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January 28th, 2016

What is UX?

There are a lot of definitions of ‘UX’ floating around. Sometimes it seems as if it's some ‘magic stuff’ you sprinkle over a flow or design that will make it user-proof. In some cases it is a synonym for visual-/ graphic-/ user-interface-design. And sometimes there’s no clue. Googling for 'what is ux' will return you about 100.000.000 results. Trying to add something to this topic feels a bit ridiculous. But, hey, here's my 2 cents :-)

User Experience

Maybe known to most of you readers already, but just in case: UX = User Experience. So, that means ‘UX' stands for the experience you have, as a person, while being a user.

Alright. A user of what?

Let’s say we stay away from drugs, we then end up with: a user of products or services. So, you have a ‘UX’ when you use your radio, your bank account, or your car. Seen from this perspective, UX is definitely not new. BMW for example, has been optimizing the UX of their cars for decades already. Among others by tweaking the sound of the doors closing.


Addition on February 23rd, 2017
There's a wonderful podcast-episode on the topic of engineering the sound of cars by Twenty Thousand Hertz, I just ran into.


But, UX is nowadays often used in the digital/ online context, meaning that we are talking about the experience of the usage of digital products.

That means ‘stuff on (touch-)screens': websites and/ or applications. These digital products - most of the time - give you access to physical products or services (physical or virtual).

So, you could define '(digital) UX' as: the experience you have, as a person, while using digital products.

It also means, though, that the experience is (almost) never the goal; it's a means to an end (the physical product or service).

Customer Experience (CX)

There’s a closely related term in this context: Customer Experience or CX. I would define this as: the experience you have, as a person being a customer of an organization (that delivers products or services), while ‘using’ - interacting with - that organization, via (digital) products or services of that organization.

This is clearly broader than UX alone. The article ‘Why understanding Customer Experience makes you a great UX Designer' explains how the two work fields relate. With that in the back of my head, I will focus on UX here.

Positive UX is important

In most cases, this ‘experience’ we are talking about, needs to be as easy/ enjoyable as possible for the people having it. This may be because you, as an organization, think it is very important that people interacting with your digital products have a positive experience.

For example because it fits your brand-image, or simply because you value them as a person. Let’s call this an ‘idealistic reason’.

Offering a positive experience can also be a goal for 'commercial reasons’. Meaning that you anticipate on making more money when you make the experience a positive one.

It is a subtle but important difference. The idealistic version means that you actually care about the experience your users are having (e.g. you are embarrassed, or suffer from insomnia, when the experience is a negative one). While the commercial one means that you actually don’t really care, but - darn it! - you have to pay attention to it, otherwise you will not make the money you could have.

The good news is: the idealistic reason actually can have very - very - good commercial side-effects. But you have to give it time: it is a long-term story. It is all about building a positive relationship with your users. (I agree with Brad Frost on his ‘Living with bullshit’.)

Whichever motivation you have: the experience should be positive for the user. (And also: it is more fun working on stuff that makes people happy, then on stuff that makes their day a bit darker :-)

UX design & UX research

So, in order to make the experience a good one, we want to - try to - shape it: UX design. I’ve added ‘try to’, because there are limits to what we can do. We can design the digital product, but we have no influence over the surroundings the user is using it in.

Nor can we influence the ‘state’ of the user (being the mood the user is in, but also the level of knowledge/ experience the user already has about using such products).

In order to know what, and how, we should design, we have to - try to - get to know the user. This we do via research: UX research. I’ve added ‘try to’ here as well, because it is of course impossible to get to know all our users. But we can get a good idea.

These two - design & research - go hand in hand and feed each other. In an ideal situation, they continuously improve a product in an endless cycle of iterations.

UX research

Doing UX research is all about discovering and understanding the wishes, needs, expectations, goals and behaviors of the people that are (going to be) the users of your digital product.

There are several tools/ research methods available, to do this kind of research. And, as with all types of research, these tools can be split up into two types:

Qualitative research - Answering the ‘why’- and ‘how’- questions. It is very suitable for discovering people’s wishes, needs, expectations and motivations. Most of the time it is experimental, exploring research. This type of research can never be representative, nor have significant outcomes. Simply because it is always performed on a smaller groups of participants (since it is relatively time consuming and expensive).

Quantitative research - Where the ‘what' and 'how much’ type of questions get answered. This type is very suitable for observing and measuring people’s behaviour. This is where terms as ‘representative’ and ‘significant’ come into the picture. And, in most cases, this is the evaluating, testing kind of research.

UX research tools/ methods

AB-testing (quantitative) - Perhaps the biggest buzzword in online the last few years. It is like a controlled experiment in a lab: one group of random product-users (website-visitors) gets the original (control) version of a page or flow, while another group of random product-users gets another version of that page or flow. Then, by measuring a metric/ goal that is related to that change (mostly because of a theory/ hypothesis around a causal relation between the change and the goal), you get insights about which version performs better/ worse.

Analytics (quantitative) - This form is the most suitable for getting insight in actual user-behaviour in your digital product. Which parts are used extensively? Which are not? Where do people drop-off and leave your product? If you want to continuously improve your product, this is your bottom-line; your heartbeat.

Benchmarking (quantitative) - This is not really a user-research-tool, because it mostly involves comparing your product to that of your competitors/ peers (in a structured manner). But this type of research will give you an indication of what users may be expecting, based on the things they learned, using other, similar products.

Card sorting (qualitative & quantitative) - This technique will help you creating a logical information architecture (a.k.a. ’navigation’), that fits the mental model of your users. Especially with larger (e-commerce) webshops, placing everything in the right category can be really hard. That’s when you can use this method. It originated in focus groups - literally moving cards around - and therefore can be qualified as ‘qualitative’. But a lot of online tools have emerged, that will help you do this kind of research in a quantitative way.

