10 things you should know about UX design & research

Emma.Axelsson  

UX stands for user experience, and speaks to how people feel when interacting with a product or system, from beginning to end. UX research and UX design are vital in crafting great user experiences, and this article will explain some key concepts and methods used in UX research and design to get you started.

1. UX research and UX design go hand in hand.

The UX design process | From ‘The UX design process in 6 stages’ by Tony Ho Tran.

However, it’s worth knowing the differences between the two, and how they relate to one another. UX research looks at people’s relationship to products and services in their real-life contexts. The aim is to understand your users’ needs, and their behaviours, motivations, triggers and barriers. UX design is a design process that focuses on users and their needs in each step of the design process, to create products and services for them. It looks to investigate and solve problems based on those identified needs.

In the working world, these two might be split into different roles, or covered by the same people. Regardless, the two work in tandem. The design process should almost always start with UX research in the first instance to identify who your users and what their needs are. Whilst designing, UX research will help ensure your design decisions are sound, evidence-driven ones.

2. Set clear research objectives for your UX research.

When we want to undertake user research, it’s usually because we’re missing some information. It’s good to understand the reasons why the research is needed, and what outcomes are expected of the research. You’re looking for specifics – broad questions like “do users like this site/product” will likely lead you to “it depends”. When an objective is unclear, you might not end up with the information you actually needed. To help you write clear goals, you might begin by including a problem statement, such as “we want to understand why users are abandoning their shopping carts in the last stage of the checkout process”. Knowing what questions need answers will in turn help you set the right questions to ask your users!

3. Know your data: qualitative and quantitative research.

Quantitative and qualitative are two terms you will hear a lot in relation to research and data. Qualitative research gathers the data we can’t directly measure – it’s often concerned with the why. Qualitative research often relies on observation, by collecting opinions and motivations from people. Meanwhile, quantitative research collects data in measurable, numerical form. It can help us confirm what is happening, and measure how often it occurs.

Knowing the difference, and knowing which research methods result in which data types will help you answer your research objectives. Consider collecting both qualitative and quantitative data because together they can help to answer the ‘why’ and the ‘what’. For example, an analytics dashboard may tell you how many users visited your site from Google (quantitative data), but not why they clicked on your result. In this example, you could use an open-question survey that lets users type in exactly why they clicked on your site.

4. Choose the right methodologies.

Your methodology is how you choose to approach your research. You should consider things like who you want to speak to, and why, and what methods you’ll be using. For example, if you were making a product targeted at school children, you would likely want to speak to school-aged children and their parents, since the parents are usually the ones paying! In terms of how the methods for speaking to your users, Usability.gov has some excellent resources in explaining some common user research methods, and when to perform them. As they note, a particular method might be used in one phase or even several phases of a design project. It will all depend on what your current research goals are, and which method can best help you achieve them.

5. Analysing your data.

An example of a rose, bud and thorn analysis for a user interview on water drinking habits.

Once you’ve collected your research, you’ll need to analyse it for patterns. One such way is to use a Rose, Bud, Thorn analysis – it can help you categorise the positives (rose), potential (bud), or negative (thorn) aspects of a particular topic, system or product. You’ll need to sort your findings from your users by grouping them under Roses ( the good experiences and positive things people have said), buds (the opportunities for improvements), and thorns (the negatives and pain points). This can help you identify problems and places for opportunities. This could be suitable for many stages of your design process, whether at the beginning of your data analysis, or for a review of a particular design idea that you’ve asked users for feedback on.

6. Make use of user personas.

User personas are often found in UX design – they are archetypical users whose goals and characteristics represent the needs of a larger group of (real) users. Once you have collected your user research, you should have the necessary information to understand your users’ mindsets, motivations, and behaviours. They could be distilled from in-depth user interviews, or observational data of a contextual study. If it doesn’t seem possible from your current findings, you might need to undertake more user research. Usually, a persona includes a few fictional details to make them feel more realistic, as well as more context-specific details (for example, if creating a flight app, it makes sense to include a persona’s travel habits). The more you can keep your users in mind through techniques like personas, the more likely you will keep them at the forefront of your design process.

7. The design process is not linear.


The Process of Design Squiggle | by Damien Newman, thedesignsquiggle.com

One key thing to remember about UX design is that it’s intended to be iterative, and there’s a few diagrams and models intending to visualise this concept.  Some famous ones include the Design Council’s double diamond, and IBM’s loop. These intend to show the stages of your design thinking where each stage builds off one another. However, if you’re struggling to get your head around these, you might like the ‘Design Squiggle’. As the author Damien Newman notes, the squiggle shows how our design journey feels – ‘[t]he journey of researching, uncovering insights, generating creative concepts, iteration of prototypes and eventually concluding in one single designed solution’. You start with a tangle of stages that feed into and on top of another, and as you continue on this journey, it finds itself on a single point of focus – the design solution.

8. Don’t forget about pen and paper.

Sketching with paper and pen | Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Before you run off to draw some prototypes in Sketch or Adobe XD as soon as your first set of research is complete, consider the humble pen and paper. When it comes to sketching out loads of ideas quickly, they are some of the best tools around. You don’t need to create a masterpiece at this stage, so don’t stress about your art skills. Pen and paper lets you get away from any worries about your ideas needing to be fully formed. It can help us avoid getting too attached to our ideas and encourages us to try out loads of ideas quickly. It’s low cost and low commitment – it’s much easier to throw out a bad idea you made in five minutes on paper, than the one on screen you spent hours on. You may find you’re not happy with your sketches, but perhaps you find a small idea from them that’s worth pursuing. You can then build upon that idea by doing further rounds of sketching  – tweaking it, going in the opposite direction, and so on. Smashing Magazine has a great article with techniques and tips for getting ‘messy’ with sketching.

9. Sketch out user interface flows.

It’s crucial to remember that user experience concerns itself with the entire experience for a user, from beginning to end. You might drill down into something specific like a checkout process, but good UX design means you need to bear in mind how this fits into the overall system or site, and what comes before and after it. User flows are a visual representation of the different avenues or steps a user can take when interacting with your product or service. You’ll want to identify what each step does – user interface flows should include all of the touchpoints your users will interact with (both online and offline, where appropriate). To create user interface flows, write down what the user sees at each step (for example, a sign-up button), and beneath it, what they can do (in this example, click on the button). An arrow connects the user’s action to what they see (and then can do) next. This lets us assess the vital points of the user journey(s) and to tweak them more easily than a full design. Then, perhaps after some feedback from users, you can build on these to make more specific wireframes and prototypes. Below is an example of a more complicated flow for a login process – the dotted lines show where there are mulitple possible avenues for the user to take.

Login user interface flow by Ryan Singer | From the article ‘A shorthand for designing UI flows’.

10. Test, early and often.

Finally, a little reminder: you are not your user. It may be more time-consuming than testing with your colleagues or even friends, but testing with real users is the best way to know that you are moving things in the right direction. You don’t necesarrily need to have a fully formed prototype or product to start testing. You can test design mock-ups and low-fidelity prototypes with users, provided you’ve given them the right context and instructions. Remember, changes to those paper sketches are much cheaper and less effort than the fully-formed product! The earlier you start testing your ideas, the easier it will be to make changes that have the right impact. Embrace that design ‘squiggle’!

Hopefully that was a useful introduction to UX research and UX design. In practice, you might not use all of these points for every project, and that’s ok! There’s more to UX research and UX design than what we covered here, but part of understanding UX and its processes means figuring out what works best for you, your team and company, and, most importantly, for your users.

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