developing a UX portfolio for a job search, take a lean approach like Aimen — gather feedback, and iterate on your design. We designers are all susceptible to over-designing our work, nitpicking well past diminishing returns. The most useful design portfolio feedback comes from submitting actual job applications and gauging the response, so the earlier you have something ready to share, the better. Think of it as a user test — submitting a batch of applications and fishing for feedback from hiring leads. Every response is a valuable piece of data and should help you refine your messaging and presentation.

6. Approachability: Ke Wang

Ke Wang writes his UX portfolio with a tone of casual levity, with bonus points for rhyming, and his About section reads like a social media status update. He pulls it off because his case studies scroll through examples of his overwhelming talent and work.

Website design covers some crucially important goals which require some entirely human skills. Relating to the site visitor in an approachable way is the hallmark of intuitive user experience and a good heuristic of success.

7. Clear Storytelling: Phill Abraham

Phill Abraham is a graduate of General Assembly’s User Experience Design Immersive course. Like many other UX designers, Phill arrived through a circuitous career path, with a background in psychology and experience in documentary film. He is actively involved in the local design scene, building out his book of projects.

Each case study shapes a compelling narrative of Phill’s design process. A project from his experience as a documentary filmmaker bolsters his UX portfolio and speaks to his capability to perform as a professional. Documentary is, after all, a quintessential form of user research. Phill applies his storytelling sensibility in presenting the case studies, outlining his thorough process step-by-step. As the visitor scrolls down the page, they experience a neat narrative arch outlining the scenario, the design process, and the final product.

8. The Resume Homepage: Samantha Li

Samantha is a Design Manager at Capital One and an all-around UX champion. An active organizer within the design community, she mentors students and early-career UX designers working to break into the industry. Her own UX portfolio website outlines her career journey in the form of an extended resume, dense as a novel. An evaluator doesn’t even have to click to find all of the relevant information.

The resume homepage is a great design pattern for more established professionals with a long list of accomplishments. As a best practice, scrutinize what you publish diligently. Password-protecting case studies helps avoid any disputes over showing sensitive client work, and you may need to censor any personal data that may appear in your photographs and artifacts.

Conclusion

Job hunting poses challenges even for design professionals with advanced experience. Candidates need to squeeze their credentials into a digestible size to communicate their entire work history to reviewers in a short window of attention. The importance of every element of the online UX design portfolio becomes amplified, and dialing in the nuances of messaging makes a difference in getting noticed.Emerging UX designers face an uphill challenge as they’re fleshing out their portfolio projects. UX professionals in the job market are judged by their list of accomplished projects, a frustrating situation for early-career UX designers who may be struggling to get their foot in the door with shorter resumes. The only course of action is bootstrapping through some initial projects — side projects, student projects, volunteer work, and ultimately paid UX design jobs — to demonstrate applied skills. A great UX portfolio effectively communicates your ability and value to potential clients.

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5 Tips for Starting a Career in UX Design

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Are you curious about how to get into UX design? With so many jargon-filled UX designer job descriptions, chatter about software tools, and contrasting perspectives on the future of UX, it can be challenging knowing where to start your career path in UX design

It may be helpful to understand that UX design is a vast field with many opportunities and ultimately benefits from your contributions. In the following article, we’ll help you navigate some of these uncertainties so that you can find your voice amid an ocean of options.

Identify Your Passion

Due to the scale and complexity of what it takes to create successful products and services, becoming a successful UX designer requires perspectives from all walks of life. From research to development to management, UX design is a multifaceted field. 

Because of this, it’s important to start with you and your passions versus responding to what’s outlined in a job description. It’s critical to self-reflect and ask yourself: What inspires me most? What are my strengths? Where would I like to grow?

Another reason you want to start with your passion is that achieving your goal is going to require sustained energy. For example, not everything you try is going to work as you expect. Nor are you going to get everything “right” the first time. This means you need to stay the course as you learn and that drive comes from within you, not from the outside. 

For example, I started in Industrial Design because I had experience making furniture and was passionate about design. I followed popular designers for the time such as Philipe Stark, Philip Johnson, and Jasper Morrison. I saw them as my mentors and did everything I could to emulate some of their thinking.

However, over time, I came to the realization that while I loved their work, they were able to work in a way that was impossible for me. And as I wrestled with this realization, I came to a deeper understanding about myself. What excited me most as a designer was thinking about how people interacted with the product or service. I wanted to understand what was driving people’s behaviors and expectations more than the object itself. The thought of influencing what’s in the world based on people’s feedback became my new interest and has been for the past 15 years. 

OK, so I’ve identified my passion but how do I know where it might fit with user experience design? We can learn a lot by breaking down some of the roles within a typical UX design engagement: 

  • User Research
    • Spends time understanding a product or service user, their needs, and expectations.
    • Creates a foundation of understanding for other teams (e.g. Interaction Design, Front-End Development) to build upon.
  • Interaction Design 
    • Spends time detailing the functionality of a product or service for every user scenario.
    • Creates site maps, user flows, wireframes, prototypes, and navigation paradigms to illustrate a potential solution.
  • UI Design and Visual Design 
    • Spends time organizing and creating visual elements for interfaces, considering the visual details of a UI design such as color, imagery, typography, brand guidelines, and visual hierarchy, similar to graphic design. 
    • Creates illustrations and UI design mockups to illustrate potential solutions.
  • Development 
    • Spends time understanding what it will take, front-end and back-end, to have a product or service built to function the way it’s intended.
    • Creates proof-of-concepts and functioning prototypes making ideas tangible.
  • Product Management 
    • Spends time understanding a specific product, its market, and ways to improve it.
    • Creates product portfolios, roadmaps, return on investment estimates, and continuous improvement plans.
  • Project Management 
    • Spends time aligning teams based on established goals, tracks time and budget.
    • Creates status reports for stakeholders, project timelines, and project wikis.

Stand on Shoulders 

“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

– Sir Isaac Newton 

The phrase “standing on the shoulders of giants” originated from Sir Isaac Newton when asked how he had been so prolific in discovering a wealth of governing laws defining how physical objects interact. The same mentality applies to UX designers as well. You’ll want to soak up as much as you can about how others before you have dealt with and defined their challenges. 

In my case, this meant putting away the glossy design magazines and engrossing myself in the social sciences: sociology, psychology, behavioral economics, etc. Doing so has allowed me to build on the brilliance of many before me in an effort to stay relevant. 

“Stand on shoulders” means coming to the realization there have been many great minds that have impacted the way things are today and by understanding their contributions, you can be effective in how you spend your time building off of their work instead of repeating the same mistakes. 

