UX and UX Design seem to be popular buzz terms within the technology and design industry, but what do they really mean? How did user experience start and where did it come from? Let’s simplify this a bit and go back to the basics.
What is UX Design?
Today, UX Design usually refers to a person’s experience with a digital product or service. User experience design “is the process of enhancing customer satisfaction and loyalty by improving the usability, ease of use, and pleasure provided in the interaction between the customer and the product”.
UX design is simply an evolution of ergonomics. Ergonomics, also known as functional design, takes into account the interaction between a physical product and how people use them – “in essence, it is the study of designing equipment and devices that fit the human body and its cognitive abilities.” As you can see, UX design has taken a principle that was already present in the physical world and brought it over to the digital world.
The Origin of UX Design
The title UX designer has been banded about liberally over the last few years. The term was professionally used for the first time by Don Norman in 1995, when he was hired by Apple to help with its line of ‘human-centred’ products. Don Norman was an electrical engineer and cognitive scientist but upon taking the role at Apple, he asked for the title ‘User Experience Architect’..
According to Donald, “I invented the term because I thought human interface and usability were too narrow. I wanted to cover all aspects of the person’s experience with the system including industrial design, graphics, the interface, the physical interaction, and the manual”.
Since then, the term user experience has become synonymous with humans interacting with technology, especially digital platforms like websites, apps, etc. However, UX has always existed. Since humans started creating stone tools, we’ve found ways to improve and share our knowledge. This can only be done with user interaction and user experience.
Everything we use in the modern world was created and ‘designed’ with a purpose, originating from another human’s thoughts. That’s how an idea is born.
Nonetheless, UX is an important design principle within the digital community and it is constantly evolving along with industry trends.
…So what is the purpose of UX design?
The chair you are sitting in right now was designed with the user in mind. It was designed at a certain height, at a certain angle, a certain material, a certain colour. Whether this is a good chair or a bad chair is subjective but its very conception was to make a user more comfortable.
You may be thinking, ‘yeah, but it’s just a chair. What’s that got to do with user experience?’ Three words… Long. Haul. Flight.
User experience is at play in many ways in a chair. Especially a chair on a long haul flight. Ergonomics, behavioural, psychology. The difference between first class and Cattle economy, leaves a distinct impression on a person.
If you’ve ever had a good or bad experience on a flight, I bet the seat played a part. I also bet you told your friends and family about the horrible, cramped leg space you had on the nine hour flight from Florida or the amazing reclining seat you had on your business trip to Hong Kong.
Good or bad user experience is contagious. If you have a good experience then you’ll return. Likewise, a bad experience will drive you away.
This is why airlines spend so much money on customer retention, always looking to improve their service and make their experience the best.
Why is user experience shortened to UX instead of UE?
Well, for a number of reasons. It was originally shortened to UE in the early days but the abbreviation of UE is already being used 55 times.
Also, ‘X’ was already widely used at the time. Windows XP (short for experience) was developed in the early 00’s, and think about this, how do people read ‘XL’ on a piece of clothing? Extra large has been used for decades and is adopted worldwide.
Finally, the phonetic pronunciation of UX sounds better and is easier to understand when used in conversation. ‘YOU-EE’ (UE) can be misheard, whereas ‘YOU-EKS‘ (UX) has more clarity in the sound it makes.
How to navigate the ocean of UX job titles
User experience is a very broad term, which is one of the root causes of confusion that permeates not only to UX job titles, but to the entire profession itself. Every business seems to call the same job role different names and this seems to depend on the size of the business. Granted, these roles do vary slightly with levels of experience and seniority, but hopefully, we’ve captured everything below:
UX Designer – A user experience designer usually observes user research, creates wireframes, visual designs and prototypes. They create concepts around user journeys and flow. User experience design is a more technical role with knowledge of design, colour theory, typography, hierarchy, software and sometimes code, when required.
UX Researcher – User experience research is based on observing users in natural scenarios across multiple channels and includes moderated user research and remote user research. User researchers must be able to understand user behaviour, psychology and personas. User research is not to be confused with user testing.
UX Strategy – User experience strategy is more of a general role and includes a broad understanding of the issues and problems users will face. This involves putting themselves in the user’s position and thinking with empathy to solve problems. Good knowledge of how to tackle these issues and work with the wider UX team is key.
UX Writer – They say content is king, but it’s so often overlooked in digital products. From simple error messaging to complex onboarding processes, the user experience writer (UX Content Strategy) is becoming an increasingly important role. Copywriters and content creators have seen great results in the offline world for decades, it’s about time we recognised them for the important user experience work they can do online!
UX Developer – Similar to UX design, this is a very technical role, with skills hardwired in code, but what is the difference between a front end developer and a user experience developer? The simple answer is that a UX developer cares about the user. The traditional front end developer is sometimes too concerned with whether they can do something, they don’t stop to ask whether they should.
A good UX developer will always question how something they are building is benefiting the user (sometimes referred to as a UX engineer).
