The Basic Idea
When was the last time you opened an app on your phone and carefully reflected on your experience interacting with it? If it’s an online shopping app, this might be the ease with which you can browse and compare different products. Or, for a social media app, how intuitive it is to change different settings. Unless you’re a User Experience (UX) Designer, you’ve probably never critically examined these things in your entire life. UX design is something that we all benefit from every day but largely take for granted.
A UX designer is a professional who designs digital interfaces to ensure they are user-friendly, intuitive, and emotionally engaging. Using a combination of research and design principles, UX designers ensure that products meet users’ needs and expectations, and that their interactions with a product are seamless. Ultimately, UX designers want to achieve user satisfaction and, therefore, increase user engagement and foster customer loyalty.
UX designers typically work alongside User Interface (UI) designers to create successful digital products. While both roles contribute to the overall design process, they have distinct focusses. Where UX designers prioritize the overall user experience, UI designers concentrate on the visual and interactive aspects of the interface. This involves developing and refining the look and feel of the interface through elements like color, typography, and interactive components.
Theory, meet practice
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User experience (UX): refers to the overall impression and satisfaction a person has when interacting with a product, service, or system, encompassing aspects such as usability, accessibility, and emotional response.
UX designer: person who focuses on designing and enhancing the overall user experience of digital products by considering factors such as usability, accessibility, and user satisfaction.
User interface (UI) design: process of creating visually and functionally effective interfaces for digital products in order to optimize user interactions and enhance overall usability.
UI designer: person responsible for designing and optimizing the visual and interactive elements of digital interfaces, ensuring a seamless and engaging user experience.
User journey: a customer journey map is a visual representation that illustrates a customer's end-to-end experience as they interact with a product, service, or brand. These maps offer valuable insight in optimizing user experience.
Interface: in the context of UX design, an interface refers to the point of interaction between a user and a digital product, encompassing the visual and interactive elements that facilitate user engagement and navigation within a website, application, or system.
The term ‘user experience’ was first coined by cognitive psychologist and designer Donald Norman in the early 1990s. At the time, he worked as a User Interface Architect at Apple but changed his job title to User Experience Architect. Norman felt that human interface and usability were too narrow and wanted a concept that encompassed all aspects of a person’s experience with a system.
Although in today’s world, we usually associate UX with digital technology and interactive products, the idea behind UX has been around for millennia and can be traced back to approximately 4000 BC in China. During this time, the philosophy of Feng Shui guided the layout of interiors and landscapes, ensuring that spaces were planned so that users could easily interact with them.
In recent years, UX has expanded to encompass new areas such as virtual reality, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, inclusive design, voice technology, and wearables. Every product we interact with during our daily lives must be designed with UX at the center so that they continue to be popular and adapt to our ever-changing needs and expectations.
Donald Norman: Cognitive psychologist and inventor of the term ‘user experience.’ In his seminal book The Design of Everyday Things,1 Norman introduced the idea of user-centered design and emphasized the importance of understanding users’ mental models and expectations.
Jakob Nielsen: Danish UX expert who created a set of essential rules called the ‘10 Usability Heuristics’ for creating user-friendly digital interfaces.2 In addition to his pioneering research, Nielsen is also co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group, a leading consulting firm in the field of user experience.
A well-crafted user experience can lead to increased customer loyalty, positive brand perception, and higher conversion rates, resulting in a digital product that flourishes in today’s competitive and fast-paced market. Conversely, a poorly designed user experience may put users off using a product ever again.
When a digital service has a bad UX design, we tend to notice it more than if it has a good UX design. We may become frustrated with the time and mental energy it takes to navigate a poorly designed digital product, leading to decreased satisfaction and engagement. UX designers are crucial because they are pivotal in shaping the overall success of digital products and services.
The work of UX designers also has important social and environmental implications. Socially conscious UX designs can foster inclusivity and accessibility, contributing to a more connected and empathetic digital society. Similarly, UX designers can influence user behaviors, with sustainable design choices helping to reduce digital waste and energy consumption.
UX designers don’t always prioritize their users’ experience. Sometimes, businesses resort to devious and unethical tactics in order to achieve their goals.
Dark patterns are deceptive or manipulative design techniques used in user interfaces to trick or coerce users into taking actions they might not otherwise choose to do. These patterns are often designed to benefit the company or website rather than prioritizing the user’s best interests.
Examples of dark patterns include misleading language or prompts, hidden costs, forced subscriptions, or making it difficult for users to opt out of certain actions. While dark patterns are often used to generate more income or product engagement, their usage can also erode trust, cause frustration, and lead to negative perceptions of a brand or service.
If you’ve ever used a website or an app, you’ve likely encountered or fallen victim to a dark pattern. A 2022 study conducted by the European Commission conducted a mystery shopping exercise and found that 97% of the most popular websites and apps used by EU consumers used at least one dark pattern.3
Every individual is different, so ensuring that UX design caters for users’ diverse needs, capacities, and identities is an ongoing challenge. Inclusive design refers to an approach to create accessible products and services that are usable for as many people as possible. Many of the world’s largest tech companies, such as Microsoft, Apple, Meta, and Google, now provide their UX designers, engineers, and managers with guidelines on how to apply inclusive design principles to their work4.
In 2007, accessibility experts Henny Swan, Ian Pouncey, Heydon Pickering, and Léonie Watson devised seven principles for inclusive design:
- Provide comparable experience: All users should have a comparable experience and be able to accomplish tasks in a way that suits their individual needs.
- Consider situation: An interface should deliver a valuable experience to people regardless of their circumstances or situation.
- Be consistent: Use familiar conventions and apply them consistently.
- Give control: Users should always be in control and be able to access and interact with content in the way they want to.
- Offer choice: Users should be given different ways to complete tasks.
- Prioritize content: To help users focus on core tasks, features, and information, these elements should be prioritized in the content and layout.
- Add value: Features should add value to and improve the user experience.
Related TDL Content
This article looks at gamification, a strategy for influencing and motivating desired behaviours in people by applying typical elements of game playing. A manifestation of behavioral product design, gamification can unlock new opportunities for positive growth but can also present problems when it’s implemented unethically.
Focusing on one of Nielsen’s 10 Usability Heuristics, this reference article looks at how a system has optimal user interactions when it follows people’s reality, thinking, and natural way of doing things.
1. Norman, D. A. (1913). The Design of Everyday Things: Revised and Expanded Edition. New York: Basic Books.
2. Nielsen, J. (1994, April 24). 10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design. Nielsen Norman Group. https://www.nngroup.com/articles/ten-usability-heuristics/
3. European Commission, Directorate-General for Justice and Consumers, Lupiáñez-Villanueva, F., Boluda, A., Bogliacino, F. et al., Behavioural study on unfair commercial practices in the digital environment – Dark patterns and manipulative personalisation – Final report, Publications Office of the European Union, 2022, https://data.europa.eu/doi/10.2838/859030
4. Szlavi, A., & Guedes, L. (2023). Gender Inclusive Design in Technology: Case Studies and Guidelines. HCI International 2023 – 25th International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction, July 2023, Copenhagen.