UX design plays an increasingly critical role in companies, and can often be the maker or breaker of success.
Let's take Amazon, who were famed for championing UX since the beginning of the company. One UX change, which removed the need to register to complete a purchase, led to a $300 million increase in sales.
As a stark contrast, M&S experienced a £55 million loss after their website redesign launch failed catastrophically, due to poor loading times and difficulty managing accounts.
While the importance of UX design grows, so does its complexity—constantly changing with the latest technological developments and user needs.
In this step-by-step guide, we’re going to share what you need to know about the UX design process, and help you master the core qualities of a successful designer. Let’s get you ready for your next design project.
What is UX design?
First off, let’s start with a definition of user experience, or UX.
"User experience" encompasses all aspects of the end-users interaction with the company, its services, and its products.
So UX design is about understanding the overall journey of your users and turning it into a product. There are three qualities of a good product: useful (people need it), usable (great quality), and delightful (it brings joy).
UX design is often mentioned together with UI (user interface) design. While subtle, the difference between UI and UX is important. In short, UX looks at the whole experience of a product, while UI design focuses much more on the visual specifics—typography, images, buttons, and other elements.
A brief history of UX design
Over the last century, the UX profession has grown exponentially. By 2050, it’s predicted to grow to about 100 million UX professionals.
Let’s look at some of the key events in the evolution of UX.
1948: Toyota and human-technology interaction
Toyota spearheaded the idea of usability in the workplace, when workers were encouraged to suggest improvements to their working conditions, in a bid to increase efficiency. They demonstrated that great technology should be optimized by humans’ ability to interact with it.
1950: John Karlin—the father of usability
Best known for his design of the touch tone keypad, John Karlin established a new approach to technology design, while working at Bell Labs. The approach centered around technology adapting to humans, rather than the other way round. This concept became the basis of Human Factors Engineering.
1955: Henry Dreyfuss—Designing for People
Usability as a concept was further developed by Dreyfuss, an American industrial engineer who prioritized simplicity and ease of use, designing so that as many people as possible could easily use his products. Some of his notable designs include the tabletop telephone, thermostat, and polaroid camera.
1966: Disney’s Joy
Walt Disney went above and beyond to create magical and unique experiences, and described one of his projects as: "An experimental prototype that is always in the state of becoming, a place where the latest technology can be used to improve the lives of people”. He certainly knew a thing or two about how to delight visitors so much that they couldn’t wait to return.
1993: Donald Norman invents the term ‘UX’
While working at Apple, Norman came up with the term UX. He wanted to highlight that the concept incorporates so much more than human interface and usability, but all aspects of the person’s experience, from design, to graphics, to physical interaction.
We must design for the way people behave, not for how we would wish them to behave.
Donald Norman, Living with Complexity
We’ve looked back at how the role of UX has risen to importance, and next up we’re going to further explore why exactly UX Design is so important.
Why is UX design important?
Focus on the user and all else will follow.
UX design has a central focus on the user: creating and delivering value, and satisfying wants and needs.
But the benefits go far beyond the users, as UX design is becoming increasingly instrumental in delivering value to the business as well.
Good UX design can:
1. Increase ROI
Every $1 invested in UX brings $100—an ROI of 9,900%. Plus, companies with the best UX design increase their revenues and shareholder returns at nearly twice the rate of industry counterparts.
Airbnb’s Co-Founder, Joe Gebbia, credits design thinking with taking the company to $10 billion.
Increasing ROI comes down to decreasing two factors: time and spend. ROI is a core metric all businesses prioritize, and we’ll explain further how UX directly impacts it in the following four points.
2. Increase conversions
A great UX could increase conversion rates by 400% (Forrester). Good UX design is one of the key differentiators between competing products. For example, Apple is certainly not the cheapest on the market, but their design-first mentality and focus on user experience attracts users time and time again.
3. Increase retention
When you invest in UX design, you build trust with customers, make them feel safe, and delight them every time they use the product—key factors in increasing brand loyalty.
