User Experience (UX) Design

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What is User Experience (UX) Design?

User experience (UX) design is the process design teams use to create products that provide meaningful and relevant experiences to users. UX design involves the design of the entire process of acquiring and integrating the product, including aspects of branding, design, usability and function.

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Designing an experience includes not only making the software easy to use but also designing the other experiences related to the product, for example, the marketing campaign, the packaging and after-sales support. Most importantly, UX design is concerned with delivering solutions that address pain points and needs. After all, no one will use a product that serves no purpose.

UX vs UI: What’s the Difference?

You might see the “UX/UI designer” job title and think UX and UI are interchangeable. But while there is overlap, they are separate disciplines.

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“User Experience Design” is often used interchangeably with terms such as “User Interface Design” and “Usability.” However, while usability and user interface (UI) design are important aspects of UX design, they are subsets.

A UX designer is concerned with the entire process of acquiring and integrating a product, including aspects of branding, design, usability and function. The story begins before the device is even in the user’s hands.

“No product is an island. A product is more than the product. It is a cohesive, integrated set of experiences. Think through all of the stages of a product or service – from initial intentions through final reflections, from the first usage to help, service, and maintenance. Make them all work together seamlessly.”

— Don Norman, inventor of the term “User Experience.”

Products that provide a great user experience (e.g., the iPhone) are thus designed with the product’s consumption or use in mind and the entire process of acquiring, owning and even troubleshooting it. Similarly, UX designers don’t just focus on creating usable products but on other aspects of the user experience, such as pleasure, efficiency and fun. Consequently, there is no single definition of a good user experience. Instead, a good user experience meets a particular user’s needs in the specific context where they use the product.

A UX designer attempts to answer the question: "How can we make the experience of interacting with a computer, a smartphone, a product, or a service as intuitive, smooth and pleasant as possible?"

UX Design—A Formal Definition

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) defines user experience as:

“A person's perceptions and responses that result from the use or anticipated use of a product, system or service.”

— ISO 9241-210, Ergonomics of human-system interaction—Part 210: Human-centered design for interactive systems

We can break this definition into two parts:

  1. A person’s perceptions and responses.

  2. The use of a product, system or service.

In user experience, designers do not have much control over a person’s perceptions and responses—the first part of the definition. For example, they cannot control how someone feels, moves their fingers or controls their eyes as they use a product. However, designers can control how the product, system or service behaves and looks—the second part of the definition.

“One cannot design a user experience, only design for a user experience. In particular, one cannot design a sensual experience, but only create the design features that can evoke it.”

— Jeff Johnson, Assistant Professor in the Computer Science Department of the University of San Francisco

The simplest way to think about user experience design is as a verb and a noun. A UX designer designs (verb)—ideates, plans, changes—the things that affect the user experience (noun)—perceptions and responses to a system or service.

Image of a person using the app on their phone and another person designing an app on a computer.

The simplest way to think about user experience design is as a verb and a noun.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

For example, when using a physical device, such as a computer mouse, we can control some aspects of the product that influence whether the user enjoys looking at, feeling and holding it:

  • The way it fits in their hand. Is it snug? Is it too big and cumbersome?

  • The weight. Does it affect their ability to move it as they wish?

  • Its ease of use. Can they use it automatically, or do they have to think hard about it to achieve a goal? 

When a person uses a digital product, such as a computer application, a few aspects that we can influence include:

  • How intuitively they can navigate through the system.

  • The cues that help guide them to their goal.

  • The visibility of the essential aspects of a task at the appropriate time.

UX Designers Consider the Who, Why, What, and How of Product Use

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As a UX designer, you should consider the Who, Why, What and How of product use. The Why involves the users’ motivations for adopting a product, whether they relate to a task they wish to perform with it or to values and views that users associate with the ownership and use of the product. The What addresses the things people can do with a product—its functionality. Finally, the How relates to the design of functionality in an accessible and aesthetically pleasant way.

UX designers start with the Why before determining the What and then, finally, How to create products with which users can form meaningful experiences. In software designs, you must ensure the product’s “substance” comes through an existing device and offers a seamless, fluid experience.

UX Design is User-Centered

Since UX design encompasses the entire user journey, it’s a multidisciplinary field–UX designers come from various backgrounds, such as visual design, programming, psychology and interaction design. To design for human users also means working with a heightened scope regarding accessibility and accommodating many potential users’ physical limitations, such as reading small text.

A UX designer’s typical tasks vary but often include user research, creating personas, designing wireframes and interactive prototypes, and testing designs. These tasks can vary significantly from one organization to the next. Still, they always demand designers to be the users’ advocates and keep their needs at the center of all design and development efforts. That’s also why most UX designers work in some form of user-centered work process and keep channeling their best-informed efforts until they optimally address all of the relevant issues and user needs.

Flow that shows the iterative process of user-centered design.
© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

User-centered design is an iterative process where you take an understanding of the users and their context as a starting point for all design and development.

Learn More about UX Design

You can read and watch more about UX design from the inventor of the term, Don Norman, on the Nielsen Norman Group website.

Learn about UX design by reading the insightful, funny and inspiring material about UX on Medium.com.

