What is UX Design? A Beginner’s Guide to Designing For User Experience

Ever since Dr. Don Norman coined the term “user experience” for his group at Apple, people have been asking the question: “What is UX design?” I get at least three messages a week asking the same thing. For all the lip service UX gets these days, there are still countless differing definitions and opinions.

Here’s how I define UX design based on what I’ve seen and experienced over almost three decades as a UX consultant.

The UX value loop

I define UX design as a value loop, which looks like this:

In the center of the loop, we have a product or service. This is usually delivered through an app, website, or internal software system.



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On the left, we have a user. The loop begins with them. If the user perceives that the product is valuable, they act. In other words, they try, download, or use the product. If that action delivers value (some outcome or benefit they care about), they continue using it.

On the right, we have the business that is sponsoring, creating, or paying for the creation and development of that product or service. If users pay for and continue to use the product, then value comes back to them. When businesses can make or save money, they perceive a product to be valuable. They will continue to invest in improving and supporting products that are valuable.

So UX design isn’t just about users — it’s also about designing value for businesses.

It’s also important to understand that UX design is not a step in the process; it is the process. Every decision and action by the people involved with product conception, design, or development affects the user experience. This includes executives, managers, writers, developers, back-end engineers, and database architects.

What do UX designers do?

UX designers are strategic about making sure value gets baked into product development. Here are a few key aspects of the UX designer’s work:

  • They rely on cognitive science, usability principles, and visual design communication.
  • They design apps, sites, and systems that people find useful, usable, and valuable.
  • They work with UX researchers, user interface (UI) or interaction designers, and front-end developers.
  • Their goal is to ensure good design at every step of product development.  

There’s no single way of approaching UX design. Tools and processes vary from company to company and project to project. Here are some common activities that ensure a positive user experience.

User research

UX design starts with understanding human beings — the users who will interact with the product or service you’re designing. User research focuses on understanding user behaviors, needs, and motivations. UX designers gather these insights through in-person interviews or by observing users.

Research can also take the form of looking at competitors’ products. 

UX or user research helps us understand the potential (or current) impact of product design on a product’s users.

The types of user research you perform depend on the type of site, system, or app you are developing, your timeline, and your environment. And, of course, how much access you do or don’t have to your end-users.

Wireframing and prototyping

A wireframe, or low-fidelity prototype, is a skeleton of a screen. It shows the priority and the organization of all elements on the screen. And it allows us to quickly investigate how people are going to navigate the site, app, or system.

A wireframe represents the UX designer’s ideas based on what they’ve learned during user research. The designer considers the placement and labeling of the elements on the page and the flow between screens.

A wireframe demonstrates the possible behavior of buttons, menus, and form elements. In general, a wireframe prototype is a rough sketch you can test with users. You’ll ask them to click or tap through screens to see whether the UI and UX design is usable and understandable.

Wireframes don’t include specific images, colors, fonts, or any finished UI design.

The purpose of a wireframe is to display and organize information and see how users navigate and interact with it.

Usability testing

Usability testing is the process of evaluating a final or proposed app, site, or system, by testing it. This generally occurs with the people who will be using it. 

During usability tests, UX designers or researchers give users tasks to complete. You then observe them as they try to complete those tasks. What do they tap or click on? What do they pay attention to? Where do they get stuck or become confused?

You’re looking to learn the following:

  • Can users complete tasks successfully?
  • How long does it take to do so?
  • How satisfied are they with the interaction and experience?
  • Do you need to make any changes to the appearance (the visual design elements onscreen that cue and guide users to act)?
  • Do you need to make any changes to the interaction (the actions users take to enter or manipulate information or move from screen to screen)?
  • Do you need to make any changes to the performance (such as loading speed or responsiveness)?

These testing sessions are often recorded, and at least one researcher takes notes. The goal is to identify situations where the product is difficult to use. Where does user experience conflict with user expectations?

Usability testing allows UX designers and product development teams to identify problems early. It occurs before features and functionality are committed to code. The earlier in the design or development process we find these problems, the less difficult and expensive they are to fix.

User interface (UI) design

UI design focuses on the individual elements a user sees onscreen. How well do those elements work together to inform, guide, and motivate a user to interact? 

UI design also enables users to tell the difference between content and controls. “Content” means things to read, watch, or listen to. “Controls” are interactive elements that call up new content or enable users to enter or manipulate data or move from screen to screen.

Good UI design ensures that these onscreen elements are easy to access and simple to understand. It also provides a visual communication that allows a user to predict the outcome of an interaction.

UI design brings order and priority to everything onscreen. It creates a visual hierarchy that tells a user what’s most important or which action to take first.

UI design components include the following:

  • Input controls: buttons, fields, checkboxes, radio buttons, dropdown lists, and toggles
  • Navigation components: menus, breadcrumbs, sliders, search fields, paginations, tags, and icons
  • Feedback components: tooltips, icons, progress bar, notifications, message boxes, and modal windows

That’s just the tip of the iceberg

There’s much more that happens throughout the course of designing a product. But these core activities are the tools of the trade that keep everyone focused on delivering value.

A well-designed product or service does a lot more than simply allow someone to complete a series of tasks. It satisfies the emotional needs of human beings who want to feel competent, confident, and in control of their lives.Great UX design has the power to elevate a product or service from being merely functional to being truly essential. It transforms a product into something we simply cannot live or work without.

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