Focus groups (qualitative) - A group discussion with a group of 6-8 people, about their behaviors and thoughts around a product. One of the ‘older’ research-tools (originating in marketing). Watch Mad Men and you’ll understand what I mean :-)

On-site feedback-gathering (qualitative & quantitative) - Often, you will find a button ‘Feedback’ on a site. That’s what this is. Getting continuous feedback from your website-users, most of the time via them pushing the button. But in some cases you can trigger a question when a user shows certain behavior.

On-site surveys (quantitative) - The digital version of the on-street survey. A questionnaire that you ask your product-users to fill in.

Session-recording (qualitative) - There is software available, that will capture what your visitors do, so that you are able to replay a visitor-session afterwards. This will give you valuable information about issues users encounter when they use your digital product.

Talking to customers service/ sales (qualitative) - These people know the users of your product and the sh*t they run into. And they talk to them. A lot. Use that information!

Usability testing (qualitative) - A one on one interview with a user, before, during and/ or after he/ she uses a product. It comes in different flavours: from moderated in a UX lab, to ‘guerilla-style in the wild'. This one of my favourites and we - at debijenkorf.nl - do this every week, guerrilla-style, in-stores. The things we learn there, surprise me every time again.

This list is definitely not ‘the true and final list’. More variations on the theme exist and will probably submerge in the future.

UX design

All these input-channels, will provide you with data that will give you an image of who your audience is and what they are after. You can use that image to create personas and customer journeys.

Personas - A visual representation (most of the time, printed out on a large sheet, hanging on the wall) of ‘your typical user’ (or a certain segment of your users). This is to make sure you always stay ‘in touch’ with that person and you work that empathy :-)

Customer journey - The description (most of the time visually represented) of the typical ‘flow’ a user in your audience goes through, before purchasing a product or service in your market. It will help you keeping an eye on the bigger picture.

With these two visualizations in front of you, the designing can start. In most cases ‘designing the experience’ means: ‘designing the digital product’. So ‘simply’ making sure that users know which button to push to accomplish what they came to do. In some cases you start from scratch, in some cases this is about optimising/ improving an already working product.

But the product is only one part of the experience. You can have a very logical, easy to use product, but when the tone of voice is completely wrong or your product is terribly slow, the experience will still be bad. So when designing, you also need to consider:

  • Visual lay-out
  • Flow
  • Speed
  • Tone of voice (aren’t you asking your users ’stupid questions’, are you treating them like a baby, or - on the contrary - are you expecting too much knowledge of them already)
  • The providing of or asking for unnecessary information
  • Making sure you don’t end up giving your users a ‘computer says no experience’

There are a few design-skills involved in UX design:

Wireframing - When creating wireframes, you design/ draw a layout of a page, only by drawing lines and boxes (most of the time in black and white, or grayscale). This is to indicate where what kind of content or functionality will go and - probably the most important part - why that content or functionality is there. In this way, wireframes help you focus on connecting the product to the underlying vision, mission or strategy, without getting lost in nitty gritty details, such as colors or fonts (those are important, but in a later stage).

Interaction design (IxD) - Next to determining where what content or functionality will go, you have think about what will happen when a user interacts with the product. What changes on the page when the user clicks this button? Or hovers over that area? And what about touch devices, without the option of hovering over something?

Flow-design - This one is closely related to interaction design (and may even be seen as a part of it). Let’s take a checkout-process in a webshop for example. Which data do you ask the user to provide first? And why? And which data on the next page? Do you ask everything at once? Or not? Do we need many steps, or only 2? What are the technical limitations of the system? That kind of questions...

Information architecture/ taxonomy design - How do we structure our site? Which groups of pages (or products) belong together? Which ones need a separate ‘corner’? Do we use a tree-like system? Or do we only use attributes (tags)? Or a combination of both?

Prototyping - When all the previous steps are (kind of…) clear, we can create a prototype to see if our ideas still work ‘when it moves’. I’ve seen it happen many times that - when reviewed as static screens - the interactions seemed to make complete sense, until it actually moved and reacted on user actions. These prototypes can also very well be used as test-artifacts (for example in usability tests). In fact: it is a very good idea to do that :-) Since creating those prototypes (most of the time) is way cheaper/ faster then creating the actual product, it is a great way of learning and rapidly developing a product.

User interface (UI) design - The final touch to the whole thing is the visual design of the user interface. Which fonts do we use? Do the company-defined fonts - as a part of the brand-identity - work as well on a screen as on print? What colors - color-scheme - to use? What about photography? How do we make sure our texts are readable on all devices? In what way do we highlight in-line text-links?

This list - just as the list above - is probably not ‘the true and final list’.


So, ‘UX' - for me - is defined as: “An iterative, agile, never ending process, where multiple design and research disciplines come together, in order to create a positive experience for people using a certain product (nowadays often digital products)."

Something like this
UX design and research - UX optimization

Or, a little more elaborate, UX is a process, where you...

…do user-research, in order to discover and understand the wishes, needs, expectations, goals and behaviors of the people that are (going to be) the users of your digital product...

…to be able to design the digital product being used and (thus) the experience people have, while using it...

…in order to make it as easy/ enjoyable as possible for these folks (for commercial or idealistic reasons), to reach the goal they had in mind when they started to use your product.

Wow, that was a longer story than I had anticipated. I’m glad you reached the end and I hope you liked it! :-)


Addition on November 11th, 2016
I ran into this article by Per Axbom the other day, and I think it's a great addition to the definition of UX.


As a reward, you get a funny movie about UX in real life:

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