What is UX Design?

There are some very technical definitions of what UX design is. But simply put, UX design is what it feels like to use a product, system or service.

Great UX design consists of two aspects that both need to be met.

First and foremost, UX is a problem-solving discipline. A UX designer identifies user problems and builds software to help solve them.

However, it isn’t just about solving a problem at any cost and calling it a day. Good UX design also generates positive emotions in the process.

Specifically, good UX ensures users feel in control, are confident and trust the software.  Conversely, bad UX is when a user feels like they have little control, no confidence or trust in the software and thus the company.

Negative emotions as a result of bad user experience also have a multiplier effect. People notice bad design more than good design, even just one mistake.

We can all point to software, whether it be a website or phone app, that works and lets us achieve what we set out to do but is frustrating to use.

Which leads me too…

It’s All in the Details

Let me ask you a question?

Are you an “It’s all in the details” sort of person, or a “Big picture thinker”?

While both are important in life and business, in UX design we are more concerned with the small details.

This is the point when someone usually says something along the lines of, “Come on, how important can an animated or loading notification (visual feedback), well-crafted error message or hint text (microcopy), or space between elements (whitespace) really be?”

Perhaps in isolation they may not seem all that important. They may even seem trivial or mundane. But when added together they do two very important things:

  • Determine the overall experience of using the software
  • Solve problems

Any company that is serious about creating great products and software doesn’t leave any of these details to chance and makes no assumptions about what works best.

Great UX design doesn’t happen by accident. It’s deliberate and there is focus on the small details that matter and contribute to the overall experience.

Why Experience Matters

If you’re operating in a competitive commoditized industry, great UX design is paramount. The likelihood of success is often down to delivering a better user experience than your competitors.

What about if you have a truly innovative product?

The most innovative product doesn’t always win either. First mover advantage by no means guarantees success – certainly not in the long term.

Before the iPod there was the Archos Jukebox and Cowon iAudio, and before Facebook there was Myspace and Friendster.

Excellent UX design may not have been the only thing that made the iPod the best-selling portable media player in history, or Facebook the largest social network, but they certainly wouldn’t have had such major success without it.

Archos Jukebox vs iPod demonstrates bad UX design vs. great UX
The Archos Jukebox never stood a chance against the iPod

OK, so UX matters. What about other aspects of design?

There are 3 elements of design:

Functional Design: What the software is designed to do – i.e. how it functions

Visual Design: What the software looks like and says about the brand and its personality – i.e. it’s visual appeal

Experience Design: What it feels like to use the software – i.e. what the experience is like

Great products and software need all 3 types of design.

Here’s the kicker, though. You can likely get away with less than stellar functional and visual design. On their own, even if perfected, they aren’t enough. If the UX isn’t right they won’t even matter because when the experience is so bad, there is nothing left to admire in the functional or visual design.

If you, your team or organization relies on functional and visual design alone, you are being exposed to a risk of failure.

Your Users Expect Good UX

I have a quick exercise for you.

Take a moment, look around and tell me what you see?

This isn’t my attempt to remind you of the importance of mindfulness. What I mean is take a moment, look around and tell me what products and software people are engaging with.

You won’t have to look far to see that almost every single person, every single day is interacting with a product or software designed by Facebook, Apple or Google.

No wonder these three companies alone have a market cap into the trillions or are close to getting there.

It is precisely due to these behemoths why UX has taken frontstage in recent years. These companies have set the bar so high when it comes to what users consider good design.

This is now what your users expect of you.

I’ll say it again because it’s so important to grasp, and repetition is the mother of all learning:

This is now what your users expect of you.

It may not seem fair when you consider you are unlikely to have anywhere close to the resources or budget they do.


But the good news is that UX isn’t about who can throw the most money or dedicate the most resources because…

UX is a State of Mind

Take a look at a few of the biggest tech companies and you will see that they have all had their fair share of failures.

Apple had the Apple III, MessagePad and Pippin.

Google had the Google Wave, Google Plus and Google Glass.

Amazon had the Amazon Fire, Amazon Wallet and Amazon Destinations.

Microsoft had Windows Vista, Clippy and Bob.

These are only a few that spring to mind with each company having their number of failures running into at least the teens.

For some, the mere sight of Clippy is enough to trigger PTSD

Again, we can’t claim that UX design was the only reason for failure (when Bob is the best name you can come up not even great UX design may be enough to save it!). UX design is not a panacea. But it certainly played a large part in many of them.

Despite all the money and resources at their disposal, these products and software all failed.

If they failed what hope do the rest of us have?

