User Experience design (often referred to as UX Design) is rapidly becoming one of the most sought after skills in the digital world. It’s used in a wide variety of design situations ranging from web and app design to physical product design.

It has been proven as an effective way to design and build the right products and services that customers need and want while minimising waste. It’s also a great way of removing opinions that drive decisions by those who hold the purse strings.

User experience is a deep subject which merges many different disciplines which enables you to really understand and design for your target user. Let’s explore the details of this a bit further.

What user experience is in a nutshell

You come into contact with the outcome of UX design on a daily basis whether you’re aware of it or not. That burger you just ordered with an app? UX designer.

That controller for your new game console? UX designer. Pretty much everything that has been made by a human has had some level of user experience design thinking put into it.

UX design has been around for a long time, potentially as far back as 4000BC! It’s most recent iteration and the term user experience designer was coined when Don Norman joined Apple as a User Experience Architect in the mid-90’s. This is widely regarded as the first use of the phrase “User Experience” in a job title!

“Design is really an act of communication, which means having a deep understanding of the person with whom the designer is communicating.” Don Norman

UX is often mistakenly seen solely as user interface design. The final polished web page that you see out there in the world. While this can sometimes be true, the reality is that user interface (UI) design and UX design are different disciplines. Often UX designers will have UI skills which support their UX work, but it is not essential.

In essence UX design is a process of understanding your users, ideation, exploration and validation to ensure your idea will work in a real world scenario to reduce wasting time and money.

What are the fundamentals of user experience? (The UX Process)

There are many approaches to user experience design but one of the most favoured methodologies is Design Thinking. This methodology is split into 6 phases. Each of these phases has an important part to play in the design thinking process and for creating a strong user experience.

This UX process is non-linear and cyclical, meaning that the below are a guideline for what a ‘perfect’ process would look like. You can often get to the prototype phase and realise you’re designing something that doesn’t answer the problem properly, so you jump back to the ideation phase.

This is normal and nothing to worry about. If anything it means you’re doing it right as you identified that before you got too far along the journey!

1. Empathising with your user

UX design is built around the design thinking philosophy. This philosophy puts the user front and centre throughout the entire design process. Some questions UX designers will ask:

  • What are their pain points?
  • What jobs or actions are they trying to accomplish?
  • What is the most intuitive way we can help them accomplish that?
  • What does a day in the life of our user look like?
  • How technologically savvy are they?

There are many tools in the UX designers arsenal that can help tease out the answers to those questions. UX design is often about choosing the right tool at the right time. Some examples of how UX designers learn to better understand their users are:

  • User interviews
  • Research studies
  • Empathy mapping
  • Personas
  • User stories
  • User journey maps

2. Defining the problem your user has

When we have a deep understanding of who our users are and what they really want we can then define what the problem is that we’re trying to solve. This becomes your guiding north star, we refer back to it often to make sure we’re still on the right track.

To define our problem in an actionable format, we use some of the below methods:

  • Problem statements
  • Hypothesis statements
  • Value proposition mapping
UX Hypothesis

We believe that [ adding a find my location function ]
For [ our app users ]
Will [ allow users to find xxxx quicker  ]

An example UX hypothesis might look something like this

3. Ideate around possible solutions to your users problem

One of my favourite bits of the process. Ideation (in the pre-Covid world) often took place in collaborative spaces with a mixture of stakeholders, whiteboards, Sharpies and a suitcase full of multi-coloured post-it notes. This has evolved somewhat with many people remote working now using Miro, FigJam or something similar.

Whichever way you approach it, the concept is the same, get as many ideas together on a whiteboard/Miro with your post-it notes as possible. You then work with your collaborative team to discuss and vote on the ideas they think would solve the user problem best.

You can end up with hundreds of ideas using this method so refining them down to a few using a voting system helps focus the team.

Some other ways you can ideate around a problem you’re trying to solve:

  • Competitor audits
  • How might we statements
  • Crazy eights

4. Create a prototype to test your hypothesis

This is where you start to see the fruits of your early research, interviews and ideation come together. Prototyping is the process of creating a ‘fake’, often interactive, version of your product that users can play with to test your hypotheses and assumptions.

