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What is UX Design...Really?

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Quick summary

We've come to learn that UX goes way beyond visuals, and is actually a measurement of the user's experience as a whole. Here's everything you need to know.

What you’ll learn

  • What is UX?
  • The business value of UX
  • UX vs. UI vs. visual design
  • What = exceptional UX
  • Why there's a code of ethics

What is UX Design?

UX design is about making the user’s experience better.

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 are a well-known display of bad UX.

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

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

Consider this scenario, for example:

When we’re at security and it’s not clear as to which items must be “taken out”, or which medications must be declared, all the while it being a requirement to show our boarding pass before entering the security area, with nowhere to rest our bag while all of this malarkey is happening, and a queue of impatient travellers behind us…this is terrible user experience. As users we have objectives (in this case, our objective is to board our flight), however too much friction and confusion delays us from achieving it.

Frustrated customers are unlikely to convert and unlikely to engage in the future.

Why does this happen? Why not improve the 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 our custom anyway. Competition drives innovation, so a lack of competition essentially means 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 69.23% (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.

By 2021, eCommerce revenue is expected to grow to more than $4.48 trillion dollars annually, which is more than double the numbers from 2017. eCommerce alone is a huge market, yet we’re barely even beginning to understand and tap into its revenue.

Here are some of the reasons why users abandon their checkout:

  • Checkout looks insecure
  • Errors or crashes
  • Order total unclear
  • Surprise fees at checkout
  • Forced signup (i.e. no guest checkout)
  • Checkout too long and/or too complicated
  • Payment methods not desirable or available

And we’re only talking about eCommerce here; this is only the tip of the titanic-sized iceberg. There are plenty of other business models (advertising, affiliate marketing, B2B, et cetera) that can be lucrative as long as an effective UX strategy is maintained.

Successful UX designers not only understand how to improve UX, but they also know how to communicate the value of UX design to businesses in need of it.

What Does a UX Designer Do?

A UX designer’s primary role 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, rapid prototyping and wireframing, user testing, UI design, and usability testing. And of course, UX design is about making things look nice too—since—as humans, we find that aesthetics add to the experience. We refer to this aspect of UX as visual design (sometimes confused with UI design).

Great UX design also incorporates thoughtful branding (a visual “identity” that sets businesses apart from other businesses, communicating their core values and personality) and customer support (helping the customer when they’re stuck/unhappy).

In a nutshell, UX design is about the user’s overall experience with a product or business, and goes way beyond visual design. It’s about the entire customer journey, and a UX designer’s job is to improve the UX at all of these customer touchpoints.

So…What is UI? What is UX?

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 fonts, the photography, the emotional appeal, how it makes users think and feel, the overall brand and visual aesthetic.

What is the difference between UI and UX?

UI design considers proximity (how elements relate to other elements on the screen) and contrast (how well users can distinguish elements from other elements), both of which aid usability and accessibility, and also help to reduce task time and cognitive load. Proximity and contrast (among other things) are what we call design principles. So while visual design is 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 UX designers, UI designers, visual designers, all of the above, or some of the above. Designers that are skilled in user research and business strategy 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 UX and UX designer as the umbrella term.

Product design vs. UX design

What Makes Great UX?

Great UX is composed of the following:

  • Functionality: does it meet the user’s needs?
  • Usability: how easy is it to use?
  • Accessibility: is it accessible to all users?
  • Performance: does it work well/fast/on any device?
  • Customer Support: is help available to those who need it?
  • Overall Value: is the end result worth the user’s time/money?

Business Goals vs. Ethical Design

Speaking of value…🤔

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

Whether designers should or shouldn’t be licensed is a debatable topic, but that aside, there’s no denying that designers are more than capable of steering users in a certain direction. To some degree, at least, UX designers should adhere to a code of ethics.

Ethical Design and GDPR

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 it without our explicit approval. However, new laws are emerging (for example, the GDPR law) in an effort to squash these unethical activities (for instance, not being able to delete our account and all of its data, or completely opt-out of being tracked).

When learning how to be a UX designer in 2018 and beyond, we must consider recent developments in the needs and desires of users, as well as adhere to a self-disciplined code of conduct. As human beings with the ability to empathize, we should try to see things from the POV of the user, and even think of ourselves as the user if needed.

Failure to do so can not only result in heavy fines, but dark UX can also can hurt a company’s brand significantly. The silly thing is, most companies don’t realize that sabotaging UX to meet business objectives is not only unethical, but it’s unnecessary.

Dark UX = Poor Business Strategy

Which brings me back to value.

Great UX + value = business objectives met.

When companies use unethical dark UX tactics, it’s usually because what they’re selling has no value (or at least, the value hasn’t been communicated very well).

Design isn’t about finding the optimal level of pushy, it’s about understanding the needs of the market and building something that customers will pay for without being pushed. Design is about addressing a common need or desire and communicating its value, not building something for no real reason and tricking users into buying it.

A common mistake to make is diving straight into visual design.

Diving straight into visual design means that we’ve likely designed something that customers didn’t want, need, or ask for, and these are the things that are undeniably harder to sell. This is what leads businesses to become more unethical about their CRO efforts, but, we can eliminate the need for unethical design with better design strategy.

Solution? Product design.

Product design, as mentioned earlier, is where design and business blur into one, and allows us to focus on user needs, creating value while meeting business objectives.

We’ll cover some of these concepts towards the end of our UX series.

For now, I’ll leave you with the 5 S’s of UX:

  • Strategy: user needs (business)
  • Scope: functional requirements (product)
  • Structure: user flows and IA (UX)
  • Skeleton: UI and interaction design (UI)
  • Surface: visual design and branding (visual)

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.