User experience (UX). It’s a big topic. Pretty much everything has a user experience – your toothbrush, a local restaurant, public transit, and yes, interactive technology like websites and apps. To be a UX designer is to understand the holistic picture of an experience while simultaneously paying attention to minute details in the pursuit of identifying and solving problems. Whew! That’s a tall order.
Approaching this subject may seem overwhelming or intimidating at first, but good UX design is an invaluable asset for a product, service, or brand. Understanding UX design is also an invaluable skill to have no matter your area of professional focus. If your job is about people or related to creating things they use, interact with, visit, live around, or depend on in any way then you need to know about UX design.
One of the sneaky, but great things about UX design, though, is that you may already consider it in small ways without realizing it. I spent the beginning of my career working in the theatre industry in various capacities, but only after studying UX design did I make connections between it and my theatrical work. What else, after all, is theatre but an experience?
For example, UX designers have been known to immerse themselves in experiences in order to understand users, taking trips in RVs or sleeping on rubber sheets in a nursing home. I’ve worked on a production where an actor wore his character’s hat 24/7 through the entire rehearsal and performance period. I’ve seen a director switch seats a dozen times during each rehearsal to be able to understand the vantage point of every single audience member.
At the heart of these examples is the heart of being a UX designer: the desire to understand an experience the way someone else does in order to improve that experience for them.
One way to understand people who wear hats all the time is to wear a hat. Maybe it makes you hold your head differently. Maybe your head sweats more and you need to wash your hair more often.
To understand the opinion of the person seated in Row J Seat 12, you have to sit and watch the show in that exact seat. Maybe there’s a light pointing straight at their face and it’s hard to see. Maybe the staging means the actors are often facing away from this person when they are speaking.
No matter your project, to create a good user experience you must understand some of the key principles of UX design.
1. USE Design Thinking
- Empathize: conduct user research such as interviews, observations, and surveys to understand user needs.
- Define: using research insights, find the problem that needs solving and create a human and user-centered problem statement.
- Ideate: define as many options for solving the problem as possible, no idea is too crazy.
- Prototype: build experimental iterations of some of the ideas generated from simple, inexpensive materials.
- Test: Share your prototype with users to receive feedback and refine your design.
These steps are not meant to be a linear path. The design thinking process allows you to return to any previous step in the process at any time should your project necessitate.
Design thinking is more capable than other approaches of increasing innovation and solving complex problems because it encourages original thought and optimistically believes incremental improvement is always possible. When design thinkers see 2 flawed solutions to a problem, they do not simply pick the lesser of 2 evils. They work to create a third better and yet unthought of idea incorporating elements of the other ideas. This approach is called integrative thinking.
A great tool for practicing the design thinking process is the d.school’s Design Thinking Crash Course. In just 90 minutes you travel through all the stages of the process as you attempt to redesign the gift-giving process for a partner.
Doing the crash course helped me understand how design thinking encourages creativity when faced with a challenging problem. My partner Angel had a problem with the guesswork of gift-giving. I ideated the 6 solutions shown above to help him learn what people wanted without having to ask them. When I ran my ideas past Angel, I expected him to gravitate more towards realistic ideas but instead, he liked mind-reading the most. I was forced to come up with and prototype a solution, seen below, that could enact the process of mind-reading.
My idea—an invisible drone that follows people around and transmits a list of gift ideas based on what it sees to an implant in Angel’s brain—was far-fetched, to say the least. I never would have thought of that type of idea in a million years without design thinking. Following the design thinking process forced me to think outside the box and come up with a brand-new idea.
2. eMOTIONS mATTER
Emotions are a driving force behind the decisions we make and the actions we take. If a user experience provokes negative emotions then users are more likely to come away with a negative opinion of that experience and are less likely to take the actions—purchases, donations, or shares on social media—that a business would like them to take.
Following the design thinking process, UX design requires that you uncover user emotions related to the product or service you are designing for. By understanding users’ emotions, you can begin to understand what the problem with an experience is and what you are designing a solution for. You may think a design is great, but the deciding factor should always be how that design makes a user feel.
Since the emotional decision-making process is mostly subconscious, it can be difficult for users to explain how they feel or why they feel the way they do about an experience.