Keep in mind, this does not relegate you to spending hours in a library. There’s a lot that can be learned from a mentor, for example — a UX designer who’s been working in UX design for some time and is willing to offer their insights based on your needs. This too will help you hit the ground running. 

Get to Know Your Toolbox

Now that you’ve identified your passion and a UX designer to be your mentor, it’s a good idea to begin experimenting with some of the tools you may have been hearing about. Remember, your goal is to become acquainted and perhaps proficient, but not a master. That will come later as you learn further, gain experience, and the tools of your discipline mature. 

When we say tools, that doesn’t necessarily mean software only. There will be many aspects of your practice you’ll need to learn in order to be an effective UX designer. For me, that meant learning different interviewing techniques, fundamentals of body language, practicing active listening, studying storytelling, and presenting to others — all of which have proven to be timeless and fundamental in my career. A short UX design course can provide a good introduction to essential tools, methods, and strategies.

Experiment and Reflect

“Everything is an experiment.” 

– Tibor Kalman

When it comes to creating impactful products and services, it’s critical to keep in mind that we learn by trying things out and reflecting on what happened. In fact, the process of experimentation and reflection is a core tenet of UX design. 

Remember: Words and actions are not the same. You need to put in the work. 

As a UX designer, the more you can demonstrate your thinking by creating concepts and putting them in front of others, the more you will capture the interest of a potential employer. Consider taking a UX design course that helps you create projects for a professional UX portfolio. Don’t worry about making it perfect. Seeing the evidence of your thought process not only helps them see your strengths, but also your potential. 

So, be bold! Try things out. Experiment.

Rinse and Repeat

As the saying goes, the more you learn, the more you realize how much you don’t. The same is true here. UX design is a vast field with many roads. The more you keep at it, the better you’ll get, and becoming an expert UX designer will take time. 

Stay curious, experiment, and have fun!

Remember: 

  • UX design is a vast and multi-faceted field, not to mention ever-changing.
  • Don’t let current titles, tools, and job descriptions intimidate you from taking the first step.
  • Careers require an internal commitment in order to hone your experience and perspective.
  • Embrace the soft skills of your practice because tools are not limited to screens. 
  • Demonstrating your thought process increases your chances of landing your first UX job, and a project-based UX design course can help.
  • Since it is impossible to know what’s going to happen, it’s important to take the first step.
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5 Essential Steps in the UX Design Process

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While experience design is not an exact science with predictable outcomes, there are steps you can follow that help push you in the direction of making great products and services. 

To help illustrate, I’d like to tell you a story about Doug Dietz, an Industrial Designer for General Electric. Doug was faced with the harsh reality that a product he was responsible for designing was evoking anxiety and dread in the people who interacted with it. The product? An MRI scanner. The user? A family with young children.

Doug had just finished a two-year project designing an MRI scanner and was eager to see it installed in a hospital’s scanning suite. He was proud of his accomplishment and was informed his design had been submitted for an International Design Excellence Award, the Oscar for design. 

As Doug was speaking with a technician about the design, a patient needed to get scanned so he stepped into the hallway for a moment. And as he did, he observed the patient and her family approach the room and noted their trepidation as they got closer. The parents looked worried and the little girl was scared. As the family passed him, he could hear the father tell his daughter, “We’ve talked about this. You can be brave…” 

As Doug continued to watch, he saw tears rolling down the little girl’s cheek while the hospital technician called for an anesthesiologist. This is when Doug learned that hospitals routinely sedate pediatric patients for their scans because they are so scared that they can’t lie still long enough. 

Doug was devastated. The very product he had been designing for close to 20 years was the very product that was striking fear in the hearts of its users. Once he took a step back and considered what that little girl was going through, it became clear his device with its black and yellow caution tape, hazard stickers, beige monotone color palette, dark lighting and cold flickering fluorescents was not helping. As Doug stated in his TED talk, “The machine I designed looked like a brick with a hole in it.”

Determined to make his experience design better for pediatric patients, Doug sought advice on a new approach and attended a Design Thinking workshop where they discussed the need to have empathy for users, the value of cross functional teams, and the importance of iterating as you learn. 

Doug observed pediatric patients at daycare. He talked to life specialists to understand what pediatric patients went through during treatment. He gathered a group of volunteers from GE who were willing to help provide other perspectives including experts from a local museum, and doctors and staff from two hospitals. From this new foundation of understanding, he created a prototype. He then observed how interactions with the machine had changed, which allowed him to see which parts of his design were working or not. 

Ultimately, this approach led to the “Adventure Series” where pediatric patients were transported into new worlds. Whether the theme was camping, a pirate ship, a safari, or a spaceship, the team worked hard on bringing these spaces to life through details like scents, disco balls, koi ponds, paddle trails, waterfalls that cascade onto the floor, and even scripts for machine operators to use as they guide patients along their adventures.

The outcome? 

  • Only two patients were sedated in over a year vs. 80% of all pediatric patients previously.
  • Productivity increased because of a decreased need for an anesthesiologist.
  • The hospital saw a 90% increase in patient satisfaction scores.
  • Overall, it offered a much better experience for pediatric patients. 

As one 6 year old put it, “Mommy, can we come back tomorrow?”

UX Design Process

We can learn a lot from Doug’s example. In their product design journey that shifted their users’ experience from fear to excitement, Doug and his team showed us that making good products and services takes:

  1. Empathy: Keep the needs of your users in mind. 
  2. (Re)frame: Figure out what’s essential to them. 
  3. Ideate: Find new ways to solve for what’s essential. 
  4. Test: Try things out to see what works. 
  5. Iterate: Stay flexible in your thinking as you learn. 

Let’s unpack each step a bit further.

1. Empathy: Keep the needs of your users in mind.  

Once Doug saw his design from the perspective of a pediatric patient, he immediately realized something needed to change. He knew he needed to walk in the shoes of his user and challenge some of the assumptions he’d made before when designing these devices.

Things to consider:

  • Who are we designing for? 
  • What do they need?
  • What is their experience?
  • What’s working or not? 

Methods to use: 

  • Contextual inquiries
  • Fly-on-the-wall observations
  • Audit of tools or belongings
  • Day-in-the-life studies
  • Remote moderated interviews
  • Diary studies
  • Subject matter expert consultations
  • Stakeholder interviews

2. (Re)frame: Figure out what’s essential to them. 

As a UX designer, the power in reframing what matters to your user comes from your ability to prioritize their needs above others. This matters because it helps you and your teams not only identify what’s important but focus your energy toward solving the problem that will have the greatest impact. In Doug’s case, he was able to see that while his designs fit standard hospital protocols, these same protocols fell short of what was needed to help encourage positive interactions with the device. 

