A Beginner’s Guide to User Experience (UX) Fundamentals

Design UX Multiple

By Katharine Hargreaves

Many people have heard the term “user experience” but not everyone knows what this means. User experience (UX) is rapidly growing and revolutionizing how people interact with the world around them. UX is why Google is so easy to use and how Facebook knows what article to suggest to you next. It’s why the internet evolved from Geocities homepages with blinking “Under Construction” signs to the sophisticated interfaces we use every day. User experience is practiced by UX designers — but also product managers, product designers, entrepreneurs, startups, and forward-thinking organizations.

But what does UX actually mean? Let’s break it down.

For starters, if you have ever purchased a product or benefitted from a service, you are a user. When you interact with a product, service, or company, you are having an experience. Ultimately, most companies want you to have a good experience using their product or services. In order to understand what makes an experience good, we need to define what that means from the perspective of the user.

What makes an experience “good” hinges on whether it was successful at solving a real problem or provided users with actual value. This is the core distinction between art and design: Whereas art can be aesthetically pleasing, good design must have utility. Beauty alone isn’t enough. Thus, a good user experience is one that enables the user to be effective.

For example, let’s say you wanted to find a restaurant for dinner with friends. You know that several people in the group are vegetarians, so you’d like to find a convenient location where everyone has options. In this situation, you might use a restaurant recommendation platform to narrow down options, identify some potential locations, and share them with friends. The conditions for success in this situation would be an app that enables you to do exactly that. Anything more is considered “delight” and anything less is problematic.

The Four Key Elements of the UX Process

User experience is often referred to as “the science behind design.” What is meant by “science” here is the rigorous methods that comprise the UX process and provide the human insights and hard data to support and validate design decisions.

It’s important to know that the UX process can be used as both a path (go from start to finish) or as a toolkit (select the tool you need), depending on the project goals and timeline. Regardless of how you apply the process, there are a few critical ingredients that create the foundation for a successful user experience. We’ll outline these UX fundamentals below, along with specific tools or methods that can be used.

1. Behavior

Let’s begin by stating the obvious: People are complex creatures. When designing for people, it’s important to understand how they think and what behaviors they’re engaging in to satisfy their current needs or solve their existing problem. Before there was Yelp to find restaurants, what did people do? They asked their friends for recommendations or used an online search engine (or something else entirely — let’s not forget that there was life before the internet).

UX designers work with people by learning about their habits and goals, identifying needs and constraints, and aligning with existing behaviors to create solutions that are easy to use (efficient) and solve a real problem (effective).

Some UX methods and tools used to learn about user behaviors:

  • User interviews are one of the most important ways that UX designers uncover information. User interviews are usually focused on the qualitative data, which is information that can’t be measured but that is rich in emotional detail.
  • A customer journey map is a visual document that details a user’s interactions with a company or product and how they feel about each interaction. This map tells a story about user’s end-to-end experience and how successful it was from the user’s perspective.
  • A task analysis is used to analyze how users perform tasks in order to achieve a goal. Through observation, designers learn about the user’s current process (and work-arounds if no solution exists). For instance, observing a user file their taxes using analog methods (paper, mail) can inform a designer how they might go about that same task online. This is a great way to learn about existing pain points that could be improved.
  • Designers are always documenting, analyzing, and communicating user insights and data with their team to keep everyone on the same page. Designers might document a user interview using a screen-sharing tool that captures how a user moves through a website to complete a task. Then, they might analyze that information by creating an affinity map with their team to identify common trends or patterns in the collected data. Finally, they might create a user persona to bring this user data to life and communicate findings with their team.

2. Strategy

User experience is a human-centered process, which means that designers don’t prioritize business goals over people. The best design solution should ultimately align both the business and customer goals to create an effective and usable solution to a real problem. Strategy in UX is also about understanding where an existing product or process can be improved and communicating this effectively to internal teams and external users through design. Fundamentally, UX is about design empathy, which means translating user needs into actionable solutions.

One of the first steps in UX is user research. In order to solve a problem, a designer first needs to observe and understand what’s happening from the user’s perspective. Asking questions is a great way to uncover a lot of information about user needs and frustrations. These user insights can then be translated into design solutions that solve the user’s problem efficiently and effectively.

Some great questions to ask when strategizing:

  • Who is our user?
  • What is the user’s motivation or goal?
  • How does this make them feel?
  • Is the process clear?
  • What do they expect when they click this?
  • Are you assuming something about users? How could you test this assumption?
  • Are you thinking of the user’s wants and needs, or your own?
  • What do we want users to do? How are we helping them do it?