There are many tools out there to put your prototype together. A few of these include Figma, Sketch, InVision and Adobe XD. All have benefits and drawbacks so do some research and use a trial before committing.

At the end of the day the important thing is that you can communicate your ideas to potential users without actually having to build anything for real, so you could use something as simple as PowerPoint or Google Slides!

You can play with the fidelity of the prototype depending on the size of the product/feature you want to test. For example, if you just want to test a user journey you can probably put together a lower fidelity prototype. This might involve grayscale wireframes and generic layout blocks. Or if you want to test a more high-fidelity version you can create a pixel perfect rendition of what the final product would look like!

Some useful UX tools that help you create a strong prototype:

  • Goal statements
  • User flows
  • Storyboards (big picture and close up!)
  • Affinity diagrams

5. Test your prototype with your users

When you’re happy with your prototype, you can then get it in front of some potential users, gather feedback and watch them use it. This will then inform whether you’ve nailed it and can move to getting it into production or it’s missed the mark and you need to iterate or start from scratch.

By having a solid amount of testing and validation behind your hypothesis, assumptions and ideas, you can remove a lot of the unknowns before any of the more expensive development work takes place. Win/win!

How can you make sure your user experience design works?

Many failed design projects often don’t empathise deeply enough with their target users. By failing to do this you can never be sure that what you have created is what the user actually needs.

By using a process like design thinking you can weed out any ideas that don’t resonate with your target audience before making any large financial investments on development.

For example, could you imagine if a car manufacturer designed a new car without testing the concept beforehand? The money it takes to manufacture cars means that they have to deeply understand their users and that the final product fulfils the users needs. If they put together a car without any research or testing and the car was a flop, the losses could potentially push the company under!

It’s a similar concept with digital product design. If we launch a new feature that hasn’t been through a rigorous research and testing process it’s more than likely the feature will fail as it won’t fulfil user needs.

By understanding your users, building hypotheses and using quickly created and easy to modify prototypes you can ensure you have created the right thing and take that to the next step of development and production.

How do you use data to inform your design decisions and improve your user experience?

We touched briefly on opinion earlier in this post. In the old days of web design, the designer who could put together the shiniest, with the most bells and whistles design, would often be the most successful. This way of doing things is dying out.

These designs would be a culmination of a designer and the opinions of the stakeholders. More often than not, there was no thinking about the user and no way to measure if the design was successful.

For example, websites often went through redesigns yearly, sometimes even more frequently because they weren’t converting potential leads. Sometimes they were redesigned because the business owner wanted to ‘freshen’ things up with no solid goal for the project.

As you can imagine, the ROI on these types of design projects with frequent redesigns was low… They never asked why this was the case!

As the industry matured, pioneers of design thinking and UX showed that there was a better, more measurable way of doing this.

By using a mixture of qualitative (questionnaires, interviews and observation) and quantitative (numbers and metrics to quantify with) data points we can truly unearth what the user really needs and design accordingly.

How do you get started with user experience?

UX design is a deep and complex discipline, but investing in it will improve your product. The best way to really understand it is to immerse yourself in the subject. Whether you’re a business owner or someone new to the industry, learning about the value and impact of UX will only benefit you!

UX Design books

There are many great books out there, here are a few I’d recommend:

  • Don’t Make me Think by Steve Krug
  • Rocket Surgery Made Easy by Steve Krug
  • The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman
  • Lean UX byJeff Gothelf & Josh Seiden
  • About Face by Alan Cooper et al

UX Design courses

  • The Interaction Design Foundation – solid online, certified courses in everything you could possibly need as a UX designer
  • Coursera Google UX Course – Intense, but packed full of information taking you from an absolute novice to someone who has a good understanding of UX fundamentals

I’ve only scratched the surface of the many facets of what UX design is. It’s such a fascinating subject that weaves many different disciplines together.

There are UX designers of all sorts of shapes and sizes too. If you’re looking at it as a potential career, get a broad understanding of the industry and see if there’s anything you would like to specialise in then delve deep. Good luck!