# UX Design Guide
UX design is the practice of bringing people into your design process. Here we look at how it works, with an emphasis on the role of UX research.
# UX Design Defined
UX design is about making digital products, be it apps, websites, or other digital experiences. What's different is the process. Instead of working in a vacuum, teams involve the people who will use the digital product (the users of "UX" or "user experience") in their design process. As we shall see, UX design goes beyond process to encompass a series of practices that can aid the process of getting into other people's heads.
If you're new to UX or want to brush up on some basics, this guide is for you. Our goal is to show the various roles that research can play in the context of UX design, helping you advance your UX design agenda. UX design is a vast topic, so near the end, we'll suggest some further reading for you and your team to go deeper.
# UX Design in Antiquity
We all know what it's like to go from having a perfectly good day to having an episode of computer rage. In the early days of computing, we solved these problems with "manuals"—massive codices filled with cryptic instructions for using the computer properly. We put the burden on the user to RTFM.
As the industry evolved, smarter heads prevailed, suggesting programmers pay more attention to users, with the goal of decreased support costs and selling more units. Much of the guiding force behind UX design has been around a long time, and many of the techniques developed decades ago by our ancestors are still relevant today.
# Modern UX Design
Today UX design is a whole discipline with many job roles. You can be a UX designer, a UX strategist, or a UX researcher. Realistically, you're likely to do a little of everything, depending on your organization.
Although most teams aspire to do UX design, it's always a moving target, even for the most evolved organizations. The process of building digital products that are "good" (defined however you like—meeting business goals, making people's lives better) is hard. Because of the difficulty (market pressures, programmers who refuse to collaborate properly) it's tempting to cut corners, and often the first thing to go is (you guessed it) UX design.
The reality of UX design is that it's a moving target. Because of this, UX design is best thought of as something teams strive to accomplish. It's a set of practices (a set of tools and techniques) for doing the process.
# UX Design Processes
The UX design process has roughly five sequential steps. In practice, these steps often bleed into one another, but the gist is always the same: gather your info, figure out how it fits together, start roughing out what you can build, test it, and repeat. At every step, opportunities emerge to bring feedback from people into the process, not just during testing. We'll highlight how that can happen along the way.
# 1. Analyze Needs
Ultimately when you're building something, it's about understanding who it is for and what needs it might address. Wrapping your head around this can be challenging. The community has developed a handful of practices to help. These are things like UX strategy, personas, journey maps, and stakeholder interviews.
# 2. Group Concepts
Some teams like to group concepts using walls of Post-Its. Others prefer to document things in more formal flows for more of an information architecture-oriented approach. Whatever your preference, your goal is to think through how your arrangement will meet your users' needs, perhaps as documented through your work in step 1.
# 3. Prototype
You're ready to start building (not developing!) your UI. Here tools like InVision and Figma come into play, making it easy to draw how a UI will look and function. You'll want to think through the context of the experience. Is it for the web or an app for a touch device? Again, how will it help people accomplish their goals?
# 4. Test
With a prototype in hand, you can finally put it in front of people in a user test. Where do they get stuck? What questions do they have about how it works? Do they even understand what it is? The beauty of modern prototyping tools and practices is that you can perform user tests right on the prototypes, eliminating the need to write any code to get feedback.
# 5. Iterate
After you test, what you need to fix and redesign will come into focus. It's time to iterate, which means repeat the steps. Sometimes you're going to want to return and revise items in step 1, but you'll often be looking to make changes to things in phases 2 and 3. When you've made changes, repeat until you feel that you're as close to your goal as your schedule and budget will permit.
# When to Involve Developers
The whole UX design process is collaborative. Each step involves bringing teams together virtually or in-person to brainstorm, strategize, and have friendly disputes about how best to proceed. But what about those pesky developers? What's their role on the UX design team?
If it's not apparent already: let's be clear about another thing UX design is all about. Sure it's about users. But let's not forget that it's also about keeping costs low while you figure stuff out. To put it another way: it's about not engaging expensive developer time too early only to discover that you need to redo everything. That's how startups and products fail!
We're not saying that a developer shouldn't be part of your UX design team. But the work that developers do is different from what UX designers do. Have empathy for the developers. The work that they do is hard. The better your UX design, the easier time they'll have implementing it.
# UX Design Practices
Within each process stage, there is a set of practices that help meet UX design goals. Let's break down the first step: analyzing needs. Needs analysis can encompass practices like producing user personas or mapping customer journeys. Let's look into the wide variety of UX design practices and how each, when relevant, can bring users into the process.
# UX Strategy
We like to think about UX strategy as what you do before UX design. Here you can learn about the competitive landscape and market gaps. Research can help with the sometimes tricky task of charting a strategy's direction.
# Research to Support UX Strategy
UX strategy research can be broad or narrow in scope.
- A competitive user test is a great way to inform UX strategy. With a competitive test, you can tease out which aspects of a competitor's UX are strongest, giving you a solid foundation for innovation.
- User tests on mockups are a great option to validate a UX strategy hypothesis.
Learn more about each of these options in our UX strategy guide.
When you create personas, what you're doing is imagining what it is like to be someone else—the person you're building your product for. These get documented in the form of brief narratives describing a person, sometimes along with a picture. The goal is to get your team thinking deeply about their fellow humans and what their lives might be like.
# Research to Support Personas
Any research you can do will make your personas better. Surveys can help but should go beyond simple demographic descriptions of people. Old categories like age and gender don't provide a rich enough portrait of who people are. Whatever you can do to capture and document feelings and behaviors will make your personas more realistic and give your team a solid footing.
