UX design - it’s a term that's taken the world by storm. But what does it actually mean? While UX design is considered essential to product development by many companies, the term itself can seem like just another one of those ubiquitous buzzwords that gets thrown around at a startup meetup. Put simply, UX Design stands for User Experience and is defined as all aspects of the product, such as a landing page, website, the product itself, the community, the service, all of it – as experienced by users.
But knowing what UX stands for is not the same as really understanding the details that make it up and make it work. Gaining a deep understanding of what UX Design is, and–more importantly–what it’s not is the first step on the way to really acing this discipline. So read on if you want to find out what a UX designer actually does, best and worst practices and how to get started on the UX journey.
1. What is User Experience (UX)?
Put simply, User Experience (UX) can be defined as any interaction a user has with a product or service. For example, how the product looks, how its elements influence the user, how it makes them feel, and how they interact with it. UX Design in turn, is a process which UX Designers use to make the experience of using a particular product as easy, smooth, and enjoyable as possible for the User.
The end goal of UX design is to provide the user with intuitive, efficient, and relevant experience.
UX Design focuses heavily on having a deep understanding of users, what they need, what they value, their abilities, and their limitations. It also takes into account the business goals and objectives of the company.
It’s important to note that while UX designers can aim for aesthetically pleasing work - their predominant focus is on building the best user-friendly experience they can and not just on beautifying the product that they’re working on. The crux of the role is on empathising with their user and working to create products that are natural for users to handle, taking the audience from point A to point B in the most intuitive way that feels joyful.
2. Why is UX important?
With job boards filled with UX vacancies and notable companies crediting good UX for their profit margins, the buzzword is growing increasingly prevalent. Airbnb attributes good UX for taking them from being a near-failure to being valued at $10 million, LandRover has described UX as a must-have investment and Elon Musk was famously quoted saying that “any product that needs a manual is broken”. UX is now at the forefront of tech and is almost used interchangeably with good business.
“Any product that needs a manual is broken”
- Elon Musk
While the title, UX designer, has gained a lot of traction in the past few years, the term was coined in the early nineties by Donald Norman who worked for Apple as a cognitive scientist. Norman was hugely interested in the manner in which customers would use Apple products and prioritised empathising with the user to ascertain that they could access what they needed with the minimal fuss or bother. Now many high-tech companies are at the forefront of pushing investments into UX as they see placing the user first as a necessity and are reaping the benefits.
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3. What does a UX designer do?
A UX designer’s job description can vary from company to company and sometimes even from project to project within the same company.
The role is also prominent among many other fields, from interaction design, information architecture, visual design, usability, and human-computer interaction. As the umbrella term does fit so many different areas you’ll hear the word thrown around in many different contexts that may confuse you - but DON’T be alarmed - the foundation of UX still remains the same throughout the fields.
Generally, a UX designer conducts research, designs, writes UX copy, validates and tests with users, and presents and sells their design solutions to the company. The UX designer takes the voice of the user and advocates for the user’s needs when companies are balancing their business goals.
So let’s break down exactly how a UX designer goes about juggling all these tasks:
In order for a UX designer to create a strong product, they have to understand the user’s wants and needs. Empathizing with the user is really the foundation of their design. In this stage, a UX designer identifies the user’s needs, pain points, behaviours, and goals. During the research process, they’ll examine the wider industry and their direct competitors to understand how others are going about meeting these needs. Through this, UX designers can see what opportunities are available, what the standards are for the product and service, and begin to explore any technical barriers.
It’s a real misconception that design is based entirely in the aesthetic realm. For a UX designer, the design aspect comes down to solving problems and connecting the user to improve usability, accessibility, and create an overall joyful experience for the end-user. A UX designer will be the voice of the end user, ensuring that the user will be getting the best experience from the product delivered. A UX designer doesn’t search for the most visually appealing answer - but rather the answer that satisfies the audience’s needs in the best way. These designers do still aim for pleasing aesthetics but the aesthetics must work in conjunction with the user having a highly usable product. Design in this realm refers to facility of using the product, and having a seamless user experience rather than just creating something pleasing for the eye.
Writing UX Copy
The written content on the product or software reflects the company that has produced it and helps the user to navigate through the product. UX copywriting should be clear and match the actions directly so the user is completely clear with what they are able to do when pressing said buttons or taking certain actions with the product or software.
Validating and Testing with Users
This helps the UX designer identify problems or complications by seeing where users struggle when interacting with the prototype. User testing is usually done in person so the UX designer can observe where the user is hesitant or has trouble. The user should give feedback but watching their natural reaction already gives the UX designer many signals as to what needs further work. We have a GREAT video on if we really find this step quite so necessary.
