A brief introduction to UX Design for the curious minds

Doruk Demircioglu
Nov 6, 2020 · 10 min read

This essay will briefly introduce User Experience design, aiming to bring curiosity and extend the understanding through examples within various contexts. Co-design, design thinking, interaction design, accessibility & inclusion frameworks inform and guide UX designers when designing products and systems to solve problems.

UX and the World

Design practices are driven by nature, humans, economy and technology. Mixed (physical-digital) technologies suggest new contexts and new activities — embodied interactions and ubiquitous computing are popular examples. Rapid transformations of resource-dependent processes require solving problems of wider contexts: social, economic and natural inclusion. Human centred design aims to provide positive social impact, removing the differences of abilities introduced by the new technological contexts through accessibility and inclusion. Resilient societies of the future require collaborative work and sharing, considering the resources, social fabric and the natural context.

Integration of 17 SDGs across the biosphere, society and the economy. (Stockholm Resilience Centre, 2018)

Cyclic nature of design thinking is not only analogous to agile software development or recycling of materials. Participatory, nodal and cyclic design thinking learns from the resilient systems and nodal connections of the nature.

UX and Design Thinking

User experience designers often follow design thinking methodology for solving the problems of today’s world. The process starts with understanding (and feeling) the humans, context and the problem space. It continues with the exploration stage, involving a multitude of stakeholders from different domains to sketch (and prototype) possible solution pathways. The final step, materialisation is a repetitive, smaller loop of testing and implementation.

Design Thinking 101 (Sarah Gibbons, 2016)

The role of designers has become more decentralised, as the problems of humans became more complex and interconnected. Designers used to observe the world and the society from a higher level to observe and understand the problem, as problem solvers. They have decided what is necessary for the society with their deep knowledge in form, function, materials and psychology for being able to suggest solutions through products. However, as the contexts became multi-layered and the complexity is increased, and the role of the designer required problem seeking. Service design frameworks (e.g. stakeholder mapping) are common representations of such transition.

Further Reading

The stakeholder map: A conversation tool for designing people-led public services Fanny Giordano, Nicola Morelli, Amalia De Götzen, Judith Hunziker

Visual representation of “centralised, decentralised, distributed” (techcrunch.com, 2015)

Design thinking method consists of diverging-converging coupled steps, and it focuses on today’s problems in today’s conditions. Alternatively, Futures Thinking is a critical, speculative and continuously diverging approach. Founders may have a bias towards their preferable, and techno-futures, making it harder to think self-critically about the future. Alternative futures also differ in various contexts (e.g. different geolocations). This speculative approach, opens new pathways to think critically about dependency on products and technology in the future.

The Fourth Way: Design Thinking Meets Futures Thinking Anna Roumiantseva, 2020

Further Reading

Speculative Everything, Anthony Dunne & Fiona Raby

Critical About Critical and Speculative Design, Matt Ward

UX Designer as the Co-Designer

In 1970s, Norwegian Iron and Metalworkers Union members were asked about how they would like to work. The workers have collectively decided to work in smaller groups, instead of repetitive linear processes — an early example of participatory design, increasing collective happiness and productivity.

Co-design is also an important early step towards co-innovation (and eventually social innovation). “Designing for play” and “play for designing” practices are interesting examples to be inspired by, functioning on co-design frameworks.

Toca Boca Studio (digitalartsonline.co.uk, 2020)

Toca-Boca is a studio, designing and developing software for play. The play experience is co-designed with the children, in the presence of a physical play space embedded inside the studio.

LEGO Serious Play (Bricks4kidz, 2020)

Lego’s Serious Play Kit is an example of collaborative play for designing. The participatory play activity starts with visual abstraction exercises on every individual’s concept and continues with co-building more complex systems through collective imagination and continuous communication.

Further Reading

Design, When Everybody Designs, Ezio Manzini

Social Design Pathways, Winterhouse Institute

UX designer and the Design Professions

The term was first coined by Donald Norman in 1988 as “User Experience Architect” as product (systems) required a more contextual and social (architectural) approach. User experience designers bring knowledge from specific domains to inform interaction design process.

