The definition of user experience design, or UX design, is widely varied. The User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA), one of the pre-eminent professional organizations for the field of UX Design, has an entire UX definitions page with multiple perspectives. Similarly, the Wikipedia definition lacks citations for verification and has been flagged with multiple issues.
This variance is likely for two reasons:
- UX design as a trade is relatively new, and the landscape is constantly evolving as new media and technology shift and expand.
- The experience part of UX design can mean many different things—products, tools, systems, services, websites, apps, or events—and each type of experience can require specific skills.
However, all UX design roles share a common thread in defining, creating, and improving the experiences of users. People practicing UX design understand who their users are by uncovering and prioritizing what they want, then planning and building experiences to meet those needs effectively, efficiently, and delightfully—all while balancing business goals.
Why is UX design valuable?
Due in part to the rapid growth of the technology industry, UX design has exploded in recent years. But it’s also indicative of an increased recognition in the value that UX design processes can bring to businesses: It helps accelerate customer growth and retention by building user loyalty and focusing team efforts on real user problems, rather than internally perceived problems.
Unsurprisingly, UX design is not unique to technology companies. Some of the many industries that employ UX design are service, entertainment, and manufacturing. It’s also practiced widely in the military and public sectors.
Who practices UX design?
UX design is frequently practiced by UX designers, who are often generalists with a background in design, psychology, research, computer science, or a hybrid field. Product designers, project or product managers, information architects, UI designers, and engineers also practice components of UX design.
How is UX design performed?
Though the skills can vary, the process of UX design often follows a similar rhythm:
- Foundational learning and understanding through research.
- Divergence and exploration.
- Convergence and creation.
- Evaluation and validation.
Depending on the organization’s overall process and intended output, this process can take on many different forms and cadences.
What is involved in UX design?
UX designers excel in communication and skillfully balance the needs of business, data, marketing, and technical teams with the needs of users. They often work in a landscape of changing technologies and tools, so they must adapt quickly and remain lifelong learners.
Hard skills in UX design
This is not necessarily a comprehensive list for each UX design job. Usually, larger organizations require a higher degree of mastery in a smaller variety of skills, while smaller companies require proficiency in a wider range of skills, even beyond what is listed here.
Quantitative research is most often the “what’s happening” metric used to evaluate the performance of any given UX design. It’s not always conducted by the UX designers, but very often consumed by them. Usually, performance benchmarks for incremental improvements are measured by user-tracking tools like Google Analytics, Mode, or Segment. Sometimes, understanding preferences or evaluating new concepts requires other methodologies like surveys, A/B testing, clickstream analysis, and conjoint studies.
Qualitative research is a broad field with many specialists (UX researchers). Some of the many types of research UX designers conduct or utilize include focus groups, contextual inquiries, user interviews, cafe studies, usability testing, and accessibility testing.
The development of user personas helps to separate the different tasks and intentions of different types of users or customers in a given experience. These archetypes represent a large subset of typical users, and are based on the research of a current—or possible—user base. They can take the form of posters, cards, slides, or even videos, but the intent is to personify users and their needs with realistic examples, promoting alignment and effectiveness for anyone involved.
User flows and journey diagramming help the designer understand how a user moves through a given experience. They define intended functionality, identifying decision points and possible frustrations or errors they have as they navigate and progress through the flow.
Empathy mapping outlines a user’s emotions as they travel through any given experience. For example, users often feel higher anxiety when asked to provide personal or sensitive information. It’s important to research and note these moments across the experience so that the sequencing, content, and interface all make a user feel comfortable and taken care of, even when something doesn’t work perfectly.
Wireframing is about being able to properly explore and express a given idea, flow, or action across many different concepts or layouts. There are a plethora of software tools available for this, including Freehand, Omnigraffle, Sketch, Lucidchart, and Balsamiq. Some teams are strict about learning a given software tool, while others prefer whiteboards, pen, and paper.
Mockups are realistic pictures or snapshots of a given user experience. They convey details about the interface and visual design; they can but don’t always include the sequence or various possibilities of a user’s actions. They’re used like finalized storyboards in a movie, portraying many key moments in great detail, but not the whole picture.
Other design fundamentals include the concept of information hierarchy or visual separation techniques that help a user easily scan and digest content; basic typography fundamentals like optimal line length, font choice, and font size that optimize legibility and readability; and familiarity with software tools like Sketch, Figma, and Adobe XD.
When it comes to interaction design fundamentals and prototyping, it’s good to understand:
- Common patterns and usage.
- The accessibility and usability fundamentals for the given medium (i.e. the web, operating system, or physical space of the experience being built).
- The constraints for the given medium, i.e. limitations of a software platform or device.
- Motion design or the use of motion to help users navigate and understand the platform or device.
It’s also a good idea to have a grasp on technical communication and specifications, namely the ability to clearly articulate the intended flow or functionality of an experience; and an understanding of the technology used to build it (HTML and CSS for websites, Xcode constraints for iOS apps, etc.).
Soft skills in UX design
Beyond the methodologies and technical skills required to work effectively in a UX design role, UX designers are constantly navigating a stream of data, research, ideas, and feedback. To that end, they need to think with both sides of the brain, and quickly alternate between analytical and creative realms. Some of they key soft skills they develop are:
- Engaging storytelling, particularly around balancing the needs of a business and the needs of users.
- Written and verbal communication between researchers, designers, managers, engineers, and other stakeholders.
- Facilitation of dialogue, workshops and critiques: UX designers frequently play the role of facilitator and/or scribe during group conversations. They’re responsible for synthesizing, prioritizing, and addressing feedback in future solutions.
- Empathy and advocacy: If there’s a UX design superpower, it’s the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. User research and data provide truth and insight, but empathy is the emotional force that allows designers to tell the story in a way that other stakeholders can relate to.
- Craftsmanship and attention to detail: To practice UX Design is to make order out of chaos and intuition out of ambiguity. Details are paramount in aligning teams and guiding users.
How is UX Design different from other design?
Often, UX design is seen alongside terms like product design, interaction design (IXD), user interface design (UI), or visual design. The truth is, the lines between these fields can be blurry and subjective, and roles frequently cross paths.
With the exception of product design, which can be broader, UX design is often a generalist role that may cover some aspects of UX research, IXD, UI, and visual design. However, they don’t necessarily have the specific technical expertise in those areas that a specialist would. Again, this is due to the evolving landscape of technical knowledge each of these fields requires.
For example, an interaction designer might focus very specifically on micro-interactions—best practices, patterns, and constraints—for a specific platform, like native Android mobile applications. It’s rare that a UX designer would be expected to have such mastery on one focus area, but common that they would be expected to recommend and specify intended interactions at various points in a given user flow.
A UI designer might be an expert in typographic systems and color theory, but might not necessarily be expected to craft holistic solutions for high-level business problems. Where these lines blur is often in the realm of usability testing and measurement.
Act together on user inspiration
UX design is all about the user. What they need, what they want, how they think. The heart of a UX designer’s job—though varied, dynamic, and ever-changing—is about making sure the needs of both the user and business are met. With InVision, designers have an arsenal of tools at their disposal to help meet these high expectations.
InVision Freehand and Boards allow your team to collaborate on empathy maps, create wireframes, and gather design inspiration. Iterate with feedback from users, designers, and stakeholders to create responsive screen designs and interactive prototypes with Studio and Prototype. Finally, collaborate seamlessly and hand specs off to engineers with Inspect.