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What is UX Design...Really?

Scroll down to learn about the various aspects and business value of UX design or download our UX Design ebook 🎉

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Quick summary

A breakdown of the different aspects of UX, its business value, and why ethical design will be a top priority in 2018 and beyond.

What you’ll learn

  • What UX actually is
  • Its true business value
  • What a UX designer does
  • Why ethical design is important

What is UX Design?

Designing or improving the user experience of an app, website, or any other screen-based interface is known as user experience design, or simply, UX design; but if we’re to answer the question — what is UX design? — we first have to understand the result of bad UX design. Consider airports, which notoriously deliver a bad user experience.

Ask any airport user; they’ll reveal that the three indicators of bad UX are:

  • Lack of value: inflated costs, yet deflated experiences
  • Poor usability: vague information, difficult navigation
  • Feelings of negative emotion: confusion and frustration 😔
What is UX design?

Consider this airport scenario, for example:

When we’re at security and it’s not clear as to which items must be “taken out” out of our bag, or which medications must be declared, all the while our travel documents are restricting the use of one hand, and there’s nowhere to rest our bag while all of this is happening, and there’s a queue of travellers behind us…this is terrible user experience.

As users we have objectives (in this case the objective is to board a flight), however, too much confusion, friction, and cognitive load delays us from achieving the objective.

Frustrated customers are less likely to convert and less likely to engage in the future.

Why does this happen? Why not improve this user experience? 🤔

The Business Value of UX Design

Great question. In this scenario, there’s no business value in improving the user experience. Since airports don’t typically compete for customers (most cities only have one airport anyway), they selfishly won’t waste their money on UX design because they know that they’ll acquire customers anyway. Competition drives innovation, hence a lack of competition essentially means that there’s no need to bother trying to improve.

Thankfully, most industries are rife with competition. It’s typical for businesses to compete with other businesses for customers, and while UX design isn’t the only ingredient in a successful company, the winners are those that invest in UX design.

Business value of UX design

Example: eCommerce

Let’s use eCommerce as an example (that is, apps and websites that act as an online store). Generally speaking, checkout flows suffer from a cart abandonment rate of 69.89% (i.e. customers add something to their basket, but then ditch the basket). This means that when customers spent $738 billion dollars online in the US and Europe in one year, the eCommerce industry lost out on an additional $260 billion due to bad UX.

Clearly, there is undeniable business value in improving the UX in this scenario.

And if you’re curious, here are some of the reasons why users abandon their checkout:

  • Crashes and errors
  • Confusing order total
  • Surprise charges at checkout
  • Perceived lack of security
  • Payment methods not desirable
  • Forced signup (i.e. no guest checkout)
  • An otherwise long and complicated checkout

What Does a UX Designer Do?

A UX designer’s primary objective is to reverse-engineer problems that users and customers are facing, and come up with creative ways to solve them through design.

Problems have value because customers will pay money to have them solved. Solving these issues involves customer research, sketching and wireframing, user and usability testing, and finally screen design. And of course, UX design is also about making things look nice too — since — as humans, we find that aesthetics also add to the experience.

We refer to this aspect of UX as visual design (sometimes confused with UI design).

Honestly, UX is a very broad topic, and while some designers do cover all aspects of UX, it’s fine to specialize as well. UX is a measurement of the user’s overall satisfaction, however, your role as a designer might be to focus on one aspect of their experience.

Let’s talk a little about specializations.

Specialized Fields

People often confuse UX design with UI design, and even UI with visual design.

Let’s clarify these terms quickly so there’s no confusion moving forward.

Visual design is how it looks — the colors, the imagery, the typography, the emotional appeal, how it makes users think and feel, the overall brand, identity, and aesthetic.

Difference between UI and UX

UI design is mostly about usability (ease-of-use) and accessibility (ability-of-use, especially for those with disabilities), where the objective is to reduce task time, ease cognitive load, and basically help the user complete their objectives efficiently. So while visual design is solely about form, UI design is about how the form aids the function.

UX design is a measure of the experience as a whole — how quickly the user is able to accomplish their objective, to what degree their issue has been solved, and the overall level of customer/user satisfaction. Both visual design and UI design contribute to the UX, however, we shouldn’t compare them as if they’re completely different concepts.

Designers can be visual designers, UI designers, UX designers, all of the above, or some of the above. Designers that are also skilled in user research and ideation are referred to as product designers, and those that are all of the above, full-stack UX designers. Either way, it’s fine to use both UX and UX designer as umbrella terms.

What does a UX designer do?

Business Goals vs. Ethical Design

Businesses need to make money, however, overbearing tactics such as forceful email opt-ins are known to be a display of dark UX (although some simply refer to this as asshole design). Some are even saying that designers should be licensed, since the skills that they have “[are] powerful and [they] can herd people toward certain actions”.

Whether designers should or shouldn’t be licensed is a very debatable topic, but that aside for now, there’s no denying that designers are indeed capable of steering users in a certain direction. At the very least, designers should adhere to a strict code of ethics.

Ethical Design

In this day and age we’re becoming more aware of the unethical ways that digital companies are using our data, and the deceptive tricks that they use to collect and retain this data without our explicit approval. New laws are emerging (for instance, the GDPR law) in an effort to squash these unethical activities (such as not being able to delete our account and all of its data, or completely opt-out of being tracked online).

Neglecting ethical design can not only result in heavy GDPR fines, but also hurt a company’s brand or business significantly. Sabotaging UX in order to meet business objectives is often unethical, but it’s also an indication that there’s no realized customer value — so by coming up with an idea that customers consider valuable, designing it then has a business value, and therefore there’s no need to engage in unethical design.

Business strategy is becoming much, much more important in UX design. In recent years we’ve even coined a new term called product design, which I briefly mentioned earlier. Product design refers to the very early stages of UX design when, before anything else, we’re more focused on user needs and creating value for the customer.

Customer value (what the customer wants) + UX design (making it easy for the customer to use) = business value (the ability to sell it without the need for dark UX).

And this is how everybody wins.

Learn more in our ebook, A Beginner’s Guide to Designing UX.

Daniel Schwarz, author

Daniel Schwarz

Daniel Schwarz is a UX/UI designer, web developer, and maker by background, but a writer, editor, 5x author, and teacher at heart. Currently a design blog editor at SitePoint (ex Toptal), writer at .net Magazine and Web Designer Magazine, but occasionally a collaborator with top design companies such as Adobe and InVision.