Thinking like a UX designer

As Simple Focus re-commits to its focus on being a user experience practice, Creative Director John Mears and I worked up a short presentation for the web designers, illustrators, and UI specialists on our team who may not consider themselves “UX designers.”

(The talk also applied to our developers, but I’ve edited this post to focus solely on designers for the sake of simplicity.)

While every project we take on may not be exclusively a UX project, everything we do at Simple Focus is in service of excellent user experience. To drive that point home, we laid out the five most important traits of a UX designer and included actionable items for every designer to apply to their work.

A UX designer considers the user.

Before opening Sketch, CodePen, or even picking up a pencil, a UX designer learns about the user.

  • What are their goals?
  • What are their limitations?
  • What’s familiar to them, and what’s foreign?

This information is vital throughout the project. It informs every decision and should be referred back to in every review. Moreover, these questions are just as useful at a macro level (when starting the project) as they are at a micro level (when developing individual screens).

At the beginning of a project, ask for data about your client’s users. If they don’t have any, lobby to do the research yourself. Create personas or find another way of internalizing this information.

A UX designer thinks in flows, not screens.

Most websites, even if they’re not apps, have goals for their users. They want to convert buyers, or drive newsletter sign-ups, or receive quote requests.

Rather than designing one page at a time, a UX designer should think in flows. They should guide the user through thoughtfully designed funnels. They should consider every step of each process.

Flows produce results. When designing them, you can measure success with real data – how many clicks did it take the user to find the contact page? What percentage bounced before they completed a multi-step cart process?

When data drives design decisions, outcomes are less subjective.

As you move through a project, figure out what data will be needed to validate your design decisions. It will be required for usability testing and proofs-of-concept.

A UX designer nails the fundamentals.

In order to be able to focus on experience design, a UX designer nails the fundamentals of screen design first. In other words, they focus on the quality of the cake before they worry about the cleverness of the icing. A good cake with no icing is better than a bad cake with good icing.

This is where the importance of a pattern library comes in. Often rather than designing full pages at a fixed size, a UX designer will build atomically and create a design system that is flexible, accessible, and scalable.

Clients won’t trust you to do the fun stuff if they don’t trust you to do the boring stuff perfectly. Rely on clear, time-tested design patterns rather than trying to reinvent the wheel.

A UX designer tests their solutions.

A solution without testing is just a hypothesis. Usability testing is the only way to validate your understanding of the user, the efficiency of your flows, and the effectiveness of your design system.

You might think that calling out the contact button with a solid background makes it more obvious, but what if it actually causes the user to ignore it? You don’t know until you test.

Lobby for testing hours during the project definition phase. If you can’t get any, do informal tests on project outsiders: your colleagues, your parents, your mailman. To avoid budget disasters, don’t just test at the end of projects; create and present proofs-of-concept to your client throughout.

A UX designer is always learning.

There are few absolute rights in UX design, but there are some absolute wrongs. A UX designer avoids those pitfalls and keeps up-to-date on what others are doing to solve the web’s most common problems.

Web and app design are still in their young, “wild west” phase. The context is always changing, so a UX designer must evolve as well.

Make reading UX-related content and theory part of your job. Studying other designers’ solutions makes you a better designer.