Obligatory “Venn diagram of inflation” in contemporary design fields (Dan Saffer, 2008)

Product designers focus on solving problems through innovative products (with purpose), through their knowledge on form, material and function. The interaction between user and the product is the subject of interaction designers. User Experience Designers bring contextual domain knowledge on interaction design — focusing on what is being delivered. Service Designers focus on how these experiences are delivered at an organisational level. Customer Experience looks at a person’s lifetime experience with a company (or organisation). Human-centred design (HCD) is an accessible and inclusive approach, that can be adopted by all the designers.

Carnegie Mellon Design, 2020

The inflation and variety of design professions are likely to increase as the problems get more complex, large and inter-connected. Context of the interactions expand towards the natural world. Transition Design is focusing on how the interactions change as the world (and nature) goes through rapid -and often critical- changes.

Interaction Design

Designers cannot design the user’s experience but can influence the possibilities of interactions. Each object and human pair have a multiplicity of interaction possibilities, “affordances” (James Gibson, 1967). These possibilities are not properties (nor qualities) of the artefact. They depend on who the person is, the skillset, context and the previous actions of the interacting human, or animal. Interaction designers create conceptual models using heuristics and principles to match the mental models of their users to form (and to produce) a prototype.

PACT framework helps analysing and understanding the problem space. People conduct activities in various contexts and these activities set the requirements for future interactions (and new contexts). Technologies suggest new opportunities (and solutions) by following these requirements.

PACT (J. M. Carroll, 2002)

Feature-rich “as seen on TV’ phone is designed for solving the problems of the phone-conversation; therefore, it is full of complex features. The product (artefact) sets the context, therefore this design is technology centred. However, BT Freestyle 7XX was designed to facilitate daily activities at home, considering a wider range of ages. Therefore, it is more accessible and has seen 20 percent increase in sales for a timespan of 10 years.

As-seen-on-TV phone (cyberbrands.com, 2020) & BT Freestyle 7XX — inclusivedesigntoolkit.com (2017, University of Cambridge)

Further Reading

About Face 3: The Essentials of Interaction Design, Alan Cooper

Accessibility and Inclusion

Disability is a mismatch between the abilities of the system and its user. Accessible design considers these mismatches as design problems and aims to provide equally meaningful experiences.

Inclusive design is about diversity, ensuring involvement of everyone through adaptive, unbiased and universal design — designing for all.

Permanent, Temporal, Situational mismatched human experiences (microsoft.com/design/inclusive, 2019)

The mismatches can be permanent, temporary and situational. Designing for 26 thousand individuals with a permanent arm loss, improves the experiences of 21 million users in the US, because they have temporary and situational mismatches. Currently, 15 percent of the population has some form of disability. The ageing population will continue to drive accessible and neuro diverse solutions.

United States Census Bureau, Limbs for Life Foundation, Amputee Coalition, MedicineHealth.com, CDC.gov, Disability Statistics Center at the UCSF (microsoft.com/design/inclusive, 2019)

Accessibility guidelines help designers, engineers and content creators to create accessible experiences. Accessibility and Inclusion are not only good practices, but they also improve experiences at scale and drive successful business results.

Further Reading

WCAG Compliance Checklist, the A11Y Project

Accessibility, Usability, and Inclusion, W3C


Mismatch, Kat Holmes

Mobile Testing, www.accessibilityoz.com

Mobile Accessibility: Testing native apps and mobile sites for accessibility, Gian Wild at UX Australia 2020

Precedents: UX & Design Thinking

1. Emphatise

Ageing suit is an interesting example of empathy in design thinking process. An ageing suit is designed to experience the future context — what will the experience of the user will be like after 40 years.

Two visual stories on possible futures (as in ageing) of an individual in the modern society

The suit limits body movements, vision, hearing and adds extra weight to simulate the experience. AGNES is developed by MIT AgeLab to understand the needs of the ageing population. Ageing suits are also used to inform service design processes in different contexts, as in Seattle-Tacoma International airport and Genworth’s suit.