Things to consider: 

  • What are our blindspots? 
  • What is causing the most pain? 
  • What’s the most important thing to get right?
  • What are the potential benefits? 

Methods to use:

  • Affinity diagramming
  • Data clustering
  • Criteria matrix
  • Dot voting
  • Opportunity mapping
  • Experience frameworks
  • Journey maps
  • Heuristic evaluation
  • Competitive audit

3. Ideate: Find new ways to solve for what’s essential. 

Now that you and your team have conducted upfront research to define your users, align on their needs, and discuss the core problem to solve, now it’s time to explore! Iteration is all about exploring the “what ifs” of your experience design concepts. The more perspectives you include in this step the better, since it’s your goal as a UX designer to invite nontraditional solutions that will serve your users’ needs and even excite them. 

Things to consider: 

  • What about the current experience needs to be improved? 
  • What can we learn from others who have solved a similar issue? 
  • What if we did ______ instead?

Methods to use:

  • Future scenarios
  • Brainstorming sessions
  • Workshops
  • Provocation cards
  • Participatory design groups
  • Mock ups (physical and digital)
  • Storyboarding
  • Wireframes
  • Storytelling
  • Mood boards

4. Test: Try things out to see what works

Usability testing matters because even the most experienced UX designer never knows how others will interpret their ideas or wireframes. In order to make sure our intentions are being communicated successfully, we need to build things and put them in front of our intended users. It’s our job to observe how they interact with our ideas. Listen to their comments and feedback. Remain flexible when things don’t go according to our plan. And ultimately, make informed decisions about how we can make our ideas more effective to our (re)frame.

Things to consider:  

  • What is the best way to represent our idea to our user? 
  • What is a situation that will help anchor them when interacting with our concept or wireframes? 
  • What should we ask them to do?
  • What did they find confusing about the interaction, user interface, visual design elements, or anything else? 
  • How will we know if we’ve been successful?

Methods to use:

  • Usability testing
  • Surveys
  • Rank ordering
  • Conjoint analysis
  • Focus groups
  • Concept validation

5. Iterate: Stay flexible in your thinking as you learn.

Staying flexible and adapting to what you learn is the secret sauce to success because we never know what will work or not until we try it out. In Doug’s case, this meant going back to the drawing board when something he and his team created did not resonate with their user. One strategy for staying flexible is to hold meetings with your cross-functional team at moments when critical decisions are made. Whether it’s processing potential impact to your design based on feedback from a user, or deciding you need to better (re)frame your objective, flexibility is key to success. 

Conclusion

Keep in mind, the steps Doug and his team performed are not new to the UX industry. By attending a Design Thinking workshop, he was introduced to the ideas of many great thinkers before him, all of which have proven the value in empathizing with your user, (re)framing the problem based on their needs, ideating on many ideas before deciding on a direction, usability testing with users, incorporating insights from their feedback, and iterating based on what you learn. 

The more you do it, the better you will get. As Carissa Carter from the Stanford School points out, there’s a difference between cooking and being a chef: “The order and process of a recipe helps new cooks get started, but it’s only with practice, inventiveness, experimentation, and constraints that you might begin to call yourself a chef.”

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How to Become a UX Designer

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A career in UX design stands out as a forward-thinking prospect. The role’s compatibility with remote work has enabled many designers to sustain their practice in a world maintaining its distance. We are seeing demand for UX skills persist even through our current sluggish global economy, due to accelerated digital transformation in response to unforeseen challenges across every industry. The tech workforce is coming out ahead overall — though many businesses and startups are faltering, companies that survive are leaning on tech innovations to adapt intelligently to the new normal, with experience design leading the charge.

Forecasting into the upcoming decade, the nature of UX design work will likely continue to evolve along with technological advancements. The experiences we design for will also change, from today’s ubiquitous smartphone apps and websites to more hybrid touchscreen and voice interactions, video inputs, and augmented reality.

As exciting as the UX design field can be at its best, I encourage anyone serious about becoming a UX designer to also consider potentially negative aspects of a UX career path. Working conditions vary wildly in tech; research common complaints from tech industry workers by checking out online employee reviews of some prominent tech companies, and judge for yourself if it’s for you. In real-world situations, people in UX roles in particular may encounter ethical issues related to their profession, in terms of driving user behavior to meet business goals. As you learn more about entering into a design practice, consider what principles you believe should guide good UX design.

Dive In

So, still curious how to become a UX designer? Start by finding and immersing yourself in example designs that inspire you. Diving into a new subject matter is, in many ways, what UX designers do best. When you’re beginning to research an unfamiliar domain, it’s best to cast a wide net and gather all the resources you can. A bit of light reading and video viewing will go a long way, and designers are notorious content producers — don’t take my word for it, just browse by topic on Medium or YouTube. When you’re just starting out, a steady stream of design inspiration can capture your imagination in a way that will sustain you through the hard work to come. Discover the amazing work of user experience designers in the community, the tinkering and creative hacking, the impactful research, beautiful UI design, and the world-changing achievements in the field.

Socialize

Committing to a new career path requires a leap of faith. As you consider your options, the quickest way to get a realistic sense for what it will be like for you to be a UX designer is to ask some real UX designers. Get out there and network, if not in a physical space, then virtually. With so many active design nerds in the community, a quick search will reveal plenty of results for design events, meetups, and knowledge shares to attend. In my own personal journey, I’ve found industry seniors quite welcoming to early-stage UX designers, and generous with their willingness to mentor — remember, these are professional empathizers we’re talking about. For your unanswered questions, online communities often have Slack channels or message boards to crowd-source answers and support. Find one in your local region, look into groups that share your interests, and be sure to connect with UX practitioners globally to follow trends and innovations.

Introductory Study

User experience is a field of applied design with rich literature. Start off your academic investigation with the things that excite you the most. Check out some books from a reputable UX design reading list, and seek out lectures and webinars from established designers.

While there is no industry-wide definitive education background requirement for UX design, employers do often expect an undergraduate degree in design or a “related field”. Since so many fields are related to UX design, hiring evaluations often weigh professional experience more than education credentials. Schools have only started to offer programs focused explicitly on user experience design in recent years. Related fields might include human-computer interaction, communication design, information architecture, and product design. I’ve seen successful designers that come from backgrounds in anthropology, psychology, language arts, engineering, business, or even music.

If you’re new to the field, look for the right timing in your development to enroll in an actual UX design course. Everyone’s career journey is unique, and a course load can be a big investment of time and energy. To test the waters, you can find a lot of free intro classes, and plenty of remote learning options. An instructor-led class provides the opportunity to interact with a knowledgeable professional to answer your questions in a safe setting. The (virtual) classroom environment also exposes you to other learners who may be experiencing similar struggles. If your strategy is to learn and practice as much as possible in a condensed timeframe, a UX design bootcamp will guide you through the fundamental skills and knowledge, and help outline next steps for expanding that foundation.