Sell and Present the Design to the Business
Now, for the big part - UX designers must get their ideas seen, heard, and through the approval process. They have to present and interact with the decision-maker in order to push their ideas forward - which is really make or break time. A UX designer will deliver wireframes, prototypes, site maps, flows, and other UX artefacts and pass them to the UI team as a next step in the life of the product.
4. Principles of UX Design
We hear usability and UX get used interchangeably all the time, and while usability is definitely a facet of UX, it is so much more than just usability. In fact, UX is comprised of 7 principles as created by Peter Morville, a pioneer in the field of User Experience and Information Architecture.
The Honeycomb tool created by Morville helps visualize the facets that make up UX: Useful, Usable, Findable, Credible, Desirable, Accessible, and Valuable.
Let’s break these down so you can get a better overview of their importance.
For a product to compete on the market it must fulfill a purpose. In this phase the designer identifies why this product is needed and what the target customers should gain from it. If the product doesn’t have a purpose it will inevitably struggle to compete in a market filled with purposeful products. That being said, what is “useful” depends on the user, and therefore not all products have to have a practical element. For example, entertainment products have huge market value even though they might only be valuable to select audiences. Video games are a good example of this, they perform very well with no practical use.
Usability centres on making the journey for the user as efficient and intuitive as possible. Products can succeed if they’re not usable but implementing usability comes with a huge competitive advantage. A high level of usability can make the world of difference with safety and comfort of use.
Cars are a great example of strong usability. Vehicles have to prioritize safety while letting us still do the things we wish to while driving, like changing radio channels and keeping our eyes on the road simultaneously.
Phones such as the iPhone that let you make phone calls while also letting you navigate through applications also have a high level of usability. The ability to talk to friends while using the maps application, sending texts or taking notes all adds to the high usability of the product.
Findability refers to the idea that the product must be easy to navigate. This is particularly relevant if you’re working with web pages as being able to use the software and find what you are looking for quickly is very important. Video streaming services with tons of files are an extreme example of where findability is imperative. For instance, if users can’t find what they are looking for with ease on Netflix, they’ll give up and move to another product which is easier to use. No matter how much good content is on the service, bad findability has the potential to ruin the whole experience.
It’s super important that an audience can trust that the product will deliver the desired result, but also that it will last. It’s close to impossible to deliver good UX if the customer believes that the product creator has lied about the product or has had bad intentions. If this happens the customer will inevitably take their business elsewhere.
An infamous example of this is when Volkswagen rigged the software of millions of cars to cheat on emissions tests. It not only cost them 30 billion dollars in damages but it caused a huge setback in terms of their credibility. This happened in 2015 and Volkswagen is still struggling to regain in 2020. A loss in credibility can be massively detrimental to a product.
Electronic Arts also faced backlash when it was noted that the only way to unlock basic characters in “Star Wars Battlefront II” was to either spend over 40 hours playing or pay hundreds on in-game purchases. Customer’s soon caught on to bad intent and the negative remarks forced EA games to temporarily suspend all in-game purchases.
It goes without saying, but even if you’re not committing fraud you should ALWAYS make sure you are delivering what is promised.
This is all to do with the brand, the image identity, and emotional design. The more desirable a product is, the bigger the following. The user who is using the desired product will most likely brag about it and create a desire in other potential users.
Think about school - we all knew that girl or guy in our year who had a cool new gadget, perhaps it was the latest model of a phone or mp3 player and it had us all crowding around and saving up to buy it ourselves. The products that give us that “I need to have it” feeling are desirable products. Strive to make your products desirable, and you’ll be a step closer to amassing a big following.
Strong products should be accessible for a wide range of abilities. This means taking into consideration those who are disabled (hearing impaired, vision loss, or motion impaired). To create accessible products, designers will take many factors into consideration - for example choosing colours that colour blind people can see, opting for text that’s larger for those with poor vision, and so on.
While this step is now a legal obligation and taken seriously, it wasn’t always prioritised quite so high on designer agendas. Companies often pushed accessibility to the bottom of their priority lists as it could often be expensive and the physically impaired community was seen to take up such a small percentage of the customer base. This of course created a multitude of problems, and so accessibility was reviewed and passed as a legal requirement across many countries including the UK/USA/Australia amongst others.
It should be noted that the legal obligation of accessibility doesn’t cover inclusivity for minorities that are not physically impaired. Designers are slowly moving towards making products inclusive for minorities too - but this conversation is far from being as widely discussed as with the physically impaired community. It is undeniable that inclusive design should be prioritised highly within the design community and steps in this sector are happening to make sure that inclusivity becomes a norm rather than an exception.