Aging and you (Genworth, 2020), Ageing simulation at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (Harriet Baskas, 2016), AGNES (MIT AGELAB, 2019)

Further Reading

7 Principles of Universal Design

2. Re-Define: Research

Conducting field studies in the user’s context help designers learn the unexpected. Scaling the research can feel like becoming a decathlon athlete, after many years of running as a sprinter — a design sprinter. Mixed methods put the problem at the centre and integrate qualitative and quantitative methods.

Azraq refugee camp (J. Merriman, 2018)

DuoLingo’s (a gamified language learning application) initial intention to entertain tourists through language teaching has changed. Once the analytics have shown that the migrants were using the application for self-empowerment through language, the team has decided to conduct field studies. These field studies have informed the DuoLingo application and helped developing relevant features considering the actual use cases.

Further Reading

Mixed Methods: A short guide to applied mixed methods research, Sam Ladner

Just Enough Research, Erika Hall

3. Ideation & Prototyping

Ideation aims to create questions and abstract themes from tangible real-world problems. Affinity maps and “how might we” statements are open-ended cues for designers and developers with meaningful limitations.

Another obligatory visual: Affinity diagrams (uxdict.io, 2018)

Rapid growth of digital tools has facilitated digital prototyping processes. Although digital prototyping is very common, testing different materials, mediums and enactment practices are inspiring new experiences — including digital experiences.

Nintendo Labo is a foldable cardboard attachment to an electronic gaming system, turning Nintendo Switch platform into new artefacts, such as a functioning piano or a fishing rod. The creations were developed during cardboard prototyping sessions and the team has decided to go with the prototyping material for the final product.

Nintendo Labo (nintendo.co.uk, 2020)

Further Reading

A Practical Guide to Information Architecture, Donna Spencer

Design. Think. Make. Break. Repeat.: A Handbook of Methods, Jessica Frawley & Martin Tomitsch

4. Usability Testing

Think-Aloud protocol involves participants “simply” thinking aloud while performing tasks. Recruiting a diverse range of usability testers help finding out usability issues early on. In this testing session the user is asked to order multiple pizzas, using a coupon. In this case, tracking the mouse movements or gaze through digital tools would limit the learnings.

Example: Remote Usability Testing, based on a scenario


Further Reading

Rapid Contextual Design: A How-To Guide to Key Techniques for User-Centered Design, Karen Holtzblatt, Jessamyn Burns Wendell, Shelley Wood

UX Maturity

Becoming a completely user-driven organisation takes many years of building UX know-how. Design-driven startups prefer to onboard UX designers early on, as well as dedicating a budget for testing and research. Larger organisations may prefer the acquisition track, to onboard an established user-driven process. Having an established user-centred design culture provide open pathways for design-driven businesses.

Average time to reach UX maturity (G. Drahun, 2015 — based on J. Nielsen, 2006)

Business value of UX

User experience is an important measure of business success. Behavioural and attitudinal measurements provide a deeper understanding of the interactions and the context. HEART framework developed by Google is an example of advancing (scaling) from meaningful experiences to qualitative measurements.

McKinsey & Company has developed a Design Index, to analyse how design-driven companies perform. Revenue and total return to shareholders were improved by a 30 percent on average across various fields. However, designers made the biggest impact where onboarding UX designers were not common — medical technology.

Business Value of Design (McKinsey Quarterly, 2020)

Further Reading

The business value of design, McKinsey Quarterly

UX Communities

Working with UX may also mean being part of a global community of designers. IxDA, Interaction Design Association, and uxpa are two international organisations, hosting meetups, conferences through their local branches. I found them to be quite welcoming and curious about non-designers as well — I would highly recommend getting in touch with them.

IxDA: The interaction design association

UXPA: User Experience Professionals Association

Special thanks to Joe Ortenzi (IxDA Sydney) for his recommendations on curating content for founders and accessibility & inclusion.

Reading lists for a practical learning of UX

Doruk Demircioglu is a Senior UX Designer at Antler.

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