If you’re already in a role related to UX design, see if your employer will sponsor coursework fees. If you’re an employer, make sure your employees have an education budget to apply toward new skills and career growth. The job market may be daunting for nascent design applicants, but the first few years of experience can really open up the doors to a more senior tier of opportunities.

Gut Check

Is UX design for you? Try to articulate what it is about UX design that attracts you the most. For some people, it’s the joy of crafting things. For others, it’s a passion for empathizing with human needs. For others still, it’s a fascination with complex systems. 

Find the right role that matches your interests. Within the field of UX design, there are multiple areas of specialization including user research, strategy, interaction design, UI design, product design, service design, and usability testing. While considering the best fit for your aptitude, be sure to also consider all the other fields related to UX design that are perhaps less well known but just as cool. Look into roles like Product Manager, Business Analyst, Prototype Engineer, Copywriter, Visual or UI Designer, and Data Scientist, to name a few. 

Building a Portfolio

The designer’s UX portfolio is their passport to navigating job applications. When creating your portfolio, be sure to follow best practices and let inspiring examples guide you. If you’re just starting out, you might think about achievable starter projects to take on that will turn into featured case studies. Many designers build their first portfolio projects with independent work, unsolicited redesigns, and favors for friends. Set clear design challenges for yourself, and document the experience of solving them. For a bit more structure, enrolling in a project-based course will help you produce a tangible portfolio piece that follows a typical design process.

There’s a natural life cycle to any design project, from its germination to fruition. The job of a UX design professional is inherently project-based, and a designer’s portfolio is living documentation of the best of their accomplishments.

Learning on the Job

Budding UX designers reach a real milestone when they land their first professional UX job. This could take the form of an entry-level or internship position, and the work might not exactly resemble the glamourous, world-impacting projects that inspired you to become a designer in the first place. While still standing up for your principles, use early job opportunities to study the UX design process in action, to study how the entire creative process works, and understand how organizational roles relate to each other.

You may also find more early success, and potentially long-term fulfillment, working as a UX consultant or freelancer. Part-time self-employment may be the right choice for someone holding down an existing job while building their portfolio of work. As with any applied field, only so much can be learned in an academic context; real-world experience completes the UX designer’s professional development. Today’s aspiring UX designers must gain a business sense to guide their career moves. Invest energy in the areas you need to cultivate most. Listen for credible feedback from the people you work with, and target those areas to improve.

Ongoing Education

As a UX designer, resign yourself to a lifetime of study. The technology we design for will continue to advance, along with design tools, methodology, and theory. As designers and technologists we have to hustle to keep up — learning periodically, staying up-to-date with relevant professional skills and new concepts. It may help to define clear education goals that relate directly to your professional aspirations, and track regular progress.

As you cover more ground in your career, continually demand more for yourself as you work toward your long-term professional goals. When negotiating or renegotiating contracts, research employment statistics on fair compensation and benefits, and reach out with your burning questions to other professionals who you respect. Knowing your worth is leverage for achieving the conditions you deserve.

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What is UX Design?

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That’s an understandable question. “UX” has become a buzzword that UX designers are often asked to define. The discipline of user experience is broad and reaches across many other design disciplines so its meaning can seem elusive. And for UX designers, it can be hard to explain in a few words. But let’s try.

UX Design Focuses on the User

User experience design focuses on designing for how a user interacts with an organization, whether through its services, products, website or more. This kind of design centers on the user — their needs, goals, frustrations, and motivations.

Who is the user? A person! What type of person? That depends.

UX design seeks to understand the person who will be using the product, website, or service. This is really important for a specific reason: Rather than expecting a person to adapt to the specifications laid out in a website, app or service, a UX designer considers the needs of the person they are designing for, and creates an intuitive interface that adapts to the user.

UX design is human-centered. This type of design is a mindset. It keeps the user at the center of what we do so that the user’s experience can be the best possible.

What’s great about this approach is that users who have a positive experience when they interact with a company or organization are more likely to reward that organization through additional visits, sales, or referrals. A positive user experience can be an economic driver, benefiting everyone.

UX Design’s Origins

We can see some principles of UX design that reach as far back as 4000 BC. Feng Shui is the Chinese philosophy of arranging a physical space to optimize the flow of energy. Much like a UX designer might design an app interface to be intuitive and easy to use, Feng Shui experts arrange the physical space of a room.

We can see other principles of UX design throughout history. When computers entered the scene, human-computer interaction and usability became important disciplines to help people have better experiences.

It wasn’t until the 1990s when Don Norman, a cognitive scientist working at Apple, named this field “UX design.” Norman, who authored The Design of EveryDay Things, felt that earlier disciplines of usability and human-computer interaction were too narrow. He wanted a term to describe a role that would encompass a broader range of skills to design human interactions.

Multiple studies from organizations such as McKinsey & Company, the UK Design Council, and others have found that companies that prioritize design see financial benefit. This is partly why so many people have taken an interest in UX.

Since user experience design is broad and encompasses several different disciplines, it’s understandable why so many people have questions about what UX design includes and how it relates to visual design, user interface design, or marketing.

Common UX Design Myths

Unfortunately, misunderstandings about user experience design have led to assumptions and confusion. You’re likely to run into an employer who believes they understand UX design, but in reality, they only know about one part. Or, you might have a client that says, “I just need some UX.” 

It’s the UX designer’s job to figure out how to educate and inform those around us so we can eliminate these misconceptions.

Myth #1: UX is the same as UI design.

This is the most common misconception I run into. Organizations still think of UX as being focused on the user interface. They don’t always understand that the UI can improve with solid user research, information architecture, and usability testing.

User interface design is a small piece of the overall UX puzzle. Before a UX designer even begins to design the interface, they should have solid research and an understanding of what problem they are trying to solve. Designing a user interface before researching user needs can lead to assumptions that confuse or frustrate your users.

Myth #2: UX is just for digital products.

User experience has been embraced in the digital world, but it’s not just for websites and apps. The foundations of user experience design can be applied across a broad range of industries and be useful for developing services as well as physical products.

Myth #3: UX is just usability.

Usability is an important component of UX design; it uncovers flaws and defects in the product or service. However, it’s just one part of UX design’s seven major sub-disciplines:

User research
A UX designer spends time empathizing with users through interviews and observational research. 

Content strategy
Quality content is a core component of a successful design. Designers must audit and create clear content that people find useful and helpful.