Strategy is then translated into design through artifacts such as user flows (how a user moves through a system to achieve a goal), wireframes (schematics that show how a digital interface will look and function), and high-fidelity prototypes (a working model of a design) that can be tested with users.

3. Usability

Good design is ultimately determined by usability. If a design does not help the user solve a problem, or makes solving a problem extremely challenging, it is not a good design. If the user is confused or doesn’t know where to go, or you designed it for you? Also not a good design. Because design is about functionality, usability is more important than aesthetics. While designers talk a lot about designing for “delight,” the best designs are usable. Designers can add delight through sophisticated animations, friendly language, and unexpected surprises that anticipate users’ needs. However, if the design is not usable, all these delightful details don’t matter. This may seem like a simple practice in theory, but that’s not always the case.

Humans are complex, and usability is deeply connected with psychology and behavior. Digital design inherited a lot of its behaviors from things we used in our analog life, such as buttons and sliders. Thus, people come to expect things to behave a certain way, even if there aren’t the same physical or technical constraints.

Usability is about creating products that anyone can use, especially if they have a disability or impairment. Usability is also about accessibility, which means that physical constraints or disabilities don’t prohibit or impede someone’s use of a product or service. Good design is about helping humans.

How can you determine whether something’s usable and accessible? There are a ton of resources dedicated to creating accessible and inclusive designs from the ground up. Some of the best include:

4. Validation

Finally, validation is a critical piece of the UX process. Ideally products need to be tested with users before they are deployed to the public. Unfortunately, this is not always the case with companies that are eager to launch their products out into the world. The UX process emphasizes testing with real users early and often in order to ensure that the design solves the right problem.

Solving the right problem is the most important task that UX designers face. However, testing often throughout the process also means that you’ll catch mistakes sooner and be able to adjust without losing users. When things don’t work or are difficult to use, most people give up.

Investing in UX design is one way companies can stay competitive in the market while making the most of their time and resources. Validation is proof that you have successfully solved a problem for your user. Another way to think about testing is as an experiment. When making decisions, it’s important to ask: What are my assumptions about the user? About this solution? How might we test these assumptions?

There are many ways to validate an idea or assumption, depending on the amount of time and money you can invest in the project. The important thing to remember with validation is that it removes the guesswork from the design process. Here are some of the most common strategies used to validate ideas:

  • Ideas can be tested very early in the process by putting out a smokescreen test. A smokescreen could be a landing page with a call to action (e.g., Sign up for my newsletter!) to test whether users want your product.
  • If you’re already in the design stage, you can validate your design by A/B testing two versions of the same page. This would allow you to see if one way of solving a problem is more successful than another.
  • Finally, you might want to create a clickable or coded prototype to see how users would navigate the system as you get closer to launch.

What happens once a product goes live? UX designers are constantly iterating, which is the process of continuously testing throughout a product’s life cycle. In fact, the UX process of learning about user behavior through research, translating insights into actionable strategies, and testing new products and features is designed to be repeated as often as needed. Building accessible, usable, and beautiful products is an ongoing evolution.

UX Fundamentals at General Assembly

There are many ways to learn UX fundamentals at General Assembly. For the most in-depth experience, our User Experience Design Immersive (UXDI) introduces students to every step of the process while providing opportunities to apply skills directly through project-based learning with real clients. The 10-week-long Immersive is best for career-changers who want to transform their professional life. Our part-time User Experience Design (UXD) program, available on campus or online, is a great way to gain exposure to UX tools, techniques, and industry trends, and the eight-week Visual Design course covers a high-level overview of the practice and how it relates to visual design. You’ll also learn how UX impacts the product life cycle in the part-time Product Management course. If you’re just looking to learn more about UX and opportunities in the field, there are many workshops and events (such as the UX 101 Bootcamp) that can introduce you to the core concepts and best practices.

Meet Our Expert

Katharine Hargreaves is a UX strategist, educator, and facilitator working at the intersection of social impact design and education. She teaches the User Experience Design Immersive at GA’s Los Angeles campus. Katharine believes that human-centered design heals the world, and she’s dedicated to building tools and systems that empower people everywhere to be problem-solvers.

“UX is the toolkit of the future. It’s more than a field — it’s a critical skill set everyone should have access to. Successful designers are able to extend their learnings to others while keeping users front and center.”

Katharine Hargreaves, User Experience Design Immersive Instructor, GA Los Angeles