It’s often said that great UX design is invisible because users tend to pay attention to design only when it makes their lives more difficult. However, behind every sleek product design that sparks joy and happiness in its users is a multitude of design decisions, each just as important as the other.
For example, the fact that just about every person today can pick up a smartphone and figure out how to use all of its basic features without reading a manual or repeatedly succumbing to frustration is a result of all the battles UX designers secretly fight every day.
Sometimes, the battles are easy to win because they’ve been fought before by other UX designers. But there are also times when UX designers have to tackle such complex and intricate problems that they feel like grunts stuck in a maze of waterlogged trenches, unsure whether to go left, right, or charge straight at the enemy.
When discovering the right solution seems like finding the path to the end of a maze, UX designers should remind themselves that great UX design stands on 5 foundational pillars that must be erected in a specific order. By following this order and understanding the specific purpose of each of the 5 pillars, UX designers can ensure that all of their battles will be victorious.
1. Great UX design starts with empathy
Many UX designers wrongly believe that the first step in the user experience design process is problem identification and definition, but that’s not the case for one simple reason: it’s impossible to accurately identify and define a problem without first developing a sense of empathy toward the people we are designing for.
Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings, goals, and motivations of other people, and it shouldn’t be confused with pity (the feeling of sadness for someone else’s unhappiness or difficult situation), sympathy (the feeling of understanding and care for someone else’s suffering), and compassion (a strong feeling of sadness for the suffering or bad luck of others and a wish to help them).
A genuine understanding of how to solve a problem and build a better product requires insights into what the people we are designing for think and feel when they interact with products in a real-world setting. To gain empathy toward people, UX designers should throw their own assumptions out of the window and become keen observers who don’t judge what they observe but question everything they see.
An empathy map is one easy-to-digest way UX teams can align their thoughts and feelings with those of the end user. Similar to a user persona, an empathy map can represent a group of users by visualizing what they say, do, think, and feel. To design an empathy map, simply draw a large square and divide it into four equal sections by drawing two diagonal lines, joining its four corners. If needed, you can include additional sections at the bottom to include even more information about end users.
Once we have maximized our empathy for users, we can begin problem identification and definition. Skipping this first foundational pillar of great UX design could jeopardize the entire process right at the very beginning and lead to a lot of wasted effort, time, and money.
2. Problem identification and definition
UX designers can easily fall into the trap of developing features that don’t actually contribute to solving the problem their target users are looking to solve. In fact, one study from the Standish Group discovered that 45% of all features are never used. This alarming statistic illustrates the need for better problem identification and definition as a way to avoid developing products that are worthless to users—regardless of how great UX design they boast.
Recognizing the problem and finding the best solution requires user research. “User research is used to understand the user’s needs, behaviors, experiences, and motivations through various qualitative and quantitative methods to inform the process of solving for user’s problems,” writes Mona Yang, UX designer at OneDegree.
- Qualitative user research methods gather non-numerical data using unstructured or semi-structured techniques. Their examples include interviews, workshops, paper prototyping, joint product creation, focus groups, participatory design sessions, diary studies, and usability tests, among others.
- Quantitative user research methods investigate observable phenomena via statistical, mathematical, or computational techniques through polls, questionnaires, surveys, A/B or multivariate tests, click tests, eye-tracking studies, and card sorts, just to give a few examples.
It’s important to allot a sufficient amount of time for problem identification and definition because you may discover additional problems that need suitable solutions if you want to end up with a great UX design. The more you can empathize with the target users, the easier it will be to identify and define them.
Once you have identified and defined the problem, the solution should be fairly obvious. If it isn’t, the chances are that you’ve missed something critical. In that case, you should employ additional qualitative and quantitative user research methods to gather additional information.
3. Information architecture
If the problem is the goal we want to reach, information architecture is like a map that will get us there.
The term information architecture was coined in 1976 by TED founder Richard Saul Wurman in his famous book titled Information Anxiety. “An information architect is the individual who organizes the patterns inherent in data, making the complex clear,” Wurman explained the term. Since the term was coined, it has taken on additional meanings, which explains why UX designers interpret it slightly differently than its creator.