Information architecture
Content must be organized so that it’s understandable, finadable, and meaningful. Information architecture helps users understand their location within a design and what to expect. It informs many parts of the UX design, including the content, interface, and interactions.

Accessibility
By designing for accessibility, a UX designer ensures that all users can access and interact with a service or system regardless of their personal abilities. Accessibility is more than just checking for color contrast. It’s about designing to accommodate a wide range of people.

Usability
Nielsen Norman Group defines usability as “a quality attribute that assesses how easy user interfaces are to use”. It also refers to using testing to improve the user’s experience as they interact with your product or service.

Visual design
Users are more likely to have a positive experience with a design that they enjoy using; that are aesthetically pleasing and consistent. UX designers often also need to ensure that the interfaces they design are beautiful and visually clear.

Interaction design
UX designers who work on a product or system must also consider how that system behaves. Interaction design considers how the system behaves when the user interacts with it so that the user can understand what to do.

As you can see, UX design covers more than usability alone. Depending on the specific role or organization, UX designers may need to have other skills as well.

UX Design Process

A UX designer often manages all of these sub-disciplines as part of the total UX design process. This process is not linear. In fact, it can feel quite messy. It typically looks very similar to a design thinking approach and has five key phases:

1. Empathy

In this phase, a designer seeks to understand the people they are designing for. By developing empathy with the user base, the design team can learn about frustrations and motivations that will help them create better solutions later on. 

UX designers use these tools as part of the empathy phase:

  • User interviews
  • Surveys
  • Observations
  • Stakeholder interviews
  • Empathy maps
  • Proto personas

2. Definition

During the definition phase, the design team figures out the problem they are trying to solve. Armed with a solid understanding of the user, the design team creates insights from that data to address their core needs. The design team should try to spend as much time as possible in this phase, because it’s a key step before ideation begins.

UX designers use these tools as part of the definition phase:

  • Affinity diagram
  • Point-of-view statements
  • User scenarios
  • Customer journey maps
  • Storyboards
  • User personas
  • Heuristic evaluations
  • Competitive analysis
  • Problem definition

3. Ideation

Once the problem has been identified, the UX design team can start developing ideas to solve that problem. Ideation is all about generating lots of ideas. It’s important to start by thinking of all the ideas you can before narrowing them down to those that are feasible.

UX designers use these tools as part of the ideation phase:

  1. Brainstorming
  2. Mind mapping
  3. User flow diagrams

4. Prototyping

The UX design team then decides which of the ideas generated in the previous step to prototype. Prototyping allows the team to communicate the idea, advocate for ideas, and test feasibility. A prototype can be simple or complex. It should be created rapidly so that the idea can be tested.

UX designers use these tools as part of the prototyping phase:

  1. Low-fidelity prototypes
  2. High-fidelity prototypes
  3. Site maps
  4. Interactive prototypes

5. Testing

In the testing phase, a UX design team is trying to find out whether their prototype works or not. This is a time for evaluation. And it’s time to go back to the users to see how the prototype meets their needs.

UX designers use these tools as part of the testing phase:

  1. Usability testing
  2. Testing recommendations and report

Because this approach is non-linear, sometimes a UX designer will loop back and forth between phases. A UX designer doesn’t always use every tool within all of the phases, but they’ll typically use at least one or two.

What does a UX designer do every day?

A UX designer’s job will vary depending on the role or company. Some companies look for generalists who have experience across all or most of the sub-disciplines described above. Other roles will be more specialized. A UX designer may focus on research or just on prototyping if needed, depending on the position.

Typically, a UX designer works with a team. Sometimes the team will have other UX designers, a product manager, and developers. This team may be responsible for designing products used by customers or internally within the company. Sometimes a designer will work on a single project for months at a time, or they might juggle multiple projects, especially if they work for an agency.

A UX designer is responsible for creating the deliverables of the phase they are working on, keeping their work on time according to the project schedule, and presenting their work. They may need to present to the rest of the design team, internal stakeholders, or clients.

Deliverables created for these audiences can vary. According to a 2015 article from Nielsen Norman Group, UX designers were most likely to create static wireframes and interactive prototypes, followed by flow charts, site maps, and usability reports. When presenting work, interactive prototypes were most common. These deliverables are the most accurate representation of the final product.

In addition to creating wireframes and prototypes, a UX designer may:

  • Plan user research
  • Identify the target audience
  • Interview and survey users
  • Analyze qualitative and quantitative user research
  • Create a content inventory
  • Design a style guide or add to a design library
  • Conduct usability testing
  • Analyze usability testing results

Summary

UX design is like an umbrella that covers multiple areas, and a UX designer is expected to be familiar with all areas. Because UX design is so broad, and because the term itself has become popular relatively recently, it’s often misunderstood. 

At its foundation, UX design is about putting the user first. By empathizing with the user, a UX designer can create products and services that anticipate and meet users’ needs. The process isn’t linear; UX design is an iterative process that continues to loop back with the user to test and improve the design team’s ideas.

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9 Top Prototyping Tools for UX Designers

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The right tools can speed up your UX process and enable collaboration.

Prototyping is one of the key phases of the design thinking process, and UX designers have a wealth of tools to help them create rich prototypes.

Prototyping tools not only help UX designers create something real enough to test with users and stakeholders, but they can also speed up the process—especially if design tools are used throughout design, and not just before handing off to development. 

Why UX Prototyping?

When UX designers prototype designs early and often in the design process, they can understand how real people will react and use the product. Then they have an opportunity to iterate and make their designs even better. This iterative process of prototype, test, and repeat leads to stronger ideas and designs that are more likely to succeed in the long run. UX prototyping also has many other benefits:

Interactive prototypes help designers explore ideas.

By prototyping interactions and animations, designers can flesh out ideas that show what they want the final design to look like. It helps designers externalize the ideas in their head so that they can smooth out the rough edges of an interaction. 

“Prototyping is the conversation you have with your ideas.”

— Tom Wujec, TED speaker and founder of The Wujec Group 

Prototyping tools enable real-time collaboration.

Tools can also help teams collaborate more effectively. Many app prototyping tools allow designers to easily share files with teammates for feedback and real-time collaboration.

Using prototyping tools also helps designers communicate the design vision to stakeholders and other team members. Showing, rather than telling, strengthens the communication and lowers the risk that other people won’t understand.  

Drag and drop tools help us expedite our process.

There’s a reason UX focuses on rapid prototyping. Moving quickly lowers risk and overall cost of a project. Prototyping moves more quickly using tools that use drag and drop interfaces. 

Many prototyping tools allow designers to add interactions with a simple click. When designers can spend more time thinking about how to improve the design, rather than struggling with manual tools, the design process improves.