If you want to start learning how to work in UX Design now, the Interaction Design Foundation’s online courses are a great place to begin.

Learn more about the differences between UX and UI Design in the article UX vs UI: What’s the Difference?

Questions related to User Experience (UX) Design

How much does a UX designer make?

User experience designers are in high demand across the industry, and you can expect to earn a good living as a practitioner. Based on Glassdoor’s salary estimates, The average UI/UX design starting salary in the US in 2023 is $75,057 /yr. Depending on your role, you can expect anywhere from $90,000 to $128,000 /yr in the United States of America.

To know more about how much you can earn in your region, see this:

UI & UX Designer Salaries: How Much Can I Earn

Can you work remotely as a UX designer?

Yes! Whether you plan to work as a freelancer or prefer to work in a company, UX design is a remote-work-friendly profession. More companies are hiring remote employees and contractors than ever before. As a remote professional, you will work primarily with digital tools and must have good communication and presentation skills.

There are some situations, particularly in user research and usability testing, where being in person is helpful. However, there are solutions to help overcome those challenges as well. Learn more about remote user testing here:

Unmoderated Remote Usability Testing (URUT) - Every Step You Take, We Won’t Be Watching You

User Research Methods for Mobile UX

Can UX design be a side hustle?

UX design projects come in many sizes and shapes. With so many steps involved in the design process, you can focus on specific areas, such as research, information architecture or usability audits. If you’re just starting with user experience design and would like to build your portfolio while still working or studying, you can take up smaller projects and gain experience on the side.

Learn how to thrive as a freelancer in this course: How to Become a Freelance Designer

Does UX design require coding?

The short answer: No. UX designers don't need to know how to code. However, having coding skills can give you a big advantage. Knowing how to code will allow you to be more efficient and communicate better with developers. You can become a better designer when you understand how websites and apps are built. Unless you’re in a bootstrapped startup, you don’t need to be a specialist programmer and will not be expected to produce code. For a detailed discussion on this question, see this:

Should UX Designers Learn to Code?

Will AI replace UX Design?

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While AI can help automate tasks and help UX designers, it will not completely replace them. AI lacks the creativity and empathy that human designers bring to the table.

Human designers are better at understanding the nuances of human behavior and emotions. They can also think outside the box and develop creative solutions that AI cannot. So, while AI can help designers be more efficient and effective through data analysis, smart suggestions and automation, it cannot replace them.

For more on how designers can work with AI, watch this Master Class on AI-Powered UX Design: How to Elevate Your UX Career

How does UX design help businesses?

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A happy user will always return to a business. So, a good user experience directly contributes to a business’s revenues. In addition, UX design can help businesses by reducing development costs, creating a competitive advantage and reducing support costs. By investing in quality UX design, businesses can improve user satisfaction and drive growth.

Take this Master Class to learn How To Design UX That Users Love To Convert Through

Learn how to manage design teams and processes in an organization with this course: UX Management: Strategy and Tactics

Why is UX design important?

UX design is important because it focuses on fulfilling user needs. This ultimately benefits businesses as it improves brand reputation and loyalty. A good user experience provides a competitive edge and reduces the risk of product failure. Taking it one level higher, designers, in general, are very good problem solvers and can apply their knowledge to broader areas — not just to specific products or services but also to the entire company and even society.

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Find out how designers can help build a better future in this course: Design for a Better World with Don Norman

Do you need a college degree to become a UX designer?

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Most UX designers don’t have a degree in UX or a related field. Many are self-taught and have learned through practice. While some employers may prefer candidates with at least a bachelor's degree, they may not insist on one related to design, particularly if you have a strong portfolio. Many soft skills required to succeed in the field are transferable from other professions.

Ultimately, what matters most is your ability to demonstrate important UX design skills, mastery of the design process, proficiency in industry tools, and an understanding of core UX design principles.

There are several online and offline resources to learn UX design, many for free. However, that also means a lot of misinformation is present on the internet. One credible and free resource is the Interaction Design Foundation.

We offer the world's largest open-source library of expert and peer-reviewed UX design resources. See the latest free articles here.

If you’re ready to start learning, we recommend the course User Experience: The Beginner’s Guide

If you’re already familiar with UX design, then take this course to learn how you can showcase your portfolio to wow your future employer/client: How to Create a UX Portfolio

What tools are used in UX design?

The most basic tools in a UX designer’s arsenal are the humble paper and pen (or whiteboard and sticky notes). UX designers use different tools for different tasks in the design process. For example:

  • Survey tools such as Typeform and Google Forms help with user research.

  • Whiteboarding applications such as Miro and Whimsical are useful for affinity diagramming, brainstorming and defining user flows.

  • Interface design and prototyping tools like Figma, Adobe XD, Sketch and Marvel help designers communicate their ideas to stakeholders and developers and conduct usability testing.

For more on these tools, see these lists:

The Top UX and UI Design Tools: A Comprehensive Guide

10 Free-to-Use Wireframing Tools

How does UX design work?

