Beyond the Interface

The Layers Beneath the Visual

Mallory Haack
6 min readMar 7, 2018


Hey. You. Yeah you. The one reading this blog post. You’re looking at a screen, right? Probably a computer, maybe a phone or tablet if you fancy. You’re also probably sitting in a nice chair. Lounging on the couch even. Maybe you’re squished between a couple of old ladies on the bus or train? Riding in your Uber’s Toyota Prius? You’re out in the world, doing your thang, but there’s something you might not be noticing. Take a step back (figuratively, unless you’re one of those couch potatoes, then literally take a step…) and start to consider how much of the world around you has been purposefully designed.

Certainly there are some instances that are more visually obvious than others, like the colorfully catchy ads on the side of the bus, or the bakery’s seasonal window art. But keep looking!

Follow Rafiki he knows the way!

That couch cushion you’re lounging on? Designed to be a certain width and depth to keep you comfy for those long Netflix binge sessions.

The bus seat you squeezed into? Designed to be justttt barely wide enough to fit your butt in, and deliberately uncomfortable so you don’t stick around too long.

The roads you travel on a daily basis? Designed to flow a certain way for safety and efficiency.

A lot of these examples are so much a part of the world around us that they inconspicuously blend in. It’s only when the design is BAD that we all really take notice. A hefty principle that not only applies to the physical world, but — as many an experience designer can attest to — the digital as well.


UX vs UI

This is one of my favorite metaphorical images, and something I’m sure a lot of us have come across out there in the real world. A beautifully designed park, with intricate sidewalks geometrically criss-crossing throughout. And then THIS. Savage, rogue walkers taking a shortcut across the grass (see Desire Path on Reddit). Over and over and over again until nothing is left but ugly, brown, worn-down dirt.

So what went wrong?

It’s quite possible the designer of this sidewalk system didn’t do their research. Was there any observation of typical walking patterns? Do a majority of park patrons going this direction consistently travel to the left? Without working and researching to understand the full user experience, the intended design, while visually appealing, is no longer useful.

Again, this all applies to the digital world too! With any app, website, web app, program, or what-have-you, thinking about the experience as a whole rather than just slapping together a pretty design is the only way to ensure your users have… well, a good user experience. When we forget (or choose not) to take the time to understand our users, their behaviors, their expectations, and how all the pieces fit and flow together, we do a disservice to ourselves and our users, and end up with confusion, frustration, and a damn bad experience.

Let’s check out another metaphor! #metaphorsallday

This was something an instructor at the UX/UI bootcamp, DESIGNATION, once said to my class. You’ve got to think about the entirety of the design, the team, and the product like you think about a house. The development team are the foundation and the structure, without it there would literally be no house. The UI is the paint, the landscaping, and all the decor, making the house more visually appealing and a higher value. And UX is how it alllll works. Think electricity, plumbing, the heating and cooling systems, and how all the rooms and hallways and doorways fit together to make the most of the home.

So how do we do this? How can we “build this house” and ensure our users’ experience on the products we create are cohesive and enjoyable?

Stanford Design Thinking Process

Before we can make things pretty and polished, we’ve gotta know how it’s all going to work and fit together. Above, you’ll see the Stanford’s Design Thinking Process, and here we’ll explore those steps to best tackle an idea or problem.

The first stage is to EMPATHIZE. As designers, we have to understand what we’re trying to solve and think empathetically to get there. To do that, we observe and connect with people to understand their experiences and motivations, and immerse ourselves into the environment to have a deeper personal understanding of the issues. Empathy is crucial to the process and helps us set aside assumptions and gain insight into users and their needs.

Next, we’ve got to DEFINE it. So we’ve gathered loads of information in the Empathize stage, and now we have to compile all that good stuff, and analyze and synthesize it so we can define what the core problems we’ve identified are.

What now? Well, NOW we get to start pumping out ideas — aka the IDEATE stage. We’ve got a sense of the users wants and needs, we’ve defined the problem, and now we have to start thinking about the best way to solve it based on the information we’ve gathered.

And next we can PROTOTYPE. Now don’t get ahead of yourself and be too fancy here. These prototypes should be super quick and scaled down. The purpose of this phase is just to start laying out the framework of your ideas and then be able to quickly…

TEST. We’ve got a few ideas laid out, maybe in a paper prototype or a loose wireframe, and now we get to test them on some lucky folks. Are the ideas we’ve prototyped solving the problem we defined? Yes? No? Ehh? What should we do now?

The best thing about the Design Thinking Process, is that it can and totally should be iterative. So we’ve created a prototype and thought of new ideas? Let’s go back to the Ideate phase! Did the test enlighten us to a different, more pressing problem? We can redefine it! Or maybe we’re more able to empathize with our users through testing, which can take us back to the beginning.

When we cover all our bases and make sure to take time discovering as much as we can, we’re able to fully understand our users’ wants and needs. And by doing so, deliver a product that’s not only good-lookin, but provides a full, cohesive experience.

This short blurb of a post is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to user experience design. There are so many different roles, specialties, methods, use cases, and more to dive into, but alas, it takes too long to write a book. BUT there will be more to come from the #designteam here at Pandera Labs! We’re big nerds who are always working to improve our processes and keep things funky, so stay tuned. 🤓✌️😎

At Pandera Labs, we’re always exploring new ways to build products and iterate on our design processes, and we value sharing our findings with the broader community as our company and our technology evolve together. To reach out directly about the topic of this article or to discuss our offerings, visit us at



Mallory Haack

experience & visual designer /// designer @ Red Foundry in Chicago, IL /// instructor @ Designation /// previously Pandera Labs, Public Good, Ohio University