There’s gotta be a better way!

An Overview of the Field of UX Design

A few nights ago I was cringing while listening to my mom on the phone attempting to explain what UX design was to her sisters, after I gave my parent’s their first run down on the industry. Of course, as any design expert would guess, the resulting poor explanation was not the fault of my mom’s; I was to blame, a fault in the way that I had presented the information to her. Her experience in learning about UX design was obviously not very useful.

So, it’s time I give a better general overview of the field of UX (or User Experience) design — both for the sake of curious family members, and for you, reader, wherever you are.

There’s gotta be a better way!

Design itself is a broad field with many definitions. And much like the term, “design,” the sub-category “user-experience design” is just as broad, with no one agreed upon definition.

The Nielson Norman Group — pioneers in UX research, training, and consulting — state that user experience encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with a company, its services, and its products. In other words, a UX designer’s goal is to create the best possible experience for a user by improving the usability (quite literally the ability to figure out and use a product), accessibility, and pleasure of using that product [i]. At the end of the day, it’s all about what the user needs.

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A User Experience Example

The best way to explain UX is to do so by giving an example. Luckily, the options of giving an example are endless, as we are constantly acting as users for some sort of product or experience — from the daily items we use, to experiences such as eating a restaurant, to interacting with a business online. As a part-time vagabond, I make connections between good and bad user experiences as it relates to traveling in new places.

So let’s jump in:

Let’s pretend you’re on vacation, visiting Bangkok, Thailand for the first time. You’ve just landed at the airport and your goal is to get to your hotel using public transportation. Imagine what this experience of riding the subway might be like if it were really positive one…and then imagine what it might be like it were a very negative experience.

Whether or not you have a positive or negative experience using the subway is determined by a lot of factors: Can you figure out how to use it — get to your platform and on your train — despite this being your first time, and you not knowing the native language? Is it easy to learn how the subway works, based on visual clues or your past experience riding on other subway systems? Are their symbols that you understand that help tell you where you are, what time the next train is coming, which direction to go, and so on? Can you only use the information in front of you, what you observe, to know what to do next? What about the look and feel of the subway? Is it clean, well maintained, well-lit, handicap accessible? If you were to have a problem, is there someone or something to help you?

There are a lot of factors that determine whether or not your experience not only helps you accomplish your goal — getting to your hotel — but also is tolerable, or even enjoyable. [I remember the first time I rode the subway in Bangkok, and was impressed at how easy it was to figure out, based on the visual cues posted all over the terminal. My favorite visual clue were these small arrows on the floor, that directed passengers waiting to board the train where to stand, in order to be out of the way of citizens trying to get off the train when the car doors opened.] In the above example, it’s easy to see that we are having “user experiences” in nearly every aspect of our lives. However, in this context, a UX designer focuses on digital products and services, such as online services or mobile apps. A UX designer spends their time and effort empathizing with the end user, considering every detail of their interaction with the business, product, and service, in order to create a useful and positive experience.

Using public transpo: Same same but different

So what does a UX designer actually do?

The first task of a UX designer is to meet the goals of the customer, but quality user experience goes far beyond simply meeting the goals of the user and business in developing an experience that is simple, elegant, and produces joy. The process of a UX designer, therefore, is much more than the way that a product looks, but is extremely concerned with the personality, behavior, motivation, fears, and other attributes of the customer.

Every UX design process is different, but in general their work flow can break down as follows:

  1. Product planning and development — In short, this is the research phase that helps determine what the product/service is and what user and business goals it needs to accomplish
  2. Research and modeling — This phase is all about researching the user, determining who they are, what they care about, what they do in their day-to-day life, and so on
  3. Product development and prototyping — Next a UX designer takes and organizes their collected research and uses it to build and then test the product or service, using models and prototypes of the product
  4. Execution & Analysis — Even after a product has been created, constantly monitoring and analyzing user experience is important, to continue to build the most positive experience possible

As you can see, the process of a UX designer is long, multi-faceted, and often involves multiple teams and stakeholders in order to develop a good design.

Can you really design experiences?

Great question, and one debated by many UX design practitioners. Dan Makoski, VP of Design at CaptialOne argues that you can’t design experiences, but rather you can design for them[ii]. In Designing for the Digital Age, Kim Goodwin elaborates further, stating that the term experience design is “presumptuous; we can design every aspect of the environment to encourage an optimal experience, but since each person brings her own attitudes, behaviors, and perceptions to any situation, no designer can determine exactly what experience someone has.”[iii]

I’d have to agree with the above sentiments, and find myself more aligned with the phrase “human-centered design,” which puts the user at the center of the process, while avoiding making assumptions about the experiences and perceptions of the customer. However, for ease of industry standard, it’s acceptable to use the phrase UX design none-the-less.

To sum up:

  • UX design is the process of designing products that meet the needs of the user and business in a way that provides the simplest, most pleasant experience possible
  • As humans, we have user experiences with products and services all the time, every day. A UX designer, however, is typically involved with digital products and services, like designing an app on your smart phone or tablet
  • A UX designer’s process is not just concerned with how a product looks. The work-flow is multi-faceted, ranging from product development, to research, to prototype building and testing, to post-launch analytics

And there you have it! A general overview of the field of UX design. I look forward to more blog posts — and I hope you’re experience of reading along is a positive one. How meta!

[i] Nielsen, Jakob and Norman, Don. “The Definition of User Experience.” Nielson Norman Group. Accessed 12 January 2017.

[ii] Lanoe, Spencer. “What UX Design? 15 User Experience Experts Weigh In.” User Testing Blog, 16 September 2015. Accessed 13 January 2017.

[iii] Goodwin, Kim. Designing for the Digital Age. Indianapolis: Wiley Publishing, Inc. 2009. Print.