5 key phases to the user experience design process
Whether you are new to UX, run an in-house digital team, own an agency, or an employee to a company struggling with the modern digital world, getting a robust UX design process can seem like hard work.
The truth is there is not one solution that fits all. The process depends on the project. For example, the approach to a corporate website will differ from the way you would design a fast-fashion app.
“A user experience design process is an iterative method that helps you continuously improve your designs.”
There are principles in every section of the UX process that will be custom designed for each project. However, there are five key phases to follow in every process.
This is one of the most important phases in UX design. Before you can develop a product, you need to define the goals and values of the product.
This phase usually includes:
To define the goals, you need to start with a kick-off meeting that involves key stakeholders — designer, copywriter, UX specialist, developer, data analyst, project manager — it can typically last around 2–3 hours depending on the size of the project.
The kick-off meeting should be taken seriously. Defining a fixed set of goals and expectations keep the design and build on track throughout the entire UX process.
The outcome of the meeting should involve the following:
Keeping the focus on value
Creating value propositions will help the team form an agreement about what the key aspects of the product will be; what is the purpose of the product, what problem is it going to solve, who’s going to use it, when/where will it be used.
The story is usually 1 or 2 sentences that sum up the value you promise to deliver to your customers. Below is a list of great examples.
Uber — The smartest way to get around
Trello — Lets you work more collaboratively and get more done
Slack — Be more productive at work with less effort
Digit — Save money without thinking about it
Plans for reaching the goals
Based on the goals of the product that have been established, you can now start to think about how to accomplish them. I wouldn’t expect to develop a concrete plan during this phase, but you can begin to outline some key goals that will help you move efficiently into the research phase.
List of common goals to review:
- End goals (KPI’s) — the project’s objectives
- Prioritisation — organise a list of end goals
- Target users — discuss any data/research you have, including user behaviour, workflows, and frustrations.
- Information architecture — structuring the content of the website
- Content — the tone of voice
During the meeting, you will establish and define the purpose of the project, but one thing which often gets dismissed during this phase is timescales. It may seem very early to discuss timescales/deadlines but, it sets early expectations and helps everyone understand any constraints of the project from day one.
After the kick-off meeting, collate and structure all the notes while its fresh in your mind. Draft a summary of everything discussed and send this to all the professionals that were involved — regular communication is key.
The draft should include:
- The product story
- Goals, actions and deliverables that were agreed.
- List any decisions that remain outstanding.
- The identified target audience
- Any notes on the plan of action
Creating a quick mockup of what the team is looking to create can help to articulate ways to tackle the project from a design perspective. Sketching is an excellent way of communicating with the wider team and can eliminate any ideas that won’t work quickly and easily.
“Design solves a problem — to provide a solution, you first need to understand the problem.”
Once you have defined the purpose of the product, the next crucial phase is the product research — typically market and user research.
Market research is all about what people want — it is used to determine whether there will be demand for a product and provides a scope of what potential consumers want from it. Market research helps with the following:
- New product development
- Upgrading an existing product
- Understanding what people will buy, and who will buy it
- Centre consumers attitudes, and perceptions of a brand, or product
User research is a way to gain insights into user behaviours, needs and motivations — what is useful to people. It gets used when market research has discovered there is a demand for the product but needs narrower information on how it can be improved. User research helps with the following:
- Makes it more straightforward to solve differences of opinion
- Observing natural human behaviour, rather than alleged behaviour
- Provides the ‘why’ to attitudinal data
- Focus on how to enhance the user experience
“Empathy is at the heart of design. Without the understanding of what others see, feel, and experience, the design is a pointless task.” Tim Brown
The research phase is the most variable between products — projects vary based on complexity, deadlines, business requirements, resource and many other factors. However, good research can save a lot of time and money further down the design process.
This phase usually includes:
This involves looking into competitor products and comparing their current features. This type of research helps UX designers understand industry standards and identify opportunities to stand out.
Attitudinal vs Behavioural
Not only do UX designers want to know who their users are, but designers want to dive deeper into their needs, fears, motivations, and behaviour. It has become very apparent through studies that what people say they will do and what people actually do are very different.
- Attitudinal methods include surveys, focus groups, interviews, customer feedback and card sorting.
- Behavioural methods include web analytics, moderated usability testing, eye-tracking, A/B testing and click-stream analysis.
Quantitative vs Qualitative
Quantitative methods focus indirectly on the data (facts and numbers) that help UX designers understand the possible impact whereas, qualitative methods focus on the understanding of why or how to fix a problem.
- Quantitative methods include Google analytics, closed-ended surveys questions and click-streams.
- Qualitative methods include In-depth interviews, focus groups, observational research and open-ended survey questions.