Other terms you need to know
Customer Experience (CX) – Customer experience encompasses all the interactions a person has with your brand at all different touch points. User experience design is the next level of user experience. CX designers no longer just care about user experience online but want to follow their designs through every channel possible turning users into long term customers. From email marketing to social media marketing, offline marketing, sales and call centres, it can be measured in overall experience, brand loyalty and recommendations.
UX QA – User experience quality assurance is the last line of defence before a digital product is released to the user. This again is similar to a UX developer and may involve UX Testing. Checking for bugs is only part of it, throughout this process those working in QA must make sure the solution solves the user’s problems and benefits them to have a more positive experience.
User Testing – User testing is the process after user research, after UX design, after UX strategy. This is no longer finding out about the user behaviour or psychology but looking more at the functionality of the product you have designed. Looking at more of the ‘can’ rather than the ‘why’; can the user choose a size, can they navigate the site, and can they purchase the product?
User Centred Design (UCD) – User centred design is a process that should involve almost all aspects of UX. From user research, strategy and content, to design and development. The user should be the main focus of the design process, solving their problems and making the best experience possible. UCD programmes are being widely adopted by businesses looking to optimise their online experience, sometimes overhauling the entire digital solution. You can read all about our user centred design process here.
Human Centred Design (HCD) – Human centred design understands users at a more fundamental level. Understanding users not just as visitors to a website but actual human beings; people with emotions, values and beliefs. Personalisation can be used effectively making digital experiences not only enjoyable but memorable.
Our Top 5 Tools for UX
1. User Research
Of course, this is my favourite UX tool! What kind of UX designer doesn’t do research? I love the human feedback you get from users. The subtle micro actions of a mouse movement, the frown on a user’s face when they are confused, to the frustrated vocalisation of a user that gets lost on the website. I’ve started using these user actions as triggers to come up with better solutions on the fly. I sit with a sketch book (sometimes my laptop) and quickly mock up a solution to the problems we are seeing. At the end of the session, clients love to see the potential designs we could test to make better experiences.
2. Font Awesome
Icon design is pretty difficult. Usability studies have shown that there are only a handful of universally recognised icons: Play, Pause, Stop, etc. This is to do with the adoption curve of technology and how icons have evolved into our daily lives. Font Awesome has tried to unify the world of icon design, making a free, easy to use icon set than can be used on any web platform. Their range is wide and varied with some 675 icons including recognisable gestures, logos and interface icons. Font Awesome has been adopted by a huge number of sites and is always the first stop for me as I create new digital experiences.
Prototyping is the extra layer we sometimes need when trying to convey our ideas. Invision has been a trusted friend for over 2 years and it’s certainly improved from its humble click and drag interface. The simple layering effect of .sketch, .psd, .pdf, .png, .jpg, files is incredibly intuitive and easy to use. You can now create prototypes for all sorts of devices including wearables like the Apple Watch and Android Watch. We’ve had great success at PRWD with walking clients (and users) through our designs. It gives a more immersive understanding of the look and feel we are trying to achieve. BONUS: The Invision Blog has great articles and is a source of inspiration!
Maybe this isn’t your standard UX tool, however, if you’re like us here at PRWD user data is super important. Understanding what many users do is just as (if not more) important than one on one research, to design great experiences. The insights we get from HotJar are incredibly useful, not only do they help inform our hypothesis and help us to create test ideas but we also use this to monitor our A/B tests. Watching the screen recordings of control vs variation can be deeply insightful, even when a test is live. We can quickly amend the design or adjust the test if we see users behave a certain way. We’ve had fantastic winning tests from insights gathered from HotJar so I thoroughly recommend you give a try.
5. Pen and Paper
Ok, ok – here me out. At PRWD the humble pen and paper is still king. From scribbling test ideas in user research and to leading creative workshops. There is no better tool to quickly get your ideas down. The most useful technique we use is the ‘6 UP’ technique.
Step 1 – Take a piece of paper and fold it into 6 even sections.
Step 2 – Set the timer on your phone for 5mins.
Step 3 – Draw… come up with a solution to the problem as many times as you can.
If you can fill all 6 sections, you’ve done well. Pushing your brain to create more than the obvious solution can reveal interesting results. As well as the added time pressure your brain will scramble for those unconventional ideas that might just be the most creative!
For more information on tools and methods, check out our beginner’s guide to user research.
So, what does the future of UX look like?
As technology and the internet continue to weave themselves into our lives, we can expect to see UX evolve. This will bring to light the need for even more specialised skills in the multidisciplinary practice.
The internet is no longer confined to our laptops or smartphones – wearables and even implantables can now put us in a state of constant connectivity and communication. This presents opportunities for user experience professionals to design interactions that transcend form factors with the ultimate purpose of improving people’s lives.