What to look for in a prototyping tool.

With so many UX prototyping tools available, how do you choose? Here are some things to keep in mind as you decide.

Can you try it for free? 

Some UX prototyping tools have a trial version to let you take the application for a spin before committing. This is a great way to test drive the tool and see how it works with your design process.

Adoption

How many people are using the tool? How large is the community that supports and contributes to tool plugins or support forums?

Some of the newer tools will have far fewer users than those that have a well-established user base. If you’re wondering how good a tool is, adoption rate can tell you a lot. Tools with a lot of users tend to be strong.

Learnability

How long will it take for you to learn the tool? You might not have a lot of time to spend learning a new interface. If you struggle with a prototyping tool, you might want to move on to another one. When you find a tool hard to use, you’re less likely to use it later on. Focus on finding one you feel comfortable with. You also might want to explore a prototyping workshop like this one. 

Integration into your process

At the end of the day, any UX design tool should fit your process, or at least allow your process to easily adapt to it. If it’s not easy to add to your process, it won’t be valuable to you. 

Top 9 UX Prototyping Tools

Fortunately, UX designers don’t have to look far to find a good prototyping tool. There are so many options out there. Here are just nine of the top prototyping tools to explore. 

Sketch

Sketch is one of the most mature prototyping tools available for UX designers. It was released in 2010 and grown into one of the most common tools for UX designers. Designers use it for creating digital interfaces from websites to apps and icons.

Sketch allows designers to create vector graphics, user flows and interactive prototypes, and teams can sync through a shared cloud workspace. Sketch enables the entire workflow, and it also has a number of helpful integrations with programs like Invision, Zeplin, and Flinto. 

It is only available for Mac users.

  • Learn more about Sketch
  • Prototyping with Sketch 
  • Sketch tutorial

Figma

Figma is a cloud-based design and prototyping tool. Designers use it to create user interfaces for websites, apps, and smaller devices. It’s similar to Sketch, but it can be used cross-platform. In other words, you don’t need a Mac to use it.

Individuals can use Figma for free, although the free plan has some limitations. You can only add two editors and create a maximum of three projects.

Figma has a number of strong features for creating UI designs. Once you are ready, you can turn your designs into a prototype by creating connections between frames. UX designers can set the interaction, apply animations, customize overlays, and more.

Figma prototypes can be previewed using the Figma Mirror app or desktop app. Figma also has a library of tools that connect it to a number of other applications for productivity, design, and delivery to development teams.

  • Figma guide to prototyping
  • Figma prototyping tutorial
  • Take a Figma tour

Adobe XD

Adobe XD is Adobe’s answer to UI design and prototyping. Similar to Sketch and Figma, it includes familiar tools for creating wireframes, prototypes, and interactions for websites, apps, and other digital screens. 

It can also be used across platforms, and collaborators can access and use it on Mac, Windows, iOS and Android.

XD released new features in 2019 to better enable team collaboration, including coediting, document history, and share mode. Like Figma, XD also allows designers to import Sketch files. And now, designers can also turn existing Sketch libraries into cloud documents in XD.

XD’s prototyping interface is also similar to Figma, and designers can create connections, overlays, animations and more.

  • Prototyping in XD 
  • About Adobe XD
  • Get Adobe XD

Webflow

Webflow is a relative newbie on the scene, but more and more designers are using it in their day to day practice. Webflow gives designers the power to create entire websites and apps without coding. Once you’re done, you can export the project into production-ready code.

It’s possible to host an entire project on Webflow, which means you just need to navigate on the website, and you’re in. You don’t need an app to preview or test your design. 

There are a few things to consider. Webflow works only in Chrome or Safari. Also, while you can get started for free, you’ll need a membership to create more than two projects.

Webflow can also take some getting used to. It doesn’t move as quickly as other prototyping tools, but it can save you time once you’re ready for development.

  • Webflow crash course
  • Webflow interactions 

Invision

Invision has come a long way since it was first released. At its core, Invision is a prototyping tool that allows designers to upload screens and quickly create interactive prototypes. The Invision prototyping tool won’t let you create designs directly in the app. However, its UI allows designers to sync screens from Sketch or Photoshop or import static images. Then, using the Invision build tool, you can arrange and build links between the screens by creating clickable hotspots. You can add transition states and mobile gestures, and even create hover states for any design element.

Designers can share their prototypes across devices or in real-time for live sketching. It’s an intuitive collaboration tool that lets you easily share a link to the prototype with teammates and clients, who can leave comments on any specific area of the design.

Invision’s strength is in its speed and versatility. It has a low barrier to entry, so designers who have never used prototyping tools can quickly create and share working prototypes.

  • Invision prototyping 
  • Create interactive prototypes with Invision

Balsamiq

Balsamiq Mockups is more of a wireframing tool than a prototyping tool. That said, it’s a great first step into quickly creating low-fidelity mockups.

Balsamiq is a drag and drop tool that’s easy to learn and fast to use. It doesn’t have any fancy animation capabilities. But it does allow you to link between screens to create a basic prototype and check for flow and functionality. Designers can also export screens and upload them into Invision to create interactive prototypes.

Balsamiq offers both a cloud and a desktop version of the tool. The cloud version pricing varies based on space requirements and how many projects you create.

  • About Balsamiq
  • Creating Balsamiq prototypes

Axure RP

Axure RP is a very robust tool, and design teams can use it for wireframing, diagramming, and creating interactive prototypes. 

Teams have the ability to view your design mockups from mobile devices as well as annotate and create animations.

Axure RP has dozens of features, and it tends to be built more for application software teams.

  • About Axure prototyping

Framer

Framer is a prototype platform ideal for team collaboration. It has a new web platform that enables browser-based design, much like Figma.

Framer allows designers to create simple transitions and microinteractions, as well as advanced animations. No code is required, so it’s easy to get started using it. Plus, you can try it for free.

  • About Framer
  • Framer tutorials

UXPin

UXPin is often overlooked, but has a lot to offer UX designers for website or app prototyping. It includes vector drawing tools, the ability to create components, and the ability to collaborate in real-time with your team.

It also has some additional features that make it really special, like its accessibility features, which check for WCAG contrast standards. On the code side, it has the ability to sync React.js components to UXPin, so you don’t have to redraw patterns.

UXPin is available cross-platform, and it’s free to sign up.

  • About UXPin
  • Prototyping with UXPin

Things to keep in mind

Simply by creating prototypes, designers can quickly gather valuable feedback from usability test participants, teammates, and clients to iterate and continuously improve the design. 