The purpose of the analysis phase is to extract insights from the data collected during the research phase — it confirms the assumptions made in the first two phases are valid.
At this time, UX designers will begin to understand and organise learnings into categories of ‘what’ users want, think and need and then begin to understand the ‘why’ they want, thing and need that.
By entering this phase, we have some user research which can produce the following outputs:
A persona is a representation of different user types. It helps to create reliable and realistic descriptions of the key audience segments.
Experience maps help you sketch out the UX and determine any friction before designing the actual website or prototype. It is a visual representation that shows the user flow with a product/service.
When the user expectations/goals of the product are secured, and the business objectives are clear, you can move through to the design phase.
An effective design phase is highly collaborative with key stakeholders, in particular, content teams and developers. People don’t use digital products to interact with the interfaces; they have a purpose — consider the content early as it makes no sense to create something with low-value.
This is an iterative process, and UX designers should be looking to validate any assumptions. Early experimentation makes updates so much easier and helps teams work towards a seamless user experience.
The design phase usually includes:
This is the quickest way of visualising an array of ideas and solutions before deciding which one to run with. Sketches can easily be shared with stakeholders and developers to get early feedback from a business and technical perspective — it takes little time and resource to re-draw sketches and flesh out solid design solutions.
Creating wireframes is a low-cost, rapid iterative design technique that offers early design insights. It is a visual guide that focuses on functionality, behaviour, and the hierarchy of content — we create a blueprint for our website when we wireframe.
Wire-framing needs to be carried out by the whole project team — designer, copywriter, UX specialist, developer, project manager and the client. Many people don’t see the client as part of the team, but you should. Their involvement in wireframe creation is invaluable.
When we start to move beyond the structure and visual hierarchy of wireframes we can begin to demonstrate the site interactions by building low fidelity prototypes. A prototype shows how the site will be used, how the interaction features help navigation and the overall experience of the site.
Creating a prototype prevents assumptions being made and major decisions being overlooked — it raises a lot of questions and demands answers but later on, can be too late to make changes.
For some projects, testing the low fidelity prototype with real users can be extremely beneficial but, the timescales and business demands often deem this an unrealistic at this stage in the process. Testing a prototype is quick and efficient as it allows the designers to move rapidly through the improved iterations before finalising the graphical user interface designs.
Design specifications are detailed documents providing information about the product. During the handover, the designer must communicate how each element of the design looks, feels and functions to a developer.
Design specifications describe the process and design assets required to make a compelling product. They usually consist of:
- Introduction — outline of the product or problem it solves.
- Interface design details — colour, character styles, component measurements.
- Information — user flows, task flows and user behaviours.
Once you have created the high-fidelity designs it is critical to validate designs with stakeholders and test the designs on end-users through a series of user testing sessions.
Note: I haven’t used the word validate too much — user research should uncover many negatives and some positives. By putting emphasis on the word on ‘validation’ it suggests that you are simply looking for concrete proof and not looking to learn what doesn’t work.
Usability testing is the most significant thing we can do when designing a user interface or trying to improve the user experience. Shockingly, very few of us do this on a regular basis because they find an excuse for it — not enough time and too expensive for small projects.
User testing doesn’t need to be expensive or complicated. In fact, a lot of the information that you may think about user testing is not necessary when starting out. If you start doing some basic testing you will soon see the value, and that will prompt you to invest more time and energy into it.
There are many different testing techniques and some are used more than others. Each test has pros and cons, so a combination is often the best path to take. Below is a list of some of the most popular techniques:
A/B testing is a simple, basic method. It is carried out by testing design variations to a small segment of site visitors to get an insight into how the new design is performing in a live environment.
This is the most critical method of testing the product with real users — the key is not to test a lot of people, but do various cycles of testing. People see usability testing as expensive and time-consuming but I would dispute that done in a basic way it decreases costs and increases delivery. There are many ways to perform user tests, some of the most popular are usability testing, focus groups, a/b testing and surveys.
Data analysis can indicate how a user interacts with the product which can sometimes reveal the unexpected. What users say they will do and what they actually do are very often different and by using data we can see behaviours that are not influenced by a face-to-face testing environment.
Testing the product with the internal product team is a great low-cost validation technique. There are some arguments that this can lead to potential biases as employees are more familiar with the company than external participants.
It is important to understand there is not one solution that fits all but whether your UX process is basic or robust, the end goal is to create a product that delights your users. UX design isn’t a linear process and you should expect overlaps of each phase. For example, as the project develops you may discover new constraints that need further research.
I strongly believe communication is key in UX design. The silo mentality in the design process will prevent creating a coherent customer experience. Information needs to be communicated during every phase of the design process.
If you have any questions or would like advice on your design process, get in touch. I would love to help you overcome the frustrations you experience during the design process.