What is UX – a UX guide

There is no universal definition of UX design. UX is an umbrella term encompassing the different components of User Experience, stemming from a variety of disciplines. Most notably, this includes Interaction design, Information Architecture and User Research. According to a study from the ‘Oxford Journal Interacting with Computers’, UX in business sets out to “improve customer satisfaction and loyalty through the utility, ease of use, and pleasure provided in the interaction with a product”.

The Interaction Design Foundation adds that UX design creates products that “provide meaningful and relevant experiences to users”. UX includes every stage of creating, integrating, selling and using a product. It includes branding, design, function, repairs, advertising and more. UX is completely moulded around the individual needs and desires of the user, and seeks to deliver a pleasurable experience for them throughout all of their interactions with the product, service or software.

Three important questions

Anyone and everyone working in UX must ask themselves three important questions when they are designing a product or service: why, what and how. To answer these questions, designers need to step into the shoes of the consumer. ‘Why’ refers to why the user wants the product; in what ways will the product add value to their life. ‘What’ refers to the functionality of the product; what function does the product need to perform to meet the user’s expectations. Finally, ‘How’ can the product or service be designed in a way that enhances the user’s experience?

The seven principles of UX – the UX guide

Peter Morville, a prominent figure and author in the UX field, researched and devised seven principles that define UX design. These were released in 2004, and they provide an excellent user experience guide to guaranteeing that a product fits UX conditions. Firstly, a product should be ‘Useful’; if a user doesn’t use it, then they won’t take any value from it, and they will be left with a poor user experience.

While useful can refer to providing a practical function that fits into a user’s lifestyle, useful is in the eye of the beholder. It can refer to non-practical benefits like providing amusement. Secondly, a product should be ‘Usable’ to allow customers to efficiently and effectively make use of their product. This means that all functions available should be as clear and easy to use as possible. ‘Findable’ is another key principle of UX that refers to a product being advertised in a way that ensures potential users in the target market will become aware of the product, and know where and how they can purchase it. ‘Credible’ refers to the trust the user feels they can put in to the product and the brand. To ensure credibility, designers need to make reliable products that meets the expectations of their users. A product should also be ‘Desirable’.

Desirability can be created and induced with the use of graphics, branding, imagery and anything that provokes a positive emotional response to the product; the aim is for users to become proud of their product. Accessibility is another fundamental dimension of UX design, and it describes the process of ensuring that a product can be used by people of all abilities. The more accessible a design is, the larger the potential customer base of a product will be. Lastly, a UX product should be valuable. This value should be accrued by ensuring the other six principles are guaranteed within a UX product.

The building blocks of UX design

Interaction design

While UX involves all aspects of a user’s experience, Interactive Design focuses solely on the interaction between a user and their product. Interactive designers strive to guide these interactions in a way that allows a user to successfully achieve their goals. When designing a product or service, designers need to consider many aspects.

For example, this might include how colours can be used to indicate function, or what feedback users should receive after different interactions. London’s Royal College of Art, Gillian Crampton Smith, and senior interaction designer, Kevin Silver defined the Five Dimensions of Interactive Design. These are five aspects that all interactive designers must consider. They are listed below;

  • Words
    This refers to the styles of written information given to the user, and the amount of information that is given.
  • Visual representations
    This refer to graphics used, such as images and displays.
  • Physical objects/space
    This describes the mediums that users implement in order to interact with the product. This might include a phone or tablet.
  • Time
    This media changes over time, like videos and sounds.
  • Behaviour
    This dimension refers to how the previous four dimensions interact to affect the user’s behavioural interaction with the product.

When designing a product, Interactive Designers are responsible for designing, manipulating and combining these five dimensions in a way that enhances the user’s interaction with it. The usual tasks that interactive designers deal with vary depending on the type of company they work for, but they might include design strategy and wireframes.

Design strategy requires the designer to gather enough information to determine what the goals of the user are, in order to create a design that guides the user to those goals. Designers might also create wireframes to plan out the different interactions of a product.

Information architecture

The Information Architecture Institute describes how Information Architecture is “… about helping people understand their surroundings and find what they’re looking for, in the real world as well as online”. It includes the structure of a project; a structure that allows users to understand where they are and where the information they want is. A designer’s work therefore revolves around organising information, and might include creating physical maps, categories, menus and metadata among other possibilities.

Information Architect Dan Brown created eight principles that he believes this field of work should be based on. These principles include the principle of choice; giving less choice instead of more is preferable so as not to overwhelm the user. The principle of disclosure describes how information should be previewed for the user, to allow them to make a decision about whether or not to search for more information about a topic. The principle of exemplars emphasises the importance of using examples when categorising topics.

Peter Morville and Louis Rosenfeld, key figures within the Information Architecture field, also highlight the importance of structuring content around a user’s needs. These needs might be exploratory, for instance when users go to a website to be inspired but are not quite sure what they are looking for. Users could also have known-item seeking needs, when they are trying to find a specific piece of information, or exhaustive research needs. This refers to users trying to uncover as much information as possible. It is important for designers to take account of these needs in order to guide the user towards meeting them.

User experience research

User experience research describes the process of understanding the user’s needs, behaviours and desires. This is achieved by qualitative and quantitative methods, as well as attitudinal and behavioural approaches. The ultimate aim of this information gathering process is for UX designers to work out how to anticipate and fulfil a user’s needs, as well as deliver an enjoyable and meaningful product experience for them.

Qualitative methods that UX researchers might employ include interviews with target groups, and ethnographic field studies. This type of information gathering reveals why users want what they want, or do what they do. Quantitative methods on the other hand, rely on more formal practises like surveys. They reveal patterns, and they are employed to identify what users are actually doing. In addition to qualitative and quantitative methods, UX researchers use attitudinal and behavioural approaches. While an attitudinal approach entails recording what a user says, behavioural approaches involve looking at how a user behaves through observation. Erin Sanders, from the Research Learning Spiral, described five steps to conducting UX research.

These include setting objectives to identify the knowledge that designers want to collect and grasp, and creating hypotheses. Researchers then have to select the appropriate methods to achieve their objectives, and initiate their information gathering process. Lastly, a UX researcher needs to synthesise the information they have gathered, confirm whether or not their hypothesis is correct or not, and fit the results of the study into the wider picture of customer data. Following a formal, standardised procedure like this is important for guaranteeing the validity, reliability and accuracy of user experience research.

While there is no universal definition of UX, there is general agreement that UX encompasses all aspects of User Experience. The goal of all UX design is to create a memorable and personal experience for the user throughout their interaction with the product. When designing a product, UX designers need to ask themselves why the customer values the product, what purpose do they need or want it for, and how can design be enhanced to provide an impressive user experience. Designers also need to take the seven key principles of UX design into account to ensure the quality of their product.

As UX embraces all aspects of user experience, there are several categories within it. They include Interaction Design, which focuses on the interaction between a user and their product. Information architecture and User Research are additional key components of UX design. These categories relate to the structure of a product, and the research that is conducted to identify the needs and wants of users. Together, the branches of UX design facilitate a UX designer to meet and exceed customer expectations, and provide a unique user experience for them.

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