Getting started with user experience design (UX)

I put out a call on twitter asking what topics my followers would be more interested in learning about. I had many awesome ideas put forward, and have already written about the basics of service design and user research. In this post I’m going to be talking about user experience design, or as it’s more commonly known, UX design.

I started out in web development and UX design, and I’ve also hired quite a few UX designers over the past few years. The term UX is horribly abused; often it’s used to refer to visual designers who work in the web. Even more frequently than that, candidates use it to bulk up their CV if they’ve ever touched the user facing part of a website.

However, even the UX community often disagrees about the skill sets required to be a UX designer. The skill sets ascribed to UX designers are pretty wide ranging, and I wouldn’t expect any one person to do all of them. They include:

  • Web development
  • Visual design or user interface design
  • Information architecture
  • User research
  • Copywriting
  • Brand design
  • Animation or interaction design
  • Competitor research or analysis

A UX designer definitely does need a combination of some of these skills, and I’ve seen UX designers who are amazing a large proportion of them.

However, because of this general confusion, rather than focusing too heavily on the particular skills that one might need to call themselves a UX designer, in this post I’ve focused on what someone doing UX design should be able to achieve.

A UX designer will:

Research the needs and experiences of their users

Specifically, they research the needs and experiences of a group of people that an organisation will consider to be it’s target audience for a particular service or application.

Their research will typically be of a smaller scope than a user researcher or service designer because it focuses on online interactions and the needs of a particular product or app. User researchers and service designers usually broaden that scope to focus on the wider relationships and contexts of the people using the application, as well interactions that occur outside of the product or app; like customer services.

Their research methodologies will be both quantitative (using web analytics and surveys) and qualitative (using interviews and usability testing) and the findings of this research will be used to design or improve upon the application.

This research is incredibly important, because you can’t design for the user experience unless you actually know what users need and how they are reacting to your product or app. Unfortunately, it is often overlooked by many agencies and UX designers.

Design the overall experience of a product or app

UX designers focus on the overall experience of a product or app. Rather than focusing on the design of single pages or individual features, they will design for clear journeys moving between areas of the application.

A UX designers aim is to make a process or journey as intuitive as possible; to allow users to fulfill their need or complete their task as simply as possible. This also includes ensuring that the interfaces in the product or app are broadly consistent, so that users can come to know what to expect from a new or similar journey within the the same product or app.

Many also design for “delightful” experiences to encourage users to return and use the product again, but this practice is more common in the commercial design world.

They might design these elements using a combination of wireframingstoryboarding or by prototyping (also known as an alpha).

Communicating the project vision to the delivery team

In reality, no single person design for a good user experience end-to-end. If a user has a difficult time because the servers are slow, that isn’t something that a UX designer can resolve on their own.

So the most important job of UX designer is to communicate the vision of the product, and how the experience should look and feel, to the rest of the team. This involves advocating for the users, and ensuring that when design decisions are made by brand designers, UI designers, developers, systems administrators and copywriters on the delivery team, those decisions work well for the people the product is intended for.

Resources to get you started

If you’d like to learn more about user experience design, here are some books and other resources to get you started:

Don’t make me think
by Steve Krug

This really excellent short book on the basics of usability on the web is a starting point for most newcomers to UX. It lays out the basics in a way that is simple and memorable.

About Face: The essentials of interaction design
Alan Cooper

Alan Cooper’s book was one of the original (and still one of the best) books detailing everything you might want to consider in UX design. It was originally published before “user experience design” was a common job title, and (as far as I understand it) is the first book that discussedpersona creation for application design.

Lean UX
by Geoff Gothelf

Lean UX is not only a great primer on UX, but explains how user experience design fits into a Lean and agile approach to designing products and services.

Rocket surgery made easy
By Steve Krug

This is an excellent introduction into usability testing, from a basic prototype to a fully functioning application. It’s also a companion to Don’t Make Me Think, so read that first!

UX Pod

I cannot recommend this podcast more highly. It covers the whole range of specialities and issues that you may come across as a UX designer, and has an amazing range of guests. It’s a fantastic place to find out about more books and other websites and resources.

User Experience Team of One
by Leah Buhley

Recommended by @danblundell

Got any other books or resources you think should be added to this list? Drop me a message on twitter or in the comments.  

This is the last “getting started” guide that was requested. Have you got a need to know more about a particular role or speciality? Send me a tweet or reply in the comments and I’ll see what I can do.