Remember, these aren’t the only prototyping tools available for UX designers, and it’s important to explore and find the right tool that fits your process. If you haven’t started prototyping yet, try out one or two tools that look promising. Most tools have a free option so you can see what works best for you. 

New to UX? Create designs that consider users’ needs and practice prototyping this remote User Experience Design workshop.

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UX Principles Every Designer Should Know

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I hold the role of Experience Design Lead for a technology company. Every day, I talk about theories and projections of how other people will experience something, which is ultimately impossible to know. Human behavior is unpredictable and ever-changing, nowhere more rapidly than in tech. Confounding variables affect how individual users might react to a planned experience. The best user experience designers I know are great at guessing—educated guesses, based on research, which then go on to inform crucial decisions in the technology development process. An experience designer’s job involves predicting how interactions will unfold, and how users will perceive them psychologically and emotionally. 

Designers do their jobs by challenging project ideas, providing counsel to stakeholders, and advocating for users’ best interests. Along with the role comes an obligation to serve the user through principled action. Bad interaction design can have consequences ranging from slightly frustrating to severely harmful. The UX design space is rapidly evolving, and designers must take a holistic view of all the various touchpoints, interactions, and environments—real and virtual—that the user navigates on their journey. Design artifacts, such as wireframes, personas, and all the other UX deliverables you commonly find listed, are just expressions of the user journey. They’re all different ways of answering the same question: “What will it be like for the user?”

With so many resources available on UX technical skills, it’s important to direct more attention toward essential human-centric concerns. Every successful UX designer needs to grasp the foundational ux design principles of empathy, clarity, feedback, and inclusivity.

Empathy

If you’ve spent time with UX teams, you’ve likely broached the subject of empathy. Particularly in the field of tech with all its innovations and disruptions, project contributors are accountable for the impact of their work. Empathy simply describes the act of considering that impact on people’s feelings, situations, lives, communities, and on society as a whole. It’s about seeing things from someone else’s perspective.

The field of user experience design contains common methodologies for building empathy with users. Based on research, user personas serve to focus project contributors’ attention on realistic user traits, so they can understand whose needs to meet. Those personas play central roles in user journey maps and problem statements, ecologies, blueprints, and storyboards. Design thinking activities and workshops bring subject matter experts together with stakeholders to focus on the user journey. All of the methods primarily serve as empathy-building tools for the contributors to better understand the user. The technology community through decades of collective trial-and-error (and more error, and even more error) has largely conceded that projects tend to fail when they don’t prioritize user needs. Empathy helps to divert the team from complacently executing software requirement specifications, and to instead focus on doing the right thing from the user’s perspective. 

Misunderstanding the principle of empathy can curtail a design process. Anyone who has ever scuffled with a frustrating product can attest that the creators should have spent more time talking to users. Building empathy isn’t just a box to check off in an early phase; it’s a principle that ensures meaningful impact through the development lifecycle.

Clarity

User experience design problems often revolve around the clarity of information and instruction. Successful designs make information as intelligible as possible, with clear indication of how to perform the actions you need to take. Designers make sure people can access and understand the interaction as it’s happening, and remain sensitive to its effect on the user’s cognitive load. Lack of clarity could have serious repercussions, as in the case of a healthcare application being used by a patient to access their treatment. 

A working knowledge of visual communication goes a long way. Design artifacts, even reports, benefit from a clear visual hierarchy. Even if the visual design of a user interface is a separate concern than the UX, in practice, UX designers have to collaborate with their counterparts in UI design to ensure that the interface communicates the right effect. To engage effectively on a cross-functional project with multiple team members, UX designers need to at least wield a practical knowledge of typography, color, and composition. Thinking in terms of these visual communication fundamentals allows contributors to establish a shared design language.

Clarity of communication can’t be underestimated. My company, like many global tech organizations, uses English as a primary language for everything from business discussion, to code documentation, to design critique. My international colleagues exhibit remarkable communication skills, especially considering English may be a second, third, or even eighth language. In today’s climate of remote work, it’s more important than ever to use video to enhance real-time communication—employing body language and facial expressions to underscore our words.

UX design is wrapped in written communication. The extent to which hiring managers weigh writing skills when evaluating UX candidates may surprise job seekers. It makes sense that client-facing discussions frequently focus on UX artifacts, and only astute writing can successfully document design ideas. For user research specialists, as well as generalists with user research among their responsibilities, writing is even more of a daily requirement. They design through the medium of research reports, interview takeaways, and executive summaries. Clear writing permeates the work, all the way down to the microcopy—the small bits of guiding UI text used in forms, prompts, buttons, and messages throughout an application. 

Feedback

Great user experience designers are still wrong all the time; they just use more feedback. Everything is a prototype, even early notes and doodles, that can evoke enough reaction from helpful sources such as usability test participants to inform improvements. All design fields solve problems through making things, actively creating new ideas to fill an existing void, and ample helpful feedback guides the solution in the right direction. Seasoned UX designers learn to apply this principle throughout their process, always scanning for meaningful feedback on everything they contribute.

Everywhere you look, there are products with design flaws that could have been improved through more user testing; not just apps and websites, but also physical experiences like vehicles, household items, or specialty equipment. Whenever a project is fast-tracked past user testing too hastily the consumer has to deal with the resulting deficiencies. Successful projects take a structured approach, testing prototypes methodically to identify problem areas. Product teams establish a feedback loop by observing user reactions, hypothesizing improvements based on those reactions, and rebuilding prototypes with new ideas to introduce into the testing cycle.

Accepting product design feedback and applying its learnings to a prototype may be a skill that takes time to develop; it’s easy to get emotionally attached to work we create, as if it were some precious thing to defend. When we ignore valid design criticism it’s the user who loses. Designers learn to separate themselves from their ideas, gathering feedback early and often, and become skilled in objectively discerning how to improve the work to make it even more clear and useful for others.

Inclusivity

People often base their first understandings of users on the lowest common denominator—mapping out an ideal “happy path” experience for a generic user. That ideal rarely reflects the multifaceted reality of human life, and that generic user is too often a reflection of the designer’s own personal traits or their company’s business goals. To design excellent user experiences, we need to step outside our own biases and recognize the diversity of human experience.

Including a broad radius of users in the design process isn’t only the right thing to do, it also makes good business sense. When a service makes the effort to consider its customers with special needs, it tends to benefit a wider swath of customers. Wheelchair-accessible spaces provide a great example of this principle: the same rampways and automatic door openers which allow people in wheelchairs to navigate also make it easier for people pushing strollers, carrying armloads, and with other momentary physical restrictions.