UX designers create information architecture to describe the hierarchy, navigation, features, and interactions of a product, just like an architect creates a blueprint to describe how the actual building will look and function a long time before the first brick meets mortar.
By providing a bird’s-eye view of the entire product, information architecture helps designers and developers how the product is supposed to work, making it easier for them to implement features, update existing ones, meet deadlines without losing sleep, and generally create a great UX design.
Designing information architecture has a lot in common with flowcharting because they both rely on a variety of symbols, shapes, and arrows to represent complex relationships between individual elements and organize them in a hierarchical fashion. The biggest difference between the two is the lack of standardization when it comes to the design of information architecture. For this reason, it’s critically important to clearly label all elements of information architecture.
There are many tools that can be used to easily create information architecture. Draw.io is a free online diagram software that uses the mxGraph library as the base of the stack and works great for making information architectures, flowcharts, process diagrams, org charts, and network diagrams. Another popular tool is Lucidchart, whose professional templates and extensive features make diagramming effortless.
IDEO Agency is known for saying that a prototype is worth 1,000 meetings. A prototype can be described as a primitive version of something that will eventually become a final product, after it has been iterated upon and improved. All prototypes are models because they help us understand how something works with a certain degree of precision and interactivity.
The value of prototypes stems largely from how easy they are to make. With an inexpensive prototype, teams can run tests on users and gather their feedback – as users are the most crucial factor driving the UX design of an app. On the other hand, thanks to prototypes all stakeholders can better understand how the product works and where it’s limitations are before it’s too late in the development process and the cost of a change becomes too high. This can be especially valuable when working with a limited budget.
Prototypes can be divided into two broad groups: low-fidelity prototypes and high-fidelity prototypes. The term fidelity means how close a prototype is to the final product.
Low-fidelity prototypes, such as sketches and paper prototypes, take virtually no time to make, but they lack visual refinement, and a full understanding of their functionality requires a bit of imagination. High-fidelity prototypes, such as HTML prototypes, fully-interactive digital prototypes created with prototyping software, take more time to create, but they are significantly better when it comes to soliciting feedback and doing usability testing.
Some of the most popular dedicated prototyping software tools include InVision, Adobe Experience Design, Origami Studio, Sketch, and Axure. These and other prototyping software tools are quickly becoming indispensable for producing great UX design because they can be used without coding and offer a broad range of features for creating rich interactive prototypes.
5. Feedback gathering
Feedback is what has allowed humans to survive and evolve for millennia. Without feedback, we would be making the same mistakes over and over again because we would have no way of knowing that we are making them. Just imagine how far you would get in life if your body wasn’t able to tell you that something hurts. Probably not far at all.
UX designers who don’t gather user feedback have a similarly slim chance of coming up with a truly great UX design. When we receive feedback, we also receive a chance to use this information to do something better. In fact, it’s useful to see all feedback as opportunities. Ignoring feedback then is the same as ignoring valuable opportunities.
The feedback gathered for UX design can be qualitative or quantitative:
- Qualitative feedback answers the question “why” (e.g. why users can’t log in). It provides deep insights and is used to gain an understanding of underlying reasons, opinions, and motivations behind it. Examples of qualitative feedback include user interviews, questionnaires, and in-person testing sessions.
- Quantitative feedback answers the question “what” (e.g. what is the problem with the feature). It is all about obtaining data for subsequent analysis. Its examples include ratings, heatmaps, and quantitative surveys. Receiving quantitative feedback from just 1 user isn’t particularly helpful, but analyzing data from 5,000 users can tell us a lot about our product and the ways it can be improved.
Sometimes, feedback can be obtained without asking, but it’s typically best to gather it proactively. To design an effective mechanism for gathering feedback from users, it’s essential to ask the right questions and know how to analyze the answers. Tools like GetFeedback, CustomerSure, SurveyMonkey, Bazaarvoice, or Reevoo can make this much easier, but they are by no means mandatory for creating a great UX design.