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 UX design is and isn't
  • The value of UX design
  • UX vs. UI vs. visual design
  • What = exceptional UX
  • How to/not to approach UX design

So…What is UX Design?

In short, UX design is about making experiences (either real or digital) easier to use.

When we’re at the airport 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 fly from A to B), however too much friction and confusion delays us from achieving it.

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

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

The 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 that there’s no need to bother improving.

Thankfully, most industries are rife with competition. It’s quite 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.

Investing in UX design makes users happy

Example: eCommerce

Let’s use eCommerce (that is, apps and websites that act as an online store) as an example. 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 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, and we’re barely even beginning to understand and tap into the benefits.

Here are some of the reasons why customers abandoned their checkout:

  • Surprise fees at the checkout
  • Forced to signup before checking out
  • Checkout was too long and/or too complicated
  • Errors or crashes
  • Order total wasn’t clear
  • Checkout didn’t look secure
  • Payment methods weren’t desirable or available

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 need to understand how to improve UX, but they must be able to communicate the value of UX design to businesses in need of it.

What Does a UX Designer Do?

Pretty much all businesses play in the digital world (most businesses use a website to—at least—display information about what they offer). A digital address can act as a stepping stone in the customer’s journey, even if it isn’t the destination. Hence, the objective of an app or website differs depending on the nature of the business.

A UX designer’s primary role is to reverse-engineer problems that users (and/or businesses) are facing, and come up with creative ways to solve them. Problems have a value because customers and businesses are likely to pay money to have them solved, especially when it saves them time and/or money in the long haul. Solving these issues often involves customer research, sketching, user testing, designing, and a bunch of other activities that involve validating ideas and solutions with real customers.

Brainstorming and sketching design ideas

And of course, UX design is sometimes about making things look nice too. We refer to this aspect of UX design as visual design (which is often confused with UI design).

What UX Design is and Isn’t

Design doesn’t necessarily mean visual aesthetics. In fact, there are several factors that contribute to UX that have nothing to do with visual design. While experimenting with fonts and colors is exciting, design is (mostly) how it works, not just how it looks.

Great UX design also incorporates thoughtful branding (i.e. a visual “identity” that sets the business apart from other businesses, and communicates the core values and personality of the business) and customer support (how effective the company is at helping the customer when they’re stuck). We’re only now beginning to really understand how UX strategy and business strategy are almost one and the same thing.

In a nutshell, UX design is about the user’s overall experience with a product and/or business, and goes way beyond designing pretty interfaces.

UX vs. UI vs. Visual Design

People often confuse UX design with UI design, and even UI design with visual design. Let’s clarify these terms quickly, so that there’s no confusion moving forward:

Visual design is how it looks—the colors, the fonts, the overall visual aesthetic.

UI design is the visible aspect of the experience, of which visual design plays an important role. However, UI design also requires some thought about proximity (how certain elements relate to other elements on the screen) and contrast (how well we can distinguish certain elements from other elements). Proximity and contrast (among other things) are what we call “Principles of Design”, or simply, “Design Principles”.

UX design is a measure of the experience as a whole—how quickly the user is able to accomplish their objective, and to what degree has their issue been solved. Both UI design and visual design contribute to effective UX, but we shouldn’t compare them like they’re the same thing. Design is not art. People care about visual aesthetics, however the ease of use will forever be the most important aspect of the experience.

Validating Ideas

Dribbble, a once-upon-a-time “show and tell” website for designers, has become something of a circus for thoughtless visual explorations. Rather than looking for feedback, some “Dribbblers” tend to share visually appealing yet impractical “shots” in an effort to acquire likes. This is synonymous with the way that modern society craves validation and attention, and feeding our ego in this way doesn’t help us become better UX designers, nor will it communicate the value of UX to clients who want to see a return on their investment in UX design. “Likes” have no value to the client.

We shouldn’t focus our idea validation efforts at designers when it’s customers that will be the end-user of our design. We need open-ended, honest feedback that goes beyond the visual design, from customers that have user tested the entire experience, as opposed to spent only a few seconds looking at an 800x600px Dribbble shot.

Conducting user testing with real users

What Makes Great UX?

Great UX is composed of the following:

  • Usability—how easy is it to use?
  • Accessibility—is it accessible to anybody regardless of disability?
  • Functionality—does it work well/fast on any device?
  • Support—is help available to those who need it?
  • Value—is the end result worth the user’s time/money?

Business Goals vs. Ethical Design

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.

GDPR, the “Ethical Design” EU Law

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 Europe) in an effort to squash unethical activities like 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.

Dark UX = Poor Business Strategy

Conversation Rate Optimization (or CRO) isn’t about finding the “optimal level of pushy”, it’s about truly understanding the needs of the market and building something that customers will pay for without being pushed (although a little nudge is fine 😉).

Diving straight into visual design means that we’ve likely designed something 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 aggressive about their CRO efforts, which can actually have an adverse effect on conversions, and will almost certainly hurt their brand significantly. We can eliminate the need for dark UX techniques and reduce the risk of building something that nobody wants (saving both time and money) with a lean approach to customer development and UX design.

Embrace customer development for better UX insights

And this is where UX strategy and business strategy blur into one.

We call this product design.

What is Product Design?

Product design (in a nutshell) tends to happen like this…

  • Step 1: discover a problem
  • Step 2: find a target audience (if there is one)
  • Step 3: interview the target audience to learn more about their troubles
  • Step 4: segment those motivated to find a solution as “early adopters”
  • Step 5: conduct a design sprint to design an MVP (Minimum Viable Product)
  • Step 6: validate the MVP with user testing
  • Step 6+: design, build, ship, test, design, build, ship, test…

Or, there’s always the heavier and more expensive approach to design:

  • Step 1: come up with an idea
  • Step 2: build it, even if nobody asked for it
  • Step 3: implement some visual design trends, just because
  • Step 4: release the idea to anyone and everyone

As you can imagine, this approach is destined for failure 😅.

Bottom line: we can’t design intuitive user experiences if we don’t understand the issues that users are facing (and their root causes), and we can’t be sure that our solutions are the right solutions unless we validate them with real customers.


Product design, UX design, UI design, visual design…there’s a lot to consider. However, while designers should be well-versed in various aspects of design, it’s common for designers to focus on a specialized area, especially when working in a design team.

Over the next few weeks we’re going to explore the different designer roles and UX concepts on our blog. We’ll learn the UX fundamentals like an expert as we cover classic learning material, as well as some modern concepts that you might not find in your everyday UX course. In the coming weeks we’ll release our first book, Designing UX: Learning the Fundamentals, which'll contain these articles and more.

Subscribe below 👇 and not only will you be able to download the book for free (when it’s released), but you’ll also receive a 1-year free .design domain (like us!).

Daniel Schwarz

Daniel Schwarz

Daniel Schwarz is a digital designer, web developer, and maker by background, but a writer, editor, 3x author, and teacher at heart. Currently a design blog editor at Toptal and SitePoint, writer at .net Magazine and Web Designer Magazine, but occasionally a collaborator with top design companies such as Adobe and InVision.