If you're getting into web design, you've probably come across the abbreviation UX and wondered what it actually was. UX simply stands for User Experience, although sometimes it's presented as UXD, which just stands for User Experience Design.
In some ways, UX can seem to be an abstract and complicated process or idea, so we sat down with Luke Southern, our Art Director here at Digital-Tutors, to chat about what UX means to him and his workflow as a UX designer.
"A big part [of UX] is having empathy for users and understanding what they need and don't need, what they engage with and don't engage with," Luke said. "You, as a designer, need to have a very deep understanding of the user and the psychology that goes into their experience."
Understanding from the top level to the bottom level of how the user is interacting with your product and having a high level of different ideas for different solutions is important.
UX is everywhere
UX doesn't just apply to what Luke calls "the heavyweights," like web design and app design, though. UX can be applied anywhere, like in Microsoft Word, on your iPod, inside your car, or even in furniture design.
Luke used an example that maybe a chair is unsuccessful because it hurts to sit on. UX designers will take it one step further than the chair is uncomfortable. They'll explore the story of what happened and didn't happen with the chair design to make it uncomfortable. Maybe the fabric is itchy, or it's wobbly, or it's the wrong height. They'll find the good and bad aspects of the chair design and put it together to figure out how to make it better.
The process UX designers take when they're working on a completely new project and an existing project are extremely different.
If it's a brand new project, Luke will start prototyping or sketching by hand first, and then implementing his design in a program like InDesign or Photoshop. He'll make his design in black and white or gray-scale for each page version.
If he's working heavily in UX, then he's constantly working closely with the web development team to make sure that his ideas are feasible options. They'll go through different scenarios a user might go through when they're using the site and try to design in such a way that avoids any foreseeable issue.
"But in reality, you have to get started and can't think of every single hypothetical question in your design," Luke said.
UX designers shine when they're faced with a problem in an existing site or interface and need to figure out the best solution.
One such example is with a header change for Digital-Tutors. As you probably know, we offer a lot of different training in dozens of different types of software. There needed to be an easy way for the user to find what they want to learn. Making it so that (on the desktop version) the navigation of the site opens with a hover eliminates extra clicks for the user.
"The hover, as opposed to click, seems minute, but it makes a big difference since it can be tedious for the user to keep clicking," Luke said. "[The navigation now] immediately drops down and creates almost a smooth motion. It should feel right for the user, and not just aesthetically."
UX on multiple devices
While the hover drop-down menu works spectacularly on the desktop, it's impossible to implement for mobile devices. Figuring out how the different experiences the user has while using different devices is part of UX design as well. You need to figure out what one device does better than the other, and make some compromises without affecting the user's experience.
"Responsive and multiple platforms really make you have to step back and determine what the user does most often, and using the standards that already out there, like search bars, to help you," Luke said. "Maybe someday hover will work on a cell phone, but until then, it's a hurdle."
To overcome the hover issue on our navigation for smaller devices, Luke asked himself if scrolling through a list of 70 something software and subjects all on one screen was really feasible. He could have made the links tiny enough so that your eye could still see them, but if you have to click a link with your finger rather than a mouse, the size of the link needs to be bigger. The solution was to rearrange the subject links vertically in a hamburger menu button. When a subject is clicked then a secondary menu is produced.
"It's still a list, on one platform to the next, but we're presenting it in a more feasible way for the user," Luke said. "This is something you're thinking about before the sketch phase, but sometimes it doesn't come up at the beginning."
Don't reinvent the wheel
"Start with small problems and fix them first," Luke said. "The more you do that, then the more you'll understand your user."
If you change the most important thing on your site then everything has to change. A more useable site doesn't change drastically. Take baby steps to fix design issues