A great way to start understanding user psychology as it relates to UX is to examine your own emotions about websites you use. Look at various UX and UI (user interface) elements of the sites using the following structure:
_____makes me FEEL_____because my NEED for_____is or is not being met.
I did this for Netflix, a site I use often, and it’s competitor, Disney Plus. A helpful tip for this exercise is to find feelings and needs word lists to help you verbalize your emotions and the reasoning behind them. I knew when I started my website analyses that something about Disney Plus bugged me. Only after discovering all of the positive emotions I had about various elements on Netflix, did I realize that the design of Disney Plus was not meeting my needs.
Netflix makes me feel UNDERSTOOD, SUPPORTED, and RELAXED because my need for DISCOVERY, EASE, and EFFICIENCY are being met. It does so through features like its robust and intuitive search. Disney Plus, however, lacks features that make navigation and content discovery quick and easy, a priority for me. It makes me feel FRUSTRATED, CONFUSED, and FATIGUED because my need for EASE, LEARNING, and DISCOVERY are not being met.
3. eMPATHIZE WITH USERS
To really understand your users, you must learn to put yourselves in their shoes and see the experience from their point of view. You must empathize with them. Practicing empathy increases your curiosity and in turn, helps you build connections with your users, which goes a lot farther in helping to solve their problems then just looking at them from the outside.
Practicing empathy in design means putting aside your biases and assumptions and listening to your users. You gain empathy for users by conducting user research. This research can take many forms but often includes interviews, surveys, observations, site visits, and immersions.
These empathetic research activities generate copious amounts of information, notes, and feedback. Sometimes you may be able to see patterns developing during research that give you a taste for understanding your users, but to focus exclusively on these would be a mistake.
Empathy maps are a useful tool for organizing all of your research information in order to get a holistic picture of your user and not jump to conclusions about their needs. They are visualizations of everything you know about a user or a type of user. Empathy maps consist of a grid with multiple quadrants into which you sort user information. Sections on the grid are most often labeled Say and Do, Think and Feel, See, Hear, Pains, and Gains.
Without an actual project to work on it may seem hard to practice empathy mapping, but I was able to do so by using an episode of Undercover Boss as my user research source. I created the empathy map below for Sharon Price John, the president and CEO of Build-A-Bear Workshop, and a second map for one of the company’s assistant store managers, Kendall, based on what I observed about them in the first episode of season 8.
The episode was only 40 minutes long, but in such a short timeframe I was able to collect enough information about both of them to create pretty detailed empathy maps. Filling out my maps while watching the episode demonstrated to me how focused UX designers must be to form accurate insights and empathy for their users. Users do not always volunteer the information you need willingly. You must take note of small details such as body movements or vocal resistances.
Empathy maps help you to see gaps in your research by laying everything you know about them out in a single document. If when creating them you find one area of your grid is lacking information compared to others that can be a signal to do further research.
This type of map is a useful resource throughout the design process for keeping a project accurately focused on users, rather than on internal understanding or assumptions, so you want them to be robust and detailed.
4. Create Personas
You can’t design everything for everyone. Doing so risks designing for no one. If you’re working on a design for millions of users there is no way you can create something that will solve every one of their problems. You must prioritize by identifying larger patterns in the needs of your users. Then based on these patterns you build personas, or fictionalized people, that you use as a means of synthesizing and communicating the information you have collected about your users
Personas do not simply include basic demographic information. They include specific details like a photo, name, age, or even favorite color. Any information you believe is relevant to your project that you’ve collected in user research, such as quotes, can be added to personas to make them more realistic and relatable. It’s easier for a design team to talk tangibly about a named persona than a generic user. Talking about general users is what leads to designs that help no one.
There are many reasons personas can be helpful. They help UX designers make decisions from the point of view of users. As a shareable document, they help get everyone on a team or in an organization on the same page about who their users are. They keep focus on who a product is being designed for throughout the design process. They help designers justify their decisions to stakeholders less familiar with the user research. Then, when real users are not available for testing, personas can be used as stand-ins in testing scenarios.
Some persona designs have a lot of written information and others rely more on visual elements to communicate. There is no correct design for a persona or an exact list of the content that should be included. The importance of personas is not the document you create, but the information you gain from them. A general rule, though, is that persona content should not be too vague as to render it generic, or too crammed with research insights as to make it overwhelming.
Ben Ralph, Founder and Head of Product & Experience at Beaker & Flint, has created A Guide to Personas which I found very useful for going through the persona process step by step.
I created the above persona as a hypothetical Netflix user named “Barb,” the Cord-cutting, Retired Baby Boomer. As you can see, I included a picture to represent her. This is an important means of making the persona more realistic.