Well, quite a lot as it happens, because UX is a state of mind that encompasses two things:

  • Empathy – Observe users closely to understand what matters to them
  • Focus on the Details – Tweak, improve and experiment with the product to get the details right

Is it really that simple?

Yes, it is that simple – and there’s even a process that you can follow to increase the likelihood of success. It’s not quite as straightforward as paint by numbers. But follow the process and you can’t go far wrong.

It’s about spending time considering the little details, understanding what little details matter to your users and understanding how you can design them.

UX is a Process

UX design is fundamentally a four-step process.

Research -> Design -> Build -> Test

In reality though, it is more refined.

Understand -> Research -> Analysis -> Design -> Prototype -> Test -> Build -> Evaluate

Remember that the process is iterative and may take a few cycles before we’re happy that our design really works.

We may find ourselves in the design, prototype and test stages for longer than anticipated before we are satisfied that the problems have been solved and before going through the trouble and expense of building our solution.

1. Understand

First, we need to understand and keep sight of what’s best for the business, its users and product, making sure everything is in alignment. Without this understanding it’s impossible to have a clear strategy.

To gain a better understanding of these components, the following may take place:

2. Research

Research is where we try to understand the problems we’re trying to solve. The focus is on obtaining quantitative, qualitative, attitudinal and behavioral data.

Research may involve:

3. Analysis

Once research is conducted, we gather the data and then analyze it to define the precise problem or sets of problems to be solved.

Analysis may involve:

4 & 5. Design & Prototype

The design stage is where we solve the problem by designing a solution.

Designs start out as low fidelity so we can iterate quickly as we obtain feedback from stakeholders.

Once we are satisfied with our proposed solution a high-fidelity interactive prototype is created.

Building out an interactive prototype that resembles the final design in terms of visual details and functionality as closely as possible may sound time consuming. But not a single lick of code has to be written, avoiding the much more laborious and expensive task of coding it out before being able to present and test it with users.

The Design & Prototype stage involves:

  • User Flow
  • Sketching
  • Wireframes
  • Mockups
  • Sitemaps
  • Interactive Prototype

6. Test

The prototype is tested with users to see that it solves the problems. This involves largely the same methods used in the research stage.

This stage is often referred to “Validate.” However, the term validate brings to mind that we know our proposed solution works and we just want to confirm that it does, which can impact a stakeholder’s and user’s mindset. “Test” is therefore a better term to use.

This may involve:

  • Usability Test
  • Interviews
  • A/B Testing
  • Surveys & Questionnaires

7 & 8. Build & Evaluate

Once we are satisfied our proposed solution solves the problems, we can move onto building it.

We’re not done quite yet, though. Now that our product has been built and released into the wild, we need to evaluate its performance through the following:

  • Usability Test
  • Track Metrics
  • Review Metrics

Phew! Okay, so, now we’re done, right?

Well, not quite.

Our users’ needs and the needs of the business are continually evolving. So, the work of a UX designer is never really “done”.

Why Follow the UX Process?

Besides the main benefit of UX design minimizing risk and increasing the likelihood of product success, there are a few other fringe benefits that make the product development process so much smoother.

  • A Clear Vision: The UX process ensures that the vision is clear and the product is visualized in high-fidelity. Everyone knows what they are building and what the product will look like.
  • Ideal for Software Development: In the world of software development where software is invisible until it is finished, no longer will everyone have a different idea of what is actually being built. Stakeholders will be on the same page.
  • Iterate Ideas Cheaply: It is much cheaper to change things during the design stage than when building has begun.
  • The 3 Success Factors: The 3 most important success factors of a product are naturally taken into account throughout the process: product desirability, viability and feasibility.

UX and Agile

Every UX designer has been met with something to the effect of, “UX design sounds great. I’m sold. The only issue is that this sounds like a very time-consuming process. Is there a faster way?”

That’s a fair statement.

The process can be very time-consuming. A lot can happen during the process, especially in the tech world. We could run out of money, a new boss comes in and decides to cancel the product, or a competitor comes to market shortly before we go live, forcing us to adjust strategy.

What’s the solution?

Some claim that time can be saved by getting the software in front of users and modifying it as we go along according to the feedback received – i.e. skipping the design process.

This isn’t it. It’s a false economy.

The only thing you’ll learn by putting badly designed software in front of users is that users don’t like badly designed software.

Okay, so what then is the actual solution? How can we release in 3 months or even in a 2-week sprint cycle?

The answer is that we change the focus.

We still identify problems, work to solve them, build prototypes and test. The difference is that instead of trying to solve everything in one cycle, we solve smaller elements – i.e. we break down the bigger problems into smaller problems and solve them piece by piece.

The UX process doesn’t change but the focus does. We focus on continuous iteration.