Starbucks has one of the most popular loyalty rewards apps ever. Ex-CFO Scott Maw merits their digital relationships with customers, which they've built through a great, user-friendly mobile experience.
4. Reduce costs
Keeping the user experience front of mind early on means potential issues are nipped in the bud as soon as they occur, which reduces the burden on other teams later on, along with company costs. Customer support has fewer calls to handle, product saves time building relevant features, and engineering has fewer bugs to fix.
In fact, one study found that UX can help avoid wasted development time by 50% and reduce it down the line by another 50%. And McAfee cut their support calls by 90% as a result of a UI redesign.
5. Support SEO
User experience ranks highly in Google’s search algorithm. So the better the experience you provide, the more likely Google is to display your website in search results. From Google’s perspective, major factors that point to a great user experience include page speed and mobile responsiveness. In this case, providing great UX will make marketing thank you too.
Now that you have a better understanding of the significance of UX design, let’s walk you through the key stages of the UX design process.
The 5 stages of the UX design process
The UX design process starts with an agreed plan of action to ensure all stakeholders are heading in the same direction, and that it makes sense.
Have a project kickoff meeting with the whole team together, and the following agenda:
- Brainstorm the concept and purpose of the product, and create a value proposition to clarify how your product adds value. Identify how it solves user problems, what the user benefits are, unique selling points, and competitive advantages.
- Assess for project needs—what else do you need to make this a success?
- Anticipate and suggest where there might be issues down the line.
- Agree on key deliverables, and use the S.M.A.R.T. framework to set goals which focus on outcomes and maximize efficiency. It’s essential to balance both the goals of the users and the business, which are not always harmonious. As Freelance Senior Product Designer Yannick Garcia highlights: “If you apply 100% user-centric design only, it will always conflict with business goals at some point. Some users will want something that fits their own needs, but that is not scalable. Of course you should listen to them, but then align this with the direction and vision of the company.”
- Set expectations and a realistic timeline to set yourself up for success, and ensure you don’t overpromise and underdeliver.
For more on this topic, see our articles on how to create a winning UX strategy that meets user and business needs and how to create an effective UX roadmap that aligns stakeholders.
It's critical to get input from potential users at every stage to build a product that those users actually want. Otherwise, you’re working off assumptions, which could lead to poor market fit—not addressing a real user problem, or solving it in the wrong way.
Before diving into creating any designs, start by researching the pain points of your users. This will help you understand the goals of your users and how the product can best address them through new or existing solutions.
There are several UX research methods you can employ at this stage, here’s a few of them:
Interviews with users from the target audience can help you to uncover user needs and issues.
Typical questions might include: What problems do you encounter while using the product? What can be improved? What would your ideal product look like?
Asking a group of target users to discuss their feelings and pain points with a particular design.
Sending a questionnaire to sections of your target audience, with specific questions designed for specific groups. Surveys can:
- Provide valuable information to better understand potential users
- Reduce the risk of designing a poor product
- Gather large sets of quantitative data and find patterns in different user groups
- Assess usability, for example with the System Usability Scale (SUS)—an industry-standard scoring system, which will provide you with a survey template, and allow you to compare scores with similar products
- Give stakeholders confidence in evidence-backed designs.
User personas are realistic representations of your typical users. A persona usually includes key characteristics like challenges, motivations, personality, demographics, uses for your product, and a potential scenario. This helps you to empathize and understand what an ideal experience for each of your different user groups might be.
Now you can start investing more time into the design phase. There are several key stages to this, including:
Sketches are a form of quick and minimalistic drawing, which designers use to propose and refine designs. They enable you to get creative, record ideas, get and give critique, and collaboratively make decisions on which designs to move forward with.
Wireframing is one of the first steps in the UX design process and involves creating simplified representations of a page interface. The focus of wireframing is on defining the layout and basic elements of a design. Wireframes are usually created in greyscale and include placeholders for content like images and buttons.
At the early stages of the design process, wireframes help you communicate incipient design ideas to stakeholders and collect feedback on the design before investing time in high-fidelity prototypes.
Learn more about wireframe testing here.