Some demographic information can be helpful to set the scene, but I focused on less easily understood information such as her goals, motivations, and inhibitions because these are what guide how she makes her decisions and feels about an experience. These are the important, yet often overlooked factors about users that you must consider when trying to understand and solve their problems.
“Barb” is a hypothetical persona, which means she is not based exclusively on user research insights. Hypothetical personas are an option, especially if you have limited resources or time for research. I did use observations of people I know that I thought were the type of users “Barb” represents in order to create her, but I also built a persona of myself at the same time.
I did not feel as confident about “Barb” being accurate and helpful for a real design as I did my own persona. I know myself and had access to myself to ask questions and do a deep dive into my motivations and feelings. My previously mentioned Netflix website analysis was also a good reference.
My recommendation is to create personas based on user research if possible because it will increase the accuracy of this important document. I found throughout my creation of “Barb” that my own feelings and opinions were trying to bleed into her. I had to make a very purposeful effort to make her as different from me as possible. With actual research findings, this would have been a far easier task.
5. Define the Problem
UX designers do not assume they know what the problem is and just start designing solutions. Often the problem that is the impetus for a project will turn out not to be the most important problem to solve from the users’ perspective.
The user research you conduct helps to inform how you define the problem that you will eventually design a solution for. It is important, of course, to take internal business needs into consideration when defining your problem, but often businesses will not understand or even recognize a problem the way users do.
If you define your design project’s problem incorrectly, you risk wasting time and resources creating something that does not improve the user experience of your product, service, or brand. To define a project’s problem well you should craft a problem statement.
A problem statement is a way of stating a project’s challenge in an actionable way. You want your understanding of a problem to be actionable because it is more inspiring for designers when ideating solutions.
Your problem statements should be about what you need to solve for, not how you are going to solve it. Ideas for solutions come after problem definition in the design thinking process. Your problem statement is helpful as a guide through the rest of the design process to make sure you are focused on solving the most important problem and that there is a litmus test for solutions you design to make sure, however good they are, that they fulfill the goal of the project and solve your problem.
Problem statements are also referred to as Point of View statements, POV statements, user needs statements, or “How Might We” statements. Don’t be confused by the terminology difference. These all basically serve the same function as problem statements, just with slightly different structures.
No matter the structure you choose, problem statements should always be user-centered, broad enough in detail to allow for creative freedom in ideation but narrow enough to be manageable as a source of inspiration for solutions.
I’ve created problem statements based on my previously mentioned Undercover Boss empathy maps using the structure:
(Action) is a challenge for (user) because (insight).
I’ve also created POV statements based on user reviews of 3 top weather apps (The Weather Channel, Dark Sky Weather, and AccuWeather) using the structure:
[User (descriptive)] NEEDS [need (verb)] BECAUSE [insight (compelling)].
Writing these POV statements helped me realize how making the problem statements active with the right amount of detail is a great starting point for sparking ideas. The following POV statement, for example, had my mind immediately seeing scenarios in my head of how users were using this app and the moments of opportunity where design could help them to avoid or be prepared for weather-related medical issues more often.
Users with certain medical conditions NEED to base their daily activities on weather forecast data BECAUSE they are physically sensitive to even slight changes in the weather
Using this method to practice writing problem statements tangibly lessened my anxiety at the prospect of having to discover a potentially unknown problem.
A UX designer can start with an overwhelming pile of what feels like random user research information, as I did with the thousands of available app reviews, but with purposeful focus can start to see patterns emerge that point to problems that simply looking at the product without user input would never have revealed.
6. maximize iDEAS
After you’ve defined the problem, it’s time to come up with ideas for how to solve it using your problem statement. Solving a UX design problem requires that you think up as many ideas as possible, even ones you deem crazy or impossible. It’s tempting to judge, filter, or debate the validity or practicality of an idea when you are brainstorming, but this puts unnecessary boundaries around how to solve a problem and limits innovation.
The first idea you come up with is often the easy one someone else has already thought of, tried, and discovered it did not work. Truly solving problems is usually difficult so, it is your third, tenth, or even twentieth idea that is the right idea. You don’t want to block yourself from considering these as options. How you actually build and implement an idea are concerns for later in the process.
