How can I help you? (The process of UX)

In my previous post I got back to the basics and tried to explain what user experience is not. Here, I follow up restating the process of user esperience and why each stage counts.

The process of user experience design: emphasize, define, ideate, prototype, test (and iterate).

User experience is often described with some variation of this iterative and flexible process:

Drawing of a heart, with the word emphasize
The first stage is emphasizing: understanding the problem.

The first stage is understanding the problem. Empathize, research, discover. It consists in understanding the problem we are trying to solve, along with the design space. We involve experts, stakeholders, users, we ask questions (even stupid and naïve questions that challenge our assumptions) to gain a deep understanding of their motivations, problems, contexts, experiences, and needs. We observe them to uncover underlying patterns, to study the context and physical environments they’re in, how they use artifacts, the information flow, the organizational processes. We facilitate discovering meetings. We analyse competitors.

Now, when you have little time and money to invest in UX, it is way too easy to cut this stage. So far, I found that this stage is overlooked for two mains reasons: 1) People think they already know what users need and what the right product will be, usually based on their own opinions; 2) People don’t have time, development has already started and you bet, there is no time or money to rethink everything.

I’ll give you that: it is time consuming and doesn’t bring any immediate, tangible results. To many, it seems to complicate the problem and lead nowhere. A waste of time, because you don’t want more problems, you want solutions, NOW! But… this is the stage where you make sure you are going to build the right thing. If you cut this stage, you seriously risk to invest time and money in something nobody will care about. And that’s a huge waste of money, compared to the investment you need to do the research right.

If people don’t care about your product, nobody will use it.

Underwater scenery drawing depicting a hook far away from a shoal of fish
If you cut user research you’ll risk fishing in the wrong place. If nobody cares about your product, nobody will use it. Make sure you’re building the right thing, before you try to build it right.
Drawing of a pencil, with the word define
The second stage is definition: making sense of the problem.

Then, we define the problem. We put together all the information we collected and we try to make sense of it. We listen to what people said, organize, synthethize and analyse all this information to find meaningful patterns and define personas, customer journeys, pain points and problem statements that frame the design space and guide the next steps. We define the problem in a way that is user-centered, not company-centered. A good problem statement reframes the design space, starting to move the focus from problems towards opportunities; it is broad enough to allow for creativity, but narrow enough to foster practical ideas; and it is solidly based on data from user research, not on assumptions or opinions. Good problem statements are important because they channel divergent thinking in the next stage, preventing us to rush into impressive but ineffective solutions. One format is the Point of View (POV) Statement : “User (description of the user) needs (need of the user) because (insight from user research)“.

Drawing of a light bulb, with the word ideate
The third stage is ideation: the generation phase.

Third, we create. The ideation phase is the generative phase when we start generating ideas and propose solutions to the problem statements. We explore the problems and ask “How might we…?” questions. That is, instead of jumping to the solution (“we need to build this or that“) we frame the problem in a different way. We move from the problem space to design opportunities. We can also look at how others have tried to solve similar problems, or aspects of our problems, looking for the best innovation potential. The mindset here is quantity-over-quality, and the well-known “there are no bad ideas”. Why? Because this mindset creates the broadest range of possibilities, overcoming the obstacles of feasibility and allowing the team members to build on each others’ ideas. The craziest idea might hide one way to look at the problem that is just right.

Drawing of a sketch, with the word prototype
The fourth stage is prototyping a scaled-down version of the product.

Then, we prototype. We create a scaled-down version of the product. Starting off with paper sketches is an effective and efficient way to explore alternative designs and provide a low fidelity visual representation of an idea: we go for quantity here, because paper sketches are made for inspiration, not perfection. Then we move to wireframes, low-fidelity prototypes and finally to high-fidelity interactive mockups that we can test with users. Besides pen & paper, common prototyping tools here are Balsamiq, InVision, Sketch, Figma, Axure, Adobe XD, but also Power Point. Prototypes are fantastic because they are inexpensive but effective ways to simulate how the final product should work. High fidelity, interactive prototypes can be almost indiscernible from the real thing, so the users’ interaction with them will easily resemble the interaction with the real product, providing the designers with trustworthy data.

Drawing of a to do list, with the word test
The fifth stage is testing: we gain insights from users interacting with our prototype.

Finally, we test these high-fidelity, interactive prototypes with users to assess how people will interact with the product, spot usability and other design issues before investing in development. Because failing early is cheaper. In Jake Knapp‘s words, you can’t loose. You may have a flawed success or an efficient failure, either way you will collect precious data to make informed design decisions that work. Here, measuring KPIs provides us with quantitative data points that we can use to effectively compare different designs and let data guide our decisions, not opinions, biases or vague feelings.

I know. This is nothing new, and every UX designer has seen these concepts over and over. Nevertheless, I felt it was worth to reaffirm them before digging into the numbers: the return of investment (ROI) and the traps of UX. In the next posts, I will report on data showing that a solid UX process and culture can make companies grow, and I will try and describe the traps that may prevent this return of investment.

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