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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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