In this introduction to user experience design, Hamilton Jones, Digital Editor at Macmillan, explains what UX is, why it’s important and how it works.
When we hear ‘UX’, a lot of us think of visual design and interaction design, but user experience design is a much wider and more intricate field than that. It includes all manner of processes, such as:
- Testing (creation, administration, analysis)
- Writing (copy, features, requirement)
- Information Architecture
- Design (interaction, interface, visual)
- Communicating and stakeholder management
Importantly, the process of UX does not start and end during website creation. It happens before in the planning stages and continues afterwards in the evaluation stages. It’s about talking to people early on, whether these are the end-users, stakeholders, your team or wider agency.
In larger companies with multiple UX designers, each one of them will specialise in specific areas instead of focusing on all of them. In smaller companies where there is only one UX designer however, it’s likely they’ll do the entire end-to-end process. These people are called UX unicorns.
Why is UX important?
When a product meets the level of performance and function that is needed by most users (in our case this could be the website having the content on it for people to access), user experience becomes really critical. It’s the point at which improvements to the function of a product become obsolete, and user experiences such as convenience or reliability become important.
In user experience, more is not always better however. As more features are added, the impact on the user’s happiness becomes less and less, until the optimal peak is reached. After this point, adding more features decreases the user’s happiness as things become complicated and confusing. User experience seeks to find the best balance.
The UX process
1) Research & ideation
The process starts with conversations and questions: Who are the users? What purpose does the product serve for them? What currently exists? They should start quite generally and become more specific over time. Data collection is then carried out by interviewing users and stakeholders, reviewing existing product data and establishing known technical limitations of the project. All of this helps to build personas, which will then be used throughout the process to continually check that the experience is meeting user needs.
Once the audience and project are defined, ideation and exploration can begin. This involves idea sharing with stakeholders, other designers and those who know the technical limitations of your project.
2) Information Architecture
The next stage is concerned with mapping taxonomies and information architecture, considering the hierarchy of content and the taxonomy of features. Taxonomy is the organisation behind the scenes, it doesn’t necessarily translate to the website it’s powering, either in terms of the folder structure or the structure presented to the user. Information architecture looks at how to present this to the user in a more front-facing context, such as navigation.
At this stage you will also plan out the user flow to map their journey through your product/service. This looks a lot like a flow chart and helps to highlight where the journey could be changed or improved.
Sketching often happens before a wireframe is made, and will sometimes mean that a wireframe isn’t necessary. Here you can sketch up the structures, user journeys and wireframes before drafting them properly. Sketching just requires paper and pens to put your ideas together in a simple and quick way. It’s important to keep people informed at this point, getting early user input from stakeholders and refining the sketches based on their feedback.
Wireframes are schemas that simply showcase layout and hierarchy. It is important that wireframes contain notes about what parts are interactive, and there are various standards for short-hand drawing that can indicate whether an element is a button/video/text etc.
As many products are across several mediums, wireframes need to be device specific when drawn out, taking into account how each medium will affect the layout.
Wireframes can be mocked up as low-fidelity on a computer before adding higher fidelity design over time. When you reach a high-fidelity wireframe that has been fully tested, it may be time to move onto prototyping.
Prototypes bring wireframes to life, adding the interactive element that was only written down in a wireframe. It offers the best way to understand how users will really use your design and the issues they might face.
The way in which prototypes are put together can vary, some offer quite basic interaction, while others can be coded to offer a very real example of what the product/service will feel like. Coding is not necessary however, and there are many clever tools available on line to build prototypes with (see tools on last page).
6) User testing
The last stage of user experience is user testing, which refers to evaluating the effectiveness of a product or service through observation.
In practice, this involves participants trying to complete specific tasks, under controlled conditions, while we watch, listen and record qualitative and quantitative data about their experience. During the session, users are encouraged to think aloud by talking through their thought processes and decisions. This enables us to make notes on and discuss the user’s journey more clearly, helping to identify any usability issues raised.
After user testing is carried out, we are able to collate the data and work out what changes we need to make to improve future users’ experiences.