Beginners Guide to User Experience Design

“The user experience development process is about ensuring that no aspect of users’ experience with a product happens without your conscious, explicit intent. This means taking into account every possibility of every action the user is likely to take and understanding the user’s expectations at every step of the way through that process.”
J.J. Garrett, Elements of User Experience

Overview

The role of the User Experience Designer (UX) is still unclear to many. Although the processes and methods used by UX designers have been in place since the industrial revolution and heavily associated with industrial/product design, nowadays, when people use the term UX, they’re usually referring to one’s experience with a digital product or service.

A common source of confusion is in what differentiates UX design from graphic or UI design. Whereas UI design is primarily concerned with aesthetics and visual design, UX design prioritises functional efficiency.

The key role of UX Designers is to match business objectives with user needs as harmoniously as possible, ensuring interactions with a product or service is simple, satisfying and, most importantly, intuitive.

Although UX Design is a recent term, it has its roots in the traditions of industrial and process design.

A Brief History

In the early 1900s, the engineer Frederick W. Taylor published “Principles of Scientific Management” in which he laid out his views on principles of scientific management, or industrial-era organisation and decision theory — the most influential management book of the twentieth century. The main goal of his theory was to standardise the processes, adoption of the best implements available and best working conditions, and cooperation to achieve greater and faster results. For example, by observing workers, he decided that labour should include rest breaks so that the worker had time to recover from fatigue, either physical or mental. Workers were given more rest breaks during working day, and productivity increased as a result. What happened, was that Taylor identified a problem (low efficiency, low productivity) and by observation and research he came to a solution (increase rest periods), which resulted in increased productivity.

This approach was further developed by Japanese engineers and the founders of Toyota who not only observed, but also started gathering feedback from their employees and customers. This exercise created an even more productive work environment and allowed early identification of problems with the current system which could then be addressed immediately.

Around the same time, New Yorker and industrial engineer Henry Dreyfuss published “Designing for People”. In his book, Henry Dreyfuss wrote:

“When the point of contact between the product and the people becomes a point of friction, then the [designer] has failed. On the other hand, if people are made safer, more comfortable, more eager to purchase, more efficient — or just plain happier — by contact with the product, then the designer has succeeded.”
First GUI on Xerox Alto computer

The 70s saw the advent of the personal computer, mouse devices and commercially available Graphical User Interface (GUI). A whole new set of human-computer interactions was waiting to be discovered and people started research into what we describe nowadays as “cognitive science”, a study of mental actions or the process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses.

The term “User Experience” was brought to a wider audience by Donald Norman in mid-1990s. In his book, “The Design of Everyday Things”, he uses the term “user-centered design” to describe design based on the needs of the user, leaving aside what he deems secondary issues like aesthetics, for example.

In 2002, J.J. Garrett published “The Elements of User Experience” in which he describes the UX design process from start to finish. He divides the design process into 5 stages (Strategy, Scope, Structure, Skeleton and Surface):

The Strategy (product objectives and user needs)

The foundation of successful product design is a clearly articulated strategy. Knowing what we want the product to accomplish for us, as an organisation, and what we want the product to do for the end users is probably the most crucial to product design. To do so, we first have to answer two very basic questions:

  1. What do we want to get out of the product?
  2. What does our user want to get out of it?

Some techniques and methods to help you answer these question are:

  • stakeholders interviews (e.g. business goals, KPIs)
  • quantitative and qualitative user research (e.g. personas, user goals)
Sample Proto Personas

The Scope

Once we know who for and why we are designing the product, we can now focus on functional specifications (a set of features which help end users achieve their goals) and content requirements (copy, images, technology limitations etc.).

Methods of achieving this:

  • qualitative user research (e.g. one-to-one interviews, flow maps, user journey)
  • competitors/comparators analysis
  • SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses Opportunities, Threats) analysis

The Structure

This is the next level up from the scope stage where we develop a conceptual structure for the product. We think of designing for rough grouping of the information and possible interactions.

Methods of implementation:

  • prototypes
  • user testing
  • flowchart

The Skeleton

Defines how we should arrange the content within the given space in more detail. We refine the structure to make the elements like navigation, interface or information design more concrete.

Types of deliverables:

  • card sorting
  • wireframing
Mapped out User Flow/Journey

The Surface

Where the product gets a visual makeover. This is the final stage of product development where we would focus on visual design or the look of the finished product.

  • visual/branded design
  • more user testing (in case there were any iteration to design)
  • style guides
Sample snippet of Style Guide

Planning your project

One very important thing to remember is that all elements must work together and no decision should be set in stone. Also, plan your projects so that work on any stage cannot finish before work on a lower stage has finished, let the stage overlap, don’t take the approach of having to 100% complete one stage before moving on to the next.

By all means, this is not the only user experience design process. There are others available, all as good as this one, and it is entirely up to you and your team which one to follow. I personally use Garrett’s ‘planes’ as a general guideline and mix it with other processes to suit my needs. As long as you research, evaluate and validate your ideas you will be on the right path.

Roles within the UX team

This brings us to different roles within UX teams. It would be almost impossible (although doable if no time restrictions were in place) for one person to singularly manage the user experience part of product development. We can define the following roles with the UX team:

  • user researcher (focuses on understanding user behaviors, needs, and motivations through observation techniques, task analysis, and other feedback methodologies),
  • information architect (focuses on understanding the language users are familiar with and organising content it into logical groups based on research and feedback gathered from usability testing or card sorting exercises),
  • interaction designer (during this process, designers focus on creating engaging web interfaces with logical and thought out behaviors and actions to help users perform tasks),
  • visual designer (they’re the ones who add colors, pair typefaces, and set layouts).

Summary

As you can see, even though user experience design has changed over the last 100 years, there has always been one thing in common — decision making based on observation and research without letting ego drive your design choices. The motives have definitely changed since Henry Ford or F. Taylor. All they wanted, was more productivity and cared less about the needs of their workers but, as time passed, our approach has changed; more and more we started focusing on human needs.

So it is safe to say that UX is a Human-Centred design process which focuses on meeting needs of an end user by designing a product that solves a problem and makes interaction with it enjoyable.

I hope this article will give you a better idea of what User Experience Design is and how it can be useful to a product development process.