In general, when you design for accessibility you make products that are easier for everyone to use, not just for the disabled. This ultimately leads to a stronger UX, it’s also much stronger from a moral standpoint and thus works in favor of a companies credibility.
The product must deliver value to the business and to the customer. This value factor is the sum of all of the previous steps we’ve mentioned. Where one step is more important to one customer - another step will be prioritized for someone else. Desirability might be more valuable for person A but will not necessarily be the same for person B.
Think about it like this - let’s say that you have 2 televisions. Person A might really enjoy that the television is super thin, sleek and minimal, that the brand is recognised and is overall desirable. Person B might also want a desirable product but due to accessibility reasons will opt for a television that has options to make the text on screen bigger or the volume higher, prioritising a wider range of accessible controls over the minimalistic aspects of the product.
These 7 principles are not to be confused with the 12 laws of UX which were created by Jon Yablonski and also detail a collection of maxims and principles that designers should consider when building user interfaces. Instead of detailing the different facets in digestible bites as in the honeycomb method, the 12 laws is a run-through of how users generally interact with products and give immense insight into the general psychology of users.
5. UX vs Graphic Design vs UI
There’s a lot of titles floating around the design world - but we assure you these 3 are far from the same thing. Let’s break down what these 3 roles would do when building one product together. Let’s use the example of building a food delivery app.
In the process of building this app the UX Designer, UI Designer and Graphic Designer would take on very different roles even though all 3 are design based.
The UX Designer would research the audience. They would gather information on what the user's needs are, how to best meet these needs and how competing applications are going about filling this space in the market. They would also uncover problems through this research and work out the best way to create the most usable interface, in a way that is both intuitive and fills the needs of the user.
The Graphic Designer would work on the branding of the application - creating assets that would create the identity of the product, this could be anything from the logo to the colours and font types etc.
The UI Designer would work on all of the touchpoints of the app, this would include the buttons, how the screens transition, dropdowns and ensure that the experience is pleasurable for the user.
Here’s a more in depth look:
The Role of a UX Designer
UX design differs from both UI and graphic design in that its focus is less on the aesthetic elements of the product but more on the logic, structure, and functionality of the elements that you see and interact with. The crux of a UX designer’s work is on building wireframes, prototypes, site maps, and flows.
The UX design process serves as a framework that enables a designer to define the needs that a user has and works to meet them in the most optimal way. While a UX designer can seek to make this visually appealing in the process, the predominant focus is to make sure that the bones of the product are designed for an enjoyable user experience. If we take a look at the design thinking process we can get a clear overview of how a UX could design a product from start to finish. This is a clear and concise tool that can be reworked in a multitude of ways, that being said the empathizing stage must always happen first.
The Role of a Graphic Designer
Graphic designers have one of the best-known job titles in the world of design and tech. Closer to what most people expect from the term “designer”, Graphic Designers focus on the aesthetics of products such as print work and deliverables. These include posters, brochures, invitations, and business cards, and design assets for the web like logos and icons.
Another differentiating aspect for Graphic Designers is based on the programs that they use. These designers do most of their work in Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign, Corel Draw etc. and most recently Sketch. Graphic Designers don’t need any coding experience to use these softwares or do their job to a high degree.
The Role of a UI Designer
A User Interface designer can be seen as building upon and expanding on the Graphic Design role. The role relates to aesthetics, building desirable touchpoints, and maintaining cohesive branding.
The role of a UI designer pertains to the design of interactive elements of products and software. These elements include drop-down menus, form fields, clickable elements, animations, and button styling. UI designers also need to have a working understanding of coding and should transfer the brand's strength through the interface of the product. The position combines elements of programming, psychology, and digital design.
6. Examples of Good and Bad UX
Ever found yourself hitting the wrong button and then reaching for the manual, flipping through pages in a frenzy, trying to work out how to get the darn thing to stop doing what it’s doing? Or ever downloaded a new app, only to be very confused, finding yourself entering into a tech forum to find many other confused users? If you answered yes to either of these scenarios then you’ve been a victim of bad UX. Good UX should feel virtually invisible, it should make a product feel natural.
While there are a lot of reasons for bad UX none should be acceptable for your company, as good UX and UI can usually always be readily achieved. Bad UX can take the form of introducing intrusive features in order to persuade the user to take a certain action. While this may get the user to the end goal, forcing them into actions might alarm them or be construed as annoying. If the user has to dig deep to achieve what they want to achieve or gets lost in your user flow it’s a definite sign that the UX needs big improvements.