Website design similarly recognizes the range of users navigating the virtual space. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) provide a standard for designing interfaces which can be understood and used effectively by people with disabilities. Web and app designers rely on that guidance to ensure the display can be understood by users with a spectrum of visual impairments and blindness, and who may access the information using screen reader programs to synthesize speech or output to a braille display. Users with motoric impairments benefit from various assistive technologies such as a trackball mouse or voice recognition software. Across both physical and digital spaces, there are ample opportunities to design a better, more inclusive user experience that considers all possible customer scenarios.

The aim of inclusive design is to demonstrate respect for users by allowing them a dignified interaction with your service. Project teams would do better by incorporating the principle of inclusivity throughout their process. Upfront research and cooperative design with target users will help to avoid the pitfalls that lead to inaccessible products. Designers, engineers, and managers are all responsible for adhering to accessibility guidelines in the creation of useful tools, displays, and controls. Rigorous usability testing continuously refines the experience, and helps produce genuinely positive, inclusive interactions. 

Conclusion

The practice of user experience design challenges abstract notions and raises important ethical concerns. As UX designers, we essentially design actions, and all actions have consequences. Multiply that by the masses of users who are touched by scaling technology, and our design decisions become exponentially magnified. All designers should consider that gravity whenever approaching their work, and take conscientious actions based on human-centered design principles.

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UX, Visual, or Graphic: Which Type of Design Is Right for You?

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UX Design Image
  • CC Image Courtesy of Thomas Brasington on Flickr

You can be pardoned for sometimes feeling confused about all the terminology and job titles floating around in the design world. What is the difference between graphic design, visual design, and user experience design? Do each of the three roles provide a different service? For visual and graphic designers, the difference may lie mainly in the job title and salary expectations. However, a user experience designer has very different end goals and responsibilities from a visual or graphic designer. Below is a breakdown of what each of these designers do. Continue reading

A Beginner’s Guide to Customer Focus

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Customer Focus

In the tech world, we’ve figured out how to measure user behavior down to a granular level via web analytics. From gauging interest through time spent on a page, to prioritizing information based on heat mapping, many companies are determining user preferences without directly interacting with individuals. But, relying on analytics alone without constant user involvement robs us of the main driver of success in product development: customer focus.

Customer focus is a tactic that dissects the analytics behind customer behavior. This involves considering their perspectives, understanding their needs and wants, and getting to the root cause of the issue that’s the focus of your product development efforts.

In many cases, the cause of an underperforming product or service isn’t obvious. A product manager or user experience (UX) researcher who works closely with their internal user experience team has the best chance of uncovering it. Along with product managers, UX designers ensure customer focus is maintained throughout the product development process, leveraging techniques like stakeholder interviews, customer journey mapping, and usability testing. (Learn more about these and other key strategies for gaining customer insights in our free white paper, Human-Focused Design.)

Let’s explore each of these in more detail.

What Are Stakeholder Interviews?

Interviewing both internal and external stakeholders is an integral part of product development. It allows you to hear your customers’ understanding of the problem you’re trying to solve — in their own words. It also provides you with an opportunity to ask for additional information on insights that may have been gathered with analytical tools.

As a product manager or UX designer, it’s crucial to understand your customers’ actual current behavior, not just what they say they will do. For instance, if you are developing an app to help people get to the gym more frequently and consistently, asking a customer, “How often do you plan to go to the gym this year?” isn’t as beneficial as asking, “How often did you attend the gym last year?” Customers cannot tell you what they will do with much sense of accuracy. They can only recall what they have done. Using past experiences to focus the product on future customer behavior is key.

When interviewing stakeholders, it’s important to ask open-ended questions (i.e., questions that won’t result in a simple “yes” or “no” answer). This will not only assist in identifying the root cause of the problem you’re addressing but will also keep the customer talking. For example, if you’re looking to determine the value of cardio classes and asked, “Would you say cardio classes are better workouts than weight lifting?” you may get a dead-end, one-word answer. When a customer just says “Yes,” what have you learned?

How do you get them to elaborate on the why in their response? It’s the why that separates a customer-focused product from one that’s solely data-driven. In this example, you could instead ask something like, “How do you feel about the cardio classes you participated in throughout 2017?”

How Customer Journey Mapping Works

Journey mapping — i.e., the strategic process of capturing and communicating complex customer interactions — provides you, the product manager, with a step-by-step visual representation of your customers’ current behavior surrounding the problem your product is trying to solve. When you’re able to walk through a process with a customer, you realize just how much is overlooked with conversation alone. Journey mapping can be done via sticky notes or by physically following customers through their daily activities. Both methods are effective in their own ways and commonly used in professional environments.

Journey mapping also helps connect a customer’s interview answers with their actual routines to provide deeper insights into their behaviors, wants, and needs. Oftentimes, people don’t realize how much they do until you ask them to walk you through their processes. With journey mapping, product managers and UX designers can also ask follow-up questions to support a stakeholder interview as necessary.

The Basics of Usability Testing

Conducted by both UX and product teams, usability testing observes customers’ interactions as they attempt to complete different tasks or transactions with a product and validates that product against a need, an idea, and an assumed solution. In other words, it allows them to confirm that the product effectively addresses a user problem they’ve aimed to solve. Through usability testing, users are able to navigate through a proposed solution and provide feedback on what they do and don’t like. Ideally, it should be conducted throughout the design process as the product evolves to meet customer needs. A customer may need to hold on to your product for a period of time in order for you to decide if it solves their problem effectively.

Customer-focused product development requires you to truly immerse yourself in the life of the customer. It pulls you out of what you think you know and places you in a position to learn. As you dig deeper into your customers’ behaviors, wants, and needs, you’ll strengthen the overall quality of your product.

Customer Focus at General Assembly

At General Assembly, product management and UX design students learn to hone customer-focused perspectives through hands-on practice. In our part-time Product Management course, you’ll bring a product idea to life via stakeholder interviewing, journey mappingusability testing, and more. Apply these techniques to optimize user-friendly products and services in our part-time User Experience Design courses, on campus or online. Or, take the first step toward a new career in our full-time User Experience Design Immersive.

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Meet Our Expert

Sherika Wynter is a jack of all trades. She works as senior product manager at USAC and has a background in mechanical engineering and industrial design. Prior to her current role, Sherika spent eight years as a project manager, working with clients including Pew Charitable Trusts, Tishman Speyer, and PBS. She holds certifications in both PMP and scrum master. Sherika currently teaches Product Management and project management workshops at General Assembly in Washington, D.C.

Sherika Wynter

“Product managers are integral to any product team. Product management is where design, development, and business intersect and, in this age of innovation, it’s skills are key to developing a successful product.”

Sherika Wynter, Product Management instructor, GA Washington, D.C.