Defining the IA
IA (information architecture) is the process of structuring and classifying the structure and content of your website, app, or product, to cut through information overload and narrow choice. This makes the design easy to navigate and gives users the exact information they need and when.
Two common techniques used to define a good IA are card sorting and tree testing. These help you to see how users perceive information and content, and where on their journey they expect different pieces of content to be located.
Mapping the user flow
To visually see the different journeys and interactions a user can make, map out the user flow. This will help you figure out where to direct the user at each stage, and how best to get them there.
Yannick explains that: "Any user flow that is not purely functional should be treated as a real life conversation with interactions, rather than a robotic interface. You need to think how you would feel if someone spoke to you like this. It’s like using a vending machine vs going to the bakery you love, being greeted with a smile, the baker already knowing the muffin you like and offering you a free profiterole, and you leaving feeling delighted. Small things have a big impact on an experience!"
A typical flow might be how to direct a user from the home page to sign up, and everything in between.
Prototypes are mockups of how your designs may look when implemented. They are usually used to present ideas and design concepts to stakeholders and potential users, and run prototype testing. Prototypes can and should be done throughout the UX design process, and you’ll be using a combination of low, mid, and high fidelity.
- The most basic form of prototyping, used early on in the design process to provoke creativity and innovation
- Only key design and content elements included, such as shapes and basic visual hierarchy
- Usually paper-based
- Quick to create and inexpensive
- Don’t include user interactions
- Can be used for testing, as they have interaction abilities, but with limited functionality
- Used to validate an interaction concept, go quicker from conceptual to implementation stage, and avoid unnecessary design later in the process
- Design still in development stages
- As close to the final design as possible
- Used to perform usability testing, or get final design approval
- All design and content elements included
- Take longer to create, and can be expensive
At the latest stages of the UX design process, usability testing helps you uncover issues, measure ease of use, and track key metrics.
Testing is imperative at this stage to see how your design compares against previous versions or competitors. This type of testing is also called summative testing—one of the key steps before launch.
With summative testing, the goal is to test with at least twenty users to collect results that are reliable, and go confidently into hand-off.
After every round of testing, you need to analyze the results to define how to move forward.
If major issues were identified, you’ll probably need to iterate on the solution until final. This includes mapping out the issues you’ve discovered and grouping similarities together, then prioritizing them based on severity and the impact that they have on users.
This last stage of the UX design process involves collaborating with stakeholders on research findings. Include product management and researchers to decide on and prepare for next steps.
Then… drumroll… it’s time to launch!
Now that you have a clearer idea of what’s involved in the UX design process, it's important to highlight that a big part of the process is iteration. Before and after each major design stage, research and test to ensure your design is informed by data and delivers real value, and continue working on it until it meets the goals of your users.
Ultimately, no design is perfect but you can certainly provide a great experience for your users by testing along the way.
6 qualities of a successful UX designer
While it's true that anyone can become a UX designer, there are some fundamental qualities, or "soft skills", which could set you apart from the rest, help you land whichever UX job you desire, or progress in the one you already love.
We spoke to Diana Militano, Senior Product Designer at TravelPerk and UX Instructor at allWomen, Yannick Garcia, Freelance Senior Product Designer, and Ioana Adriana Teleanu, UX Manager at UiPath, to get their top qualities of a successful UX designer, and advice on how to develop them.
Developing the skill to understand how others think and feel is vital.
You need to be able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, switch your point of view, and observe people. You can’t design for someone if you don’t understand them.
Yannick suggests one way of building empathy with your users is by observation. “You should feed the fire with experiences from everyday life. I am always conscious of people’s reactions, and observant of human behavior. I stop and look at things, and take inspiration from everywhere: graphic design, apps, videos. Even your local shop—how do they welcome you?”
And it's not just awareness of others you need to practice, but awareness of yourself. “Practice introspection as much and as often as possible, by observing and reflecting on your thoughts and feelings. This should also help you acknowledge your strengths, weaknesses, and even biases, which are important to know and control as a designer. Some powerful tools you can leverage for building self-awareness are meditation, journaling (my favorite), and therapy,” adds Ioana.