Since coming up with a never before thought of idea is difficult, ideation is best done using the purposeful structure of one or more ideation techniques. There are many techniques you can choose from, including some that I have tried: ideation mash-up, braindumping, sketching, worst possible idea, and analogies.
Ideation mash-up is an idea developed by design firm IDEO. Using this technique, you create a “How Might We” statement for a specific problem. You then create 2 categories, one related to your problem and the other not, for which you think up a list of words in a specific amount of time and “mash-up” unrelated words from each list into a pairing that you use as inspiration for a possible solution. You can see my category mash-ups above for the statement “How might we prevent monotony in office work?”
Using this technique, I came up with 9 solutions that varied in how realistic they were, such as the ones pictured below: Funky Dress Fridays, Dance Break Rooms, Indoor Snowball Fights, and Paper Airplane Messages. I found the mash-up approach was great for teaching me how combining relatively unrelated things can help to spark innovative ideas.
Using my previously mentioned weather app POV statements, I tried 4 different ideation techniques: braindumping, sketching, worst possible idea, and analogies. By using multiple techniques to come up with ideas for the same problem, I realized how some techniques are best suited for fostering certain types of ideas.
For example, braindumping helped me create the most ideas by volume, but sketching helped me flesh out ideas I had difficulty explaining in words. Worst possible ideas were great for relieving the pressure I felt at needing to think of good, innovative ideas, while analogies forced my mind outside traditional source material. This last technique had me asking how my weather apps could be more like Google Maps or a doctor, rather than just other weather apps.
The experience of ideation is unique to the needs of your project. It is important to consider factors like the types of ideas you want to come up with, time limitations, and level of experience of your team when choosing ideation techniques.
7. Create Journey Maps
Once you understand your user and your problem and you want to start creating possible solutions, knowing where your product, service or brand interacts with users and has opportunities to influence their experience can be helpful information.
Businesses often think of user experience in silos because of internal organization. Users, though, see every interaction as part of one whole, larger experience. This is the perspective you need to take when designing a user experience. Everything ties together and works to influence how a customer perceives an experience and forms their opinion of it.
Journey maps are a visual representation of a specific user experience scenario related to a product, service, or brand from the perspective of a specific user. Creating a journey map is my favorite principle on this list because I’m a sucker for good storytelling, which is what a journey map does. Using elements such as emotions and thoughts, instead of data, they tell the human story of an experience from beginning to end, focusing on the points in the process where a business interacts with a user.
Like empathy maps, journey maps help you to see through your user’s eyes when you are designing solutions for them. They help UX designers answer “what if’ questions during the design process and identify gaps or certain pain points in the experience.
I created the above journey map for the cord-cutting experience using my previously mentioned Netflix persona “Barb.” All journey maps will be unique depending on your business and the research insights you gather, but they should always include one of your personas to represent who is taking this journey, as well as user emotions; a timeline of phases in the journey; touchpoints a user has with your product, service, or brand; channels that these touchpoints occur through; and opportunities you have for improving the experience.
As you can see, my journey map has a timeline of distinct phases in the experience through which my user travels. For each of these phases, I included thoughts, emotions, and actions they have at those points, as well as channels through which they interact with Netflix. Tracing the emotional journey of a user’s experience can be particularly helpful for understanding where pain points exist.
When I created my journey map, I had to keep in mind that although experiences happen in all number of winding ways, journey maps need to be linear in their representation of these journeys in order to communicate them clearly.
Using my map, I was able to come up with opportunities Netflix has for potentially improving the user experience of each phase, which are included as a section on my map. For example, there are a lot of options for streaming services now. Trying to compare them all for someone new to streaming and already unsure of making a big change like cord-cutting could be too overwhelming and cause them to give up or make a bad decision.
By offering a comparison chart of services on their website, Netflix could not only help “Barb” but also persuade her to subscribe to them over even a cheaper competitor because Netflix made the experience of cord-cutting a little bit easier for her.
Bonus: Don’t be scared of UX
As I mentioned before, there’s a lot to UX. If you’re like me, then merely the words “user experience” or the term “UX” may sound intimidating enough to scare you away. What exactly does it mean? Is it too technical for me? Too scientific? These were all worries I had. But immersing myself in a UX exploration has taught me that the core of UX is about understanding people and the human condition, something I’m very familiar with having previously studied theatre.
Learning about and practicing the 7 principles above was a great way to overcome my intimidation about UX design and realize I’m a lot more at home in this subject than I ever thought I was. I hope they do the same for you.
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