Here are 2 examples of some design flaws so you can see the potential frustrations users might go through and how they could have been avoided.
Bad UX Example 1: Looks Great!...What Does it do?
Ever searched a website only to find yourself wondering where to click on a landing page that’s just too smart for it’s own good?
If any product or software has you clicking all over the place, hitting random buttons or opening up another tab to work out how to use something - the UX has failed. Products should feel natural, make sense and feel pleasurable to handle.
If a product has that “wow” factor at first glance but leaves you feeling puzzled, they have still failed in terms of UX. In these scenarios, you’re not looking at good UX, you’re looking at style over substance. Good UX combines both and shouldn’t force style over the user’s needs.
Bad UX Example 2: Super Long Drop Downs
We’ve all done it - filling out a form to come to the “Nationality” bar and hit the drop-down into a sea of nationalities.
The UX of these menu bars can be absolutely awful, particularly when there is the added inconvenience of being from somewhere with multiple categories. If you’re from the UK your drop-down options can be divided into United Kingdom, Britain, and Great Britain, which makes the scrolling function problematic. It’s unnecessarily time-consuming for users and considering how easy the fix is, it’s a real nuisance.
The standard fix for this is to organize the countries based on natural divisions - like Europe or Asia or even better, to filter the dropdowns to only include countries within one continent at a time. Once they’ve decided their continent, the drop down should only show countries within that area.
And now for the GOOD UX, this is where it gets interesting:
Good UX Example 1: Duolingo’s Onboarding Process
Duolingo is a leading language learning platform. Their prime goal is to make learning a new language - a big task - a digestible, fun experience with no hassle involved. Their onboarding experience surpasses all other language learning apps. Why?
Because they break down the onboarding process into three easy questions, have users start straight away with no payment method, and a goal set for their learning from the get go. This frictionless approach is a world apart from many competitors and thus has won over many users as the process is both intuitive and enjoyable. Duolingo's user onboarding begins with the product and ends with optional account creation. As Duolingo themselves put it, “The experience is excellent for gradual engagement, an onboarding tactic that involves postponing registration for as long as possible - usually, until the moment when users must register in order to progress further.”
Good UX Example 2: Amazon Prime’s 1 Click Tool
Amazon Prime excels in delivery services - meeting and exceeding the needs of users internationally. The UX of their website is clear, concise, and empowers the user to carry out everything they want, creating efficiency through solving problems.
Amazon Prime features one-day delivery, free two-day shipping, film streaming, music streaming, and unlimited cloud storage amongst more. Much like having a personal assistant, Amazon Prime creates ease in so many valuable capacities.
By allowing users to purchase with 1 click - they have created a platform that exceeds and outperforms all competitors. The website feels intuitive and adding products to the cart is simple and easy. With 1-click shopping activated, all user flows are dramatically shortened. Customers can find what they need, click on it, and see the product on their doorstep 2 days later. That process puts a tremendous amount of power in the mind of the user, making the experience addictive.
7. How to start learning UX design
Now you know a little more about UX and it’s counterparts you might be interested to learn some more - especially if you want to venture in this direction as a potential career.
But what is the best way to start?
Whilst having a degree and experience in UX would be beneficial it’s definitely possible to build a strong portfolio through self-learning.
The most important first step on this journey is to pinpoint if UX is really what you want to be doing, or if you realistically feel you would be more successful in graphic design or UI. There are so many fields to choose from; so here’s a list of other design directions.
The next step is to become well-versed in the tools that are necessary to pursue a career in the field. The best way to do this is to look through job boards and see what requirements they have for a junior UX designer - and then download these programs and learn through free YouTube tutorials. There are a lot of skills that are frequently overlooked so make sure to cover these too. We can also highly recommend tons of great online courses for free.
Thirdly, build that portfolio. This is the best way to show your actual UX design abilities and skills. Here are our top tips:
- We suggest including 2–3 case studies that show the ins and outs of your projects. Keep in mind that a case study must contain descriptions of your train of thought and should include the below components:
- Desk research data (e.g. analysis of competition, market, public opinion surveys),
- Data from various types of user research (mostly guerilla research or surveys),
- User flows,
- Hand-drawn sketches,
- Clickable prototypes,
- Information architecture.
Preparing a portfolio takes time so use the act of making a portfolio as an exercise to learn UX - this way you can hit two birds with one stone.
Here are some helpful links:
And some other great free resources that we love.
And there you have it - everything you need to get on the UX bandwagon. Is it all worth it? We definitely think so! If you have any doubts about whether UX design is for you, invest your time in building a portfolio and see if it sparks your creative talent.