2. Communication skills
Good communication abilities are essential. They might incorporate: articulating design decisions, presenting your work, advocating design, being good with UX research, and more.
Ioana Adriana Teleanu, UX Manager at UiPath
Having good communication skills helps with research and testing, as you need to be able to form a relationship with users, so they feel confident sharing feedback.
Internal feedback is also critical to improving designs, and helping you grow as a designer. Diana highlights: "Everyone will have an opinion on your work, because the impact is seen across every team. So you must be prepared to give and receive all kinds of feedback, without taking things personally." Yannick’s tip for this: "Keep your ego away from it—remember you're not the product you’re designing."
3. Learning mindset
UX design is constantly changing. What worked today may not necessarily work tomorrow. So continuous learning is key for you to always stay one step ahead.
Don’t stop at UX design skills. Read about business, cognitive psychology, writing, product. Be curious in general. That's what companies are looking for—it’s an essential requirement.
For instance, UX writing has recently started to play an important role in UX, as copy is a key part of the user interface. Yannick suggests that designers should focus on this from the beginning:
Working on copy is key. Invest a lot of time in the words you will use. As a designer, you have a lot of input on the copy, so it’s a core skill to learn early on.
Yannick Garcia, Senior Freelance Product Designer
Starting a blog, podcast, or your own business, can also be a powerful way to discover more. Ioana founded @uxgoodies off the back of her strong desire to continuously explore. *"It became a core part of my growth journey, and has helped me tremendously with building a network, meeting other designers, and having countless compelling design conversations."
There is no shortage of places you can learn, and it'll depend on your commitment and budget. You can try bootcamps, online articles, part-time courses, networking, books, podcasts, and webinars. Here's some resources our pros suggest:
- About Face by Alan Cooper (Diana's "Design Bible")
- Design Lab
- UX Goodies on Slack
- Discord's Design Buddies community
- Mento Design Academy
4. Critical thinking
Don’t be afraid to question things. Diana explains why:
One of the most important abilities you need as a designer is to probe and ask: “Why?” Ask the question first, and know it’s ok to challenge the answer.
“Critical thinking is essential in my view, as it sits at the foundation of being able to grasp complex systems, make connections, and, most importantly, to reflect on the findings, insights, and process in a neutral way,” says Ioana.
Plus, you should always keep the bigger picture in mind. As Diana explains, “You need to have a systems thinking mindset, think outside the box, and about the wider context of everything. You should understand not only where your product is used, but how others are connected to it."
Continuous, rapid experimentation is critical to UX design, to speed up the iteration process, and ultimately give users the most valuable experience possible.
"Trust your gut. Sometimes we cannot rely only on data. We are building interactions for humans who have feelings, and we need to design with that in mind,” says Yannick.
You don’t have to reinvent the wheel—listen to your own feelings, be confident, and go with it. You can then test those intuitions and quickly reiterate—that’s how you innovate.
Yannick Garcia, Senior Freelance Product Designer
Diana highlights the importance of not being afraid to fail: "It’s all about learning from your mistakes, getting your work on the table, deconstructing it, and poking holes in it.”
6. Tech skills
Every UX designer is different, and some are more technical than others. So while you may not need or want to learn heavy tech skills, you do need to grasp a solid understanding of UX design tools, the mindset of developers, and some basic programming language.
The tech side is very deeply connected to the product. If you feel uncomfortable and don’t have passion for the tools, it’s going to make your world harder.
Yannick Garcia, Senior Freelance Product Designer
Designers need to understand how developers work. Diana suggests two ways:
“Work very closely with developers, and ask them to explain why things are done in a certain way. It’s a faster way of learning the issues that reoccur, which you can then foresee and prevent in future.
Utilize tools. For example, I often use the prototyping tool Axure, which is designed for designers, but includes programming concepts. By learning that tool, you learn the mindset of developers, and even a bit of code.”
So there we have it! Our top six qualities that make a rockstar UX designer.
All of these traits can be learned, so if you can master them, you’ve set yourself up for success.