Monday, July 6, 2015

UX 101 (First Part in a Series): Back to the Very Basics

Design / Content

User experience is everywhere. Within the past few years, this field has become increasingly popular. Thankfully, there’s substance behind that popularity: UX activities and principles can directly contribute to successful projects. If you’re new to UX, though, things may be confusing. You may hear terms like content strategy, information architecture, user research, or stakeholder interviews… and odds are good, you’ll see an incredible number of sticky notes!

While I won’t be divulging everything about UX in this brief post, I’ll share key points on what UX is. Speaking of which, it may surprise you to learn that defining UX is regularly debated and reconsidered within the field! For our purposes, this is how I define UX:

“User experience design is a set of activities and philosophies that ensure users’ needs are understood, addressed, and – ideally – surpassed.”

UX can encompass many other disciplines, and many other disciplines can encompass UX. Experts in the field may draw on tactics and knowledge from professions such as architecture, fashion, human factors, and library sciences.

At the core of user experience work, though, is people. When we’re working with our excellent clients, then, we advocate for user-centered design.

User-centered design is an investment in the understanding of what people need. It sounds basic, certainly, but the idea of listening to your product’s potential users can be revelatory for some. (We’ve seen this take off in the realm of employee engagement; the idea of creating a half-hearted document library and calling it an intranet is over.) We may interview potential users, or get out in the field with them to understand how, where, why, and – importantly – if they would use a particular product. We observe, note, ask questions, and analyze our findings to get to a point of understanding.

Upfront user research gives us the data we need to inform the design decisions we make throughout the course of a project. We can confidently decide how the interface works and what features are more important than others thanks in part to this understanding.

Now, all of this research doesn’t mean we simply take users’ suggestions and implement them. Fans of The Simpsons may recall an old episode where Homer was given supreme authority to build a car. The resulting car addressed Homer’s every whim… but cost $82,000 and put his brother’s car company out of business. That’s never a goal for us, so we balance that user input with business needs. Those business needs address how the project will be successful via the definition of metrics, timelines, and activities that ensure we’re on the right path.

This talk of business needs may surprise people who equate UX with “look and feel” so let’s be clear: the purpose of UX and design isn’t strictly to make something usable or ensure that a visual design adheres to brand guidelines. As designers, our goal is to use the tools and techniques of design to address user and business needs.


The beauty of UX work is its flexibility. With some projects, activities are confined to UI design and usability testing. It’s not ideal but there’s still an opportunity to listen to users. With other projects, we run the gamut: in-depth field work, stakeholder interviews, wireframing, content strategy, change management, and more.

So let’s talk a bit about a few key activities.

User Research: As noted above, this involves talking with and listening to representative users about their experiences, analyzing the data, and making product/service/feature recommendations. This research may include in-person “ride along” sessions, surveys, formal interviews, or focus groups. We conduct this research early in a project, and recommend it when you don’t know who your users are, what they want, or what they need – or you need to dispel assumptions. A great intro to user research is this presentation by Erika Hall from An Event Apart, based on her book Just Enough Research.

Information Architecture (IA): IA is the contextually-informed structure of information within a product, experience, or organization. It helps people locate the information they need at the appropriate time in the appropriate place. This is often defined early on in a project, and iteratively changed as more learning becomes available. Many people may equate IA with a common deliverable called a sitemap that shows all of the pages within a website or screens within an app; truthfully, sitemaps are one item that gets derived from IA work. For more on IA, I highly recommend Abby Covert’s How to Make Sense of Any Mess.

Content Strategy: Content strategy encompasses a wide range of activities – including auditing, creation, and governance – of content across a product, experience, or organization. Content is arguably the most important part of an experience. Lots more information about content strategy is out there, but I recommend you start with Kristina Halvorson’s superb article, “The Discipline of Content Strategy”. If that’s not enough, Facebook’s Jonathon Colman created an epic list of content strategy resources.

Usability Testing: Sometimes conflated with user research, usability testing involves testing a prototype with representative end users in order to evaluate if key tasks can be accomplished. For digital work this prototype may be a wireframe – a skeleton of an app or website – with a focus on overall flow, information hierarchy, and structure. Usability testing isn’t about opinions nor users’ competence; it’s more about the mechanics of the interface. Since it’s generally qualitative, usability testing can be done with a small sample size. You’ll find more at


And there you have it: a little about UX and its key activities! If you’re craving more, you may want to check out these previous Thinking & Doing blog posts:

UX From The Inside Out: Practicing UX Through Company Culture by Anne Petersen

Features of a Good E-commerce Experience by Sarah Wallace