# Journey Mapping
Journey mapping is the process of fully imagining the kinds of steps or flows people go through on their journey toward a goal. The more we know about this journey, the better we can build products and services that fill unmet needs or smooth over pain points.
# Research to Support Journey Mapping
Tools like SoundingBox make it possible to create a customer journey study that will let you observe how people explore for a product or service like yours online. Participants will share their thought process as they go from site to site, forming impressions.
# Information Architecture and Wireframes
Information architecture (IA) is the practice of organizing and labeling user interfaces. A key concept of IA is to produce lightweight documentation of UIs in the form of wireframes (layouts and labels without visual design). The idea is that the organization and labeling of UIs are what matters most.
SHOULD YOU WIREFRAME?
Because of the rise of powerful prototyping tools like Figma, InVision, or Axure, it's now much easier to create high-fidelity interactive prototypes. Many teams skip wireframing altogether and start prototyping. Is this what you should do? It's tempting. But wireframing forces you to focus on structure and content because that's all wireframes contain!
# Research to Support IA
Card sorting is a classic technique for determining the optimal grouping of information categories. Tools like Balsamiq can help you produce wireframes using familiar drawing program conventions. Teams often miss that we can test wireframes just like any UI with a user test.
UX prototyping is the practice of creating interactive experiences in prototype form, using a prototyping platform like InVision, or Axure. The point is you're not building something in its final form, but experimenting with different approaches and getting feedback from team members and end-users.
Testing can be considered the research part of prototyping. Remember that prototyping for sharing and collaboration is sometimes different than prototyping for user testing. We cover this idea in more detail here. Testing can take many forms depending on your goals.
- Often a basic user test is your best bet when evaluating your prototype.
- When you have multiple versions of a prototype, consider a split test.
A key concept in UX design is to keep things as lean and lightweight as possible, making it painless to make changes and test them. Iteration is the term we use for changing design and trying it out. To understand how important this is, take a trip down memory lane to recall how things used to be and how painful it was to make any change to software—for end-users and for teams. As the graybeards like to point out: even if you think it's hard now, it's not as hard as it used to be!
# UX Design Ethics
Some final thoughts on UX design ethics. Isn't it great working in tech these days? Hmm.
Something is profoundly broken inside of tech. Let's be honest. For years we've been hell-bent on hooking users on technology. On a recent Black Mirror episode, a Mark Zuckerberg character becomes disenchanted with his team and its "dopamine targets." If only. It telegraphs a sickening feeling we've all had.
It doesn't have to be this way. We can do better.
How did it get this way? UX designers aren't entirely responsible for the way things are, but we did have a role to play.
For years we've been focused on usability. Easy to use is good. It reduces suffering. But now we know that what we build encompasses so much more. If we focus on ease-of-use alone, we'll miss how tech can manipulate our emotions. We'll miss our role in creating unethical systems—the dark patterns, like infinite scroll and dozens of other nifty addictive and demoralizing features our field had a role in designing.
We can change. Let's think about dark patterns. What do many dark patterns have in common? They're all about exploiting human cognitive weaknesses. They're about making people do things they're not aware of. They're about tricking people.
If you're a UX designer, part of your job is to be aware of what people understand and what they can do. You need to have an intuitive understanding of human capabilities. Should you use this knowledge for good or evil?
Our manifesto should be: we're about enhancing human abilities, about strengthening and supporting what makes us most human.
UX design is about seeing seeing things from someone else's perspective. It can be something that enhances and strengthens other people's lives based on your understanding of the challenges they face. This isn't the same as figuring out new ways to exploit human weakness through behavioral manipulation. We're making research tools for UX designers to make good on this promise. To us, this is "research" in its highest register: people honestly telling you what they think, and you listening.
# Further Reading
- About Face - Alan Cooper's classic, now updated.
- Lean UX - Jeff Gothelf's slim and trenchant volume on UX practices.
- Don't Make Me Think, Revisited - Steve Krug's classic on web usability now updated in a 3rd addtion.
- 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People - Susan Weinschenk's classic on just what it says.
- The Elements of User Experience - Jesse James Garrett's now-classic intro to the field available as a PDF.
- The User Experience Team of One: A Research and Design Survival Guide - Leah Buley's guide to bringing UX to organizations as a solo practitioner.
- Ruined by Design - Mike Monteiro's take on design ethics and activism.
- Emotionally Intelligent Design: Rethinking How We Create Products - Our own Pamela Pavliscak breaks new ground on the practice and politics of designing experiences that take human emotion into account.
# Online Publications
- A List Apart - Consistently great writing on all things UX.
- Boxes and Arrows - A resource for writing on UX and IA that has stood the test of time.
- Smashing Magazine - A resource for all things web design, with a section dedicated to UX design.
- The UX Collective - Curated stories on UX, visual, and product design.
- UX Booth - A publication by and for the user experience community.
- UX Magazine - UX Magazine is a free community resource exploring all facets of experience design.
# Online Resources
- Nielsen Norman Group - The venerable firm has a great collection of articles, videos, and how-tos.
- Usability.gov - A comprehensive resource on all things usability, which also includes good content on UX.
- UX Pin - Thoughtful reflections on mobile and web prototyping and other design practices.
- UX Planet - One-stop resource for everything related to user experience.
- UX Myths - A great collection of the things we often get wrong about UX.