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There isn’t any standard UX design process. However, most teams tend to follow a variation of the 5-step design thinking process:

  1. Empathize (through user research)

  2. Define (through data analysis and synthesis)

  3. Ideate (through brainstorming)

  4. Prototype (using analog and digital tools)

  5. Test (with real users)

UX design is a highly collaborative and iterative process. Designers plug back their findings from research and testing to improve the end user's experience.

Learn more about the design thinking process in this course: Design Thinking: The Ultimate Guide

What does a UX designer do?

A UX designer’s role in a project depends on the team size and project type. In small projects and teams, you can expect to conduct several tasks, including user research, creating user flows, wireframes, and prototypes, conducting usability tests, producing visual elements such as icons, and even defining the brand identity. In larger organizations and complex products, you may have more specialist roles such as researcher, interface designer and UX writer.

See these free resources to understand UX roles better:

The Ultimate Guide to Understanding UX Roles and Which One You Should Go For

What is a UX Designer and How do you Become One?

Ready to take the plunge? Take this course: User Experience: The Beginner’s Guide

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Literature on User Experience (UX) Design

Here’s the entire UX literature on User Experience (UX) Design by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about User Experience (UX) Design

Take a deep dive into User Experience (UX) Design with our course User Experience: The Beginner’s Guide .

If you’ve heard the term user experience design and been overwhelmed by all the jargon, then you’re not alone. In fact, most practicing UX designers struggle to explain what they do!

“[User experience] is used by people to say, ‘I’m a user experience designer, I design websites,’ or ‘I design apps.’ […] and they think the experience is that simple device, the website, or the app, or who knows what. No! It’s everything — it’s the way you experience the world, it’s the way you experience your life, it’s the way you experience the service. Or, yeah, an app or a computer system. But it’s a system that’s everything.”

— Don Norman, pioneer and inventor of the term “user experience,” in an interview with NNGroup

As indicated by Don Norman, User Experience is an umbrella term that covers several areas. When you work with user experience, it’s crucial to understand what those areas are so that you know how best to apply the tools available to you.

In this course, you will gain an introduction to the breadth of UX design and understand why it matters. You’ll also learn the roles and responsibilities of a UX designer, how to confidently talk about UX and practical methods that you can apply to your work immediately.

You will learn to identify the overlaps and differences between different fields and adapt your existing skills to UX design. Once you understand the lay of the land, you’ll be able to chart your journey into a career in UX design. You’ll hear from practicing UX designers from within the IxDF community — people who come from diverse backgrounds, have taught themselves design, learned on the job, and are enjoying successful careers.

If you are new to the Interaction Design Foundation, this course is a great place to start because it brings together materials from many of our other courses. This provides you with both an excellent introduction to user experience and a preview of the courses we have to offer to help you develop your future career. After each lesson, we will introduce you to the courses you can take if a specific topic has caught your attention. That way, you’ll find it easy to continue your learning journey.

In the first lesson, you’ll learn what user experience design is and what a UX designer does. You’ll also learn about the importance of portfolios and what hiring managers look for in them.

In the second lesson, you’ll learn how to think like a UX designer. This lesson also introduces you to the very first exercise for you to dip your toes into the cool waters of user experience. 

In the third and the fourth lessons, you’ll learn about the most common UX design tools and methods. You’ll also practice each of the methods through tailor-made exercises that walk you through the different stages of the design process.

In the final lesson, you’ll step outside the classroom and into the real world. You’ll understand the role of a UX designer within an organization and what it takes to overcome common challenges at the workplace. You’ll also learn how to leverage your existing skills to successfully transition to and thrive in a new career in UX.   

You’ll be taught by some of the world’s leading experts. The experts we’ve handpicked for you are:

  • Alan Dix, Director of the Computational Foundry at Swansea University, author of Statistics for HCI: Making Sense of Quantitative Data

  • Ann Blandford, Professor of Human-Computer Interaction at University College London

  • Frank Spillers, Service Designer, Founder and CEO of Experience Dynamics

  • Laura Klein, Product Management Expert, Principal at Users Know, Author of Build Better Products and UX for Lean Startups

  • Michal Malewicz, Designer and Creative Director / CEO of Hype4 Mobile

  • Mike Rohde, Experience and Interface Designer, Author of The Sketchnote Handbook: The Illustrated Guide to Visual Note Taking

  • Szymon Adamiak, Software Engineer and Co-founder of Hype4 Mobile

  • William Hudson, User Experience Strategist and Founder of Syntagm

Throughout the course, we’ll supply you with lots of templates and step-by-step guides so you can start applying what you learn in your everyday practice.

You’ll find a series of exercises that will help you get hands-on experience with the methods you learn. Whether you’re a newcomer to design considering a career switch, an experienced practitioner looking to brush up on the basics, or work closely with designers and are curious to know what your colleagues are up to, you will benefit from the learning materials and practical exercises in this course.

You can also learn with your fellow course-takers and use the discussion forums to get feedback and inspire other people who are learning alongside you. You and your fellow course-takers have a huge knowledge and experience base between you, so we think you should take advantage of it whenever possible.

You earn a verifiable and industry-trusted Course Certificate once you’ve completed the course. You can highlight it on your resume, LinkedIn profile or website.

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