Prevalence of single page apps (SPAs)
Lisa Patel, Senior Front-end Developer
Continued focus on ‘mobile-first’
To many it’s obvious, mobile continues to be extremely important to a business. More users than ever are searching through their mobile device and Google has started the process of indexing websites according to their mobile content (with the big shift happening at the end of the year). There’s no shortage of stats to illustrate the critical role of mobile, for instance Google report 61% of users are unlikely to return to a website if they had trouble accessing it via mobile. Knowing the optimisation of mobile is key in driving success, businesses need to adapt and tailor their research techniques to capture mobile user behaviour in a more detailed manner. With the ability to gather natural and instantaneous user feedback, shifting focus to ethnographic research feels like the logical next step & those that do it will be more than ready for Google.
Jen Batchelor, Optimisation Strategist
The new UX design tool on the block
We’ve seen the evolution of wireframing and prototyping tools over the last few years with strong offerings from Sketch and Adobe XD.
These have had their pros and cons (see our previous blog post on the subject) and with the likes of Invision offering third party integrations, the UX community have managed to utilise this arsenal of tools for their needs.
Excitingly for UXers, there’s a new tool that could take all the best elements from its competitors and service the community needs. That tool is Studio by Invision. PRWD have always been a big fan of the folks over at Invision and this new offering could be the UX design tool that finally does ‘everything’ we need it to do. Studio is expected to be released at the end of January and we can’t wait to get our hands on it!
Phil Williams, Head of Optimisation & UX
The potential of Progressive Web Apps & WebP
I predict there will be an increase in progressive web app development due to the benefits it offers users. Essentially, a user can have a similar experience using a web app as to a mobile app without having to install it (removing the constant battle with phone memory). A web app also offers the ability for a user to use the website offline. Providing an offline browsing experience (especially for those who are regular train commuters) will only make the user happier. Dovetailing with this trend will be the use of website push notifications. It won’t just be another method of getting informational content or marketing material in front of a user. If used smartly, it will enhance the user experience by offering a more tailored and relevant experience.
One other thing: more people will take advantage of the new image format for the web, “WebP”. It provides superior lossless and lossy compression, meaning smaller file sizes while maintaining amazing image quality. Using WebP will help optimise website load speed reducing load time for the end user. Everyone’s a winner.
Matt Falconer, Front-end Developer
Forrester forecasts that 66.3m US households will have a smart speaker device by 2022.
Research from Google, which polled 1,400 Americans, suggests that 55 percent of teens and 41 per cent of adults now use voice-search more than once a day. Furthermore, of those polled, 89 per cent of teens and 85 per cent of adults, suggested that the reason they use voice search is because ‘it’s the future’.
You don’t want to be stuck ‘in the past’. With the prolific global ownership of mobiles, the increase in the accuracy for voice-search to de-code conversational language and once Google monetizes without cannibalising its Adword income stream, this new channel has immense potential. My advice? Start researching now and be better prepared. Estimates show the voice market growing from $1.6B in 2015 to $15.8B in 2021. Voice-search is just coming over the hill and it will be a monster.
James Pogson, Operations Director
Providing a contextual experience is the next step in the evolution of personalisation. Thanks to the penetration of mobile devices, the ‘always connected user’ world is full of stimulus; so to be relevant to users is a competitive advantage. Traditional personalisation is no longer enough, users expect relevant offers, content, interactions. They expect immediate response to their needs; for brands to know them, understand them and make their life easier. Despite 91% of consumers reporting that personalised content had an impact on their purchasing decision, there is a gap between consumers stated desire for personalisation and the ability of retailers to meet this desire. Moving forward, retailers need to develop this understanding of their users, identify them and anticipate their needs in realtime.
Zoe Ward, Optimisation Strategist
AI & Machine Learning
The focus for 2018 has definitely got to be emergence of AI and Machine Learning. As two of the biggest buzz words in the digital marketing industry at the moment, businesses are waking up to what this might mean for them. A recent study has shown that in 2017 the transformative impact of Voice, AI, and Machine Learning has been felt across the entire business landscape with 55% of marketers surveyed agreeing that Machine Learning will allow them to make better decisions in 2018. 56% of the marketers surveyed highlighted “effectively managing large data sets to deliver personalization and relevant one-to-one experience” as their main priority in 2018. Now that last sentence is an objective at the very core of any good CRO practice. We always want to deliver to best experience, tailored to the individual user, to provide our clients with the most profitable outcome. Usually new innovations are pioneered by the platforms, such as Google or the testing tools themselves. However, this can’t be said for machine learning. The emergence has been that fast and so readily embraced, that we as an agency are having to pioneer our own methods of machine learning based on the clients we’re engaged by.
That’s what makes this area of the industry one of the most challenging, yet exciting.
Rick Birtles, Senior Data Analyst
Re-evaluating the approach to digital
A small percentage of savvy brands will choose to go back to basics: fix their user experience, improve their usability, pull back on investing in expensive, feature rich tools. Instead, they will be investing more in people and most importantly, they’ll start speaking to their customers in a myriad of different ways (see Jen’s comment). Companies will realise that until they have the foundations in place with a good user experience and a customer-centric mindset within their business, they aren’t in the strongest position to grow.