What is User
Learn the basic principles, process and best practices behind modern user experience design.
Introduction to UX Design
Design is a plan for arranging elements in such a way as best to accomplish a particular purpose.
What is UX Design?
UX design defines the powerful process for building user-centered products and services. It has roots in ergonomics, psychology and industrial design, and today serves as the bridge between complex business opportunities and comprehensive user goals.
Why is UX Design important?
Without a tech-focused discipline like UX design, it would be impossible to build world-class experiences that serve millions of people on myriad platform. Everything from the initial discovery of a product, through to its purchase, training and use are closely connected, and the experience of each must be considered by design.
So wherever an engaging interactive experience is needed — be it digital, physical or a hybrid — UX design is designed to help.
Why teams leverage UX Design
- Optimize return on resources
- Streamline development process
- Differentiate from other solutions
- De-risk project launches
- Build brand loyalty and equity
- Boost customer retention
- Disrupt industries
What is UX Design vs UI Design?
While the two disciplines are closely connected and even grouped together (i.e. UX/UI design), they each have distinct focuses and deliverables.
One useful simplification is to think of UX as the bones (focused on function) and UI as the skin (focused on feeling) — you need both to build a complete, user-friendly solution.
|UX Design||UI Design|
|Describes how a solution should function||Describes how a solution should feel|
|Creates sketches, wires, flows and templates||Creates typography, colors, layouts and toolkits|
|Focuses on back-end systems and specs||Focuses on front-end code and standards|
|Translates user stories into functional prototypes||Translates functional prototypes into final designs|
Both UX and UI rely on user research: Despite their different perspectives, both UX and UI designers rely on the same set of research insights. User personas are a particularly important intersection point, as they proxy the “user” that both the experience and interface will serve.
Other shared resources include user stories, journey maps, behavioral analytics and usability tests. These research artifacts are often developed by cross-functional design thinking teams which often include designers, developers, strategists and other stakeholders.
Three UX Design Principles
Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.
The principles of UX design guide designers through the ever-changing landscape of technology and human behavior. Keeping these principles in mind helps to inspire innovative ideas and simplify complex decisions. They are: Desirability, Usability and Accessibility.
UX Principle 1: Desirability
As one of the pillars of user-centered design, the importance of desirability cannot be overstated: UX design exists to help people reach their goals. These goals can be immediate (send an email) or long-term (build a relationship), rational (compare budgets) or emotional (feel connected). Keeping desirability in mind is critical for deciding both what to build (i.e. finding blue oceans), and how to build it — prioritizing features and functions.
UX Principle 2: Usability
Usability describes how “user-friendly” a solution is. Once considered as an afterthought, usability has risen to become a powerful differentiator within virtually every sector. Various tests and benchmarks have been developed to help elevate usability, such as the System Usability Score. See the Guide to UX Research for more.
UX Principle 3: Accessibility
Designing for a range of different abilities is one of the best moves any team can make today. Not only does it make good business sense (for example, an estimated 250 million people have visual impairments), it also helps teams think bigger about the opportunity to find breakthrough ideas.
And when you consider how everyone’s abilities change throughout the day regardless of their specific capacities (for example, while walking vs driving), it’s easy to see why the experience leaders like Google have made accessible design such a priority.
OXO Good Grips Case
In the 1990s, kitchen peelers were a stark affair, virtually unusable by people with arthritis — something OXO founder’s wife struggled with. By designing a new product to help these people, they created an iconic solution that helped make cooking more fun for millions.
Six UX Design Laws
While UX Design is constantly evolving, the following laws help articulate fundamental human behaviors that have emerged over the past several decades.
These laws outline just some of the “heuristic” factors that professional UX designers consider when evaluating current or potential solutions, and are a good place to start when considering your own redevelopment process. 
People expect your website to behave like sites they already know.
The more options you give people, the longer they will take to decide.
The farther away you place a button, the larger it needs to be.
Most people can only hold around 7 items in their working memory.
There is a practical limit to how simple a system can be made.
People judge experiences largely based on the peak moment and the ending.
The UX Design Process
Building any experience in today’s digital landscape requires the collective efforts of diverse departments and domain experts. Typically, a project’s strategic goals are coordinated using design thinking methodologies, and the validated outputs inform the subsequent UX design. A simple way to describe this dynamic is:
– The Design Thinking Process answers “What’s best to build?”
