User experience overview
User experience (UX) is a term for the sum of all the interactions users have with a product, service, or brand. That's everything from the company’s online ads to its product packaging, implementation, and support. UX is often confused with user interface design (UI), but UI is only one small part of UX, which is a complete methodology that helps teams develop more useful products.
Why is UX design so important?
UX design gives teams a framework with which to think about all the ways users interact with their products. This “helps teams make the product as intuitive as possible,” explains Tyler Hartrich, UX Design Instructor at General Assembly. “That way, teams can minimize their risk of building a product that either doesn’t work or which people don’t want.” For example, an airline with declining revenue might think it needs to spend more money on marketing but could save itself the expense by first investigating its UX. It might discover that customers are frustrated with its aging ticketing system or website, and frequently abandon transactions. Or, the team could find that consumers prefer to use an online travel agent that the airline doesn’t partner with. By identifying points of purchase path dysfunction, the airline can make relatively inexpensive changes to improve the experience and rescue its revenue.
To practice UX design, teams must collect both quantitative and qualitative data. That means interviewing users and collecting customer satisfaction information, but also capturing granular product usage data, which they typically draw from an analytics platform that helps to visualize the paths users take through the product, known as user flows. Modern UX design is largely predicated on the idea that the customer is usually right and users’ needs are paramount when deciding how to build the product—a process known as human-centered design.
If prioritizing users’ needs seems obvious, it wasn’t always so. In the 1990s it was common for product teams to build websites simply based on whatever technologies were available and today, it’s still common for product teams to prioritize their own intuition over their customers’ feedback. Analytics can help product teams stay focused on their customers by revealing user behaviors.
UX vs. UI vs. usability?
The terms UX, UI, and usability are often used interchangeably, but they belong in a strict hierarchy. UX is the global term for all user interactions, from marketing emails to how the product makes users feel. UI is simply the interface of a digital product such as a website or mobile app, and usability is a measurement of whether the UI is effective and helps users achieve their goals. Good UI and high usability don’t always mean a product is visually appealing—digital services can be useful without being pretty. Per Fast Company, “Amazon’s web store is neither simple nor beautiful—two things we expect of good design. Instead, it focuses on simplicity of experience, process, and functionality.” It’s best to judge UI and usability by their influence on revenue which, in Amazon’s case, is unambiguous: Its website is so successful that it cashiers 43 percent of all U.S. online sales.
How does UX design work?
The UX design process is key to marketing, business analysis, and the product development cycle. Design doesn’t end when a product is launched—digital products are constantly being tweaked, measured, and improved. While every team follows its own version of the design process, most follow four stages:
1. Planning and discovery
First, product and marketing teams study their users. For automotive UX designers, that means driving around in cars, being driven around by prospective customers, and interviewing consumers about their habits, tastes, and beliefs. For a dating app, it might mean interviewing people who already use other dating apps. The goal is to empathize with the customer, understand their world, and identify problems the product can solve.
Any company that already has an existing digital product can identify areas where its UX needs more work by running reports in user analytics, and interview existing users. Teams condense user interviews into fewer, simpler narratives about what users want to accomplish and how a service might help them do it, known as user stories. From stories, marketing teams can write their messaging and product teams can build a list of customer requirements or specifications that the product will have to meet. If a dating app, it’ll have to function on iOS, allow users to create profiles, match users with a satisfactory number of dates, and so on. With a firm sense of users’ needs, teams can consult the business stakeholders to understand their requirements as well. Perhaps the aforementioned dating app will have to deliver a certain amount of advertising revenue, grow at a certain rate, or exhibit high stickiness.
It’s a common misconception that engineering teams shouldn’t be involved until after the discovery phase. “Designing with a developer early on allows you to take full advantage of system capabilities where normally, as just a designer, you’d have to play it safe,” said UX Designer and co-founder of the design agency Logical Animal Aryn Shelander in an article about the advantages of paired design and development. Early engineering involvement helped the Logical Animal team to get unusually high iOS system performance from an augmented reality app.
2. Create user personas
User personas allow marketing, analytics, and product teams to condense all the disparate pieces of information they collect during discovery into useful, usable artifacts. Personas are theoretical archetypes built from an amalgamation of many users’ stories that broadly reflect that user segment. For example, Marnie the Marketer or Devin the Developer. “Personas make product development and marketing easier because it humanizes decision making,” says Josh Decker-Trinidad, a UX Researcher at the events startup Meetup. “Rather than treating users as statistics and wondering what some percentage of users might think about a feature, teams can approximate what a person they actually know thinks.”
3. Develop designs
Product designers create mockups and minimum-viable versions of the product to prototype customer use cases. This is sometimes known as defining the information architecture (IA), and teams will use prototyping tools like InVision and Sketch to create clickable models and wireframes, and to iterate and finalize their product specifications. After designs are completed, teams can deliver annotated wireframes, flow models, cultural models, customer personas, user stories, and scenarios to the broader team and begin product development.
4. Launch, test, and iterate
Once teams build and launch a product, they begin to receive real data. This allows them to separate those users into segments and cohorts, and to look at funnels and retention reports to see if the UX has improved the product’s usability. Teams can use A/B testing and notifications to see if certain features or messages nudge users in a desirable direction, and marketing teams can improve their campaigns and measure their ROI. One started, the UX process never ends. As teams learn more, they continue to research, develop, and perfect their product to make sure that it’s as intuitive and useful as possible, and doesn’t evolve into a service that nobody wants.
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