I am an 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 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.
If you’ve spent time with UX teams, you’ve likely broached the subject of empathy. Particularly in 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 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 to instead focus on doing the right thing from the user’s perspective.
Misunderstanding the design 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.
User experience design problems often revolve around the clarity of information and instruction. Successful designs make information as intelligible as possible with a 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.
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 from the UX, in practice, great UX designers have to collaborate with their counterparts in user interface 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 a 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 good design ideas. For UX research specialists, as well as generalists with user research among their responsibilities, UX 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.
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.
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 that 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 usefultools, displays, and controls. Rigorous usability testing and user testing continuously refine the experience and helps produce genuinely positive, inclusive interactions.
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 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.