– The UX Design Process answers “How do we build it best?”
In order to “build it best”, UX designers work through a series of prototyping cycles, modelling only what’s needed to make informed decisions and move forward. From simple sketches through high-fidelity wireframes, each iteration increases fidelity and brings designs closer to implementation.
Due to its iterative nature, the UX design process is often depicted as a cycle such as “build-measure-learn”. While this type of conceptual model can be helpful, the “build” step can still feel like a black box. The four steps above help to unpack how UX designs are built. For a more complete look, see our guide to the UX Design process.
UX Design Patterns
Just like the standard formatting of a book jacket or envelope, UX patterns are how we “know where to look” without having to think. These UX patterns are constantly changing in response to technology and trends (for example, mobile browser menus), while at the same time human factors such as our capacities or geometries remain largely fixed.
For the sake of simplicity, we have divided this overview of UX Design patterns into three layers. It can be helpful to think of each layer from an urban planning point of view:
- UX Architectures (“The Roads”)
- UX Archetypes (“The Homes”)
- UX Widgets (“The Rooms”)
UX architectures describe how interfaces connect at the highest level. Are they in a sequence, or nested in groups? Do they converge on a hub, or form a decentralized matrix? Aligning on the UX architecture is one of the earliest decisions that design teams must make, as the cost of switching it later is the greatest.
Below are 5 common types of architectures, with the “hierarchical” type accounting for ~50% of most designs we interact with on a daily basis (including most public-facing websites). 
5 UX Architectures
- Sequential: Complete structured tasks
- Hierarchical: Organize related information
- Hub + Spoke: Complete specific tasks
- Network: Connect related tasks
- Matrix: Navigate anywhere from anywhere
UX archetypes describe the “types” of interfaces used in the design. Complete UX designs often include several archetypes, for example, eCommerce sites typically have a Menu, Catalog, and Funnel for checkout (with calendars, dashboards and others used as needed).
Being familiar with the basic UX archetypes is most helpful during the early design thinking and UX sketching stages.
10 UX Archetypes
- Catalog: Select items to purchase
- Menu Page: Wayfinding
- Funnel: Complete a multi-step process
- Desktop: Select items to open/run
- Portal: Aggregate personalized content
- Social: Display user-generated content
- Tool + Canvas: Manipulate objects
- Dashboard: Visualize multiple attributes
- Swim Lane Board: Display objects for multi-tasking
- Calendar: Visualize appointments
UX widgets are the functional units of the user interface, and multiple widgets are often combined into a single multifunctional interface. Widgets can be used to both structure information (cards, filter panel) or complete specific tasks (forms, pickers).
10 Common UX Widgets
- Card: Provide object overview
- Chat Box: Visualize conversations
- Feed: List content by time
- Filter panel: Control visible attributes
- Form: Data input
- Leaderboard: Gamified list of objects
- Picker: Select visual attributes (colors)
- Table: Data presentation
- Tree Control: Visualize hierarchies
- Wizard: Complete predefined action
UX Design Requirements
Effective UX design relies on the strategic outputs of UX research and Design Thinking. Specifically, user personas, user stories, and a current landscape contextualizing the opportunity provide the necessary framework to work within. These core artifacts empower designers to make objective decisions with pixel-perfect accuracy.
Personas are the “user” of user experience. They capture a wealth of relevant behaviors and goals in a single document, and allow design teams to address universal needs that speak to the widest range of users. Good user personas that provide real, actionable insights take time to develop, and are usually created through a combination of qualitative and quantitative UX research methods.
While UX personas can appear similar to market segments and other types of customer profiles, they serve fundamentally different purposes, and are not interchangeable. Without user personas, the UX design process will be relying only on the shared experience and assumptions of the design team, which significantly increases risk and limits usability.
User stories are at the heart of UX design, and a critical UX design requirement. They provide a structured, first-person-style account of what a specific user wants to accomplish and why, and follow a simple format and can be generated quickly and compared easily. Depending on the complexity of the solution and number of personas, hundreds of user stories may be needed to cover the entire spectrum of goals.
UX designers then take these stories and distill them into semantic groups, creating the framework for all ideation and design.
User stories are not a new concept in software development; prior tools such as “use cases” and “scenarios” served similar functions, albeit with different levels of detail.
The current landscape is the most flexible of the three UX design requirements. Its role is to provide a clear picture of the specific problem space, identifying business goals, key stakeholders, competitive solutions and current opportunities. Given the range of expertise involved in most modern UX projects, the current landscape is an efficient way to disseminate domain knowledge among various stakeholders. You can learn more about the current landscape components in our Design Thinking Workshop guide.
UX Design Deliverables
While wirefames are easily the most recognizable UX design deliverable, they are just one of many mapping tools used to work through the complete UX design process. User story maps, sitemaps and conceptual models are also important outputs to consider.
User Story Maps
A user story map groups research-informed user stories into broader epics and themes. This step is critical because user stories are too granular to work with directly — and there are often hundreds of them to consider.
By compiling stories into goal-oriented groups, UX designers can create a high-level view of the features and flows the solution will require.
Sitemaps and Flows
Sitemaps are a type of blueprint that outlines all the required screens in a prototype solution. They reflect the information architecture of the design and provide a backbone for discussion and development. User flows articulate the string of events required to accomplish a specific task or series of tasks.
While user flows are often too abstract for all your stakeholders, they are an excellent way to communicate design ideas among technical teams.
In UX Design, wireframes are the blueprint of the solution. They can be quickly sketched out or created to scale. Wireframes of varying fidelities are developed throughout the UX Design process to assist teams in solidifying their ideas and making decisions.
UX Design Examples
While examples of UX design can be found everywhere, they can also be easy to overlook. And that’s because great UX design should feel like common sense.
The examples in this section are all cases where a design simplifies an experience to address a collective pain point. In UX design, this is called reducing the “cognitive load”, which is a measure of how much attention an interface requires to operate. Cognitive load is influenced by myriad factors, including the number of choices, colors, layout, hierarchy, symmetry and fit with expectations.
For more examples of elegant UX solutions, see our guide to UX research which unpacks a few of our favorite experiences from Starbucks, Nike and AirBnB.
Inserting tables with Docs
If you remember what adding tables was like in early word processors, you will appreciate how elegant today’s WYSIWYG-style widget is by comparison. Now with just a single click, users can draw exactly the table they picture in their mind — without even needing to know which is the row vs the column. Great UX examples like this are quickly adopted as industry standard, and this interaction is used in all major text editors today.
Shopping online with Amazon 1-Click
There’s no denying that Amazon revolutionized the online shopping experience by obsessing over the customer experience. While Amazon’s entire checkout flow deserves attention, the 1-Click ordering design stands out as a great example. When it was released in 1999, purchasing anything online was an arduous, form-filled process. By giving users the option to buy products instantly using default payment and delivery address, it eliminated a key pain point. While it sounds intuitive now, the idea was so novel at the time that Amazon even patented it — leading Apple to pay $1M to license the design for their app store in 2000.
Boarding planes with Apple Wallet
Flying can be stressful, especially for families and infrequent flyers. Having to repeatedly dig through pockets to find boarding passes is one stress travellers can live without. The Apple Wallet helps make travelling more enjoyable by importing boarding passes and providing instant access to them from multiple locations — including the lock screen. When displaying the pass, it automatically maxes screen brightness to assist scanning without having to dig through system settings.
Everything in your address bar
Google.com has been the undisputed homepage of the Internet for decades. And with its minimal cognitive load vs competitor engines, it’s easy to see why. But Google has taken its search-page usability even farther by adding search functionality directly to the address bar. This simple functionality returns a rich set of behavior-based results with zero clicks required.
So What is UX Design?
Simply put, User Experience (UX) Design is a discipline dedicated to creating user-centered solutions. The rapid growth of UX Design is largely thanks to its ability to develop engaging user experiences that differentiate people-first products and services.
You can learn more about the UX Design process in our related guide, or see how to develop key deliverables such as user stories and user personas.
The Ultimate Guide to Design Thinking
- Rosenberg D. UX Magic. 2020.
- Yablonski J. Laws of UX: Using Psychology to Design Better Products & Services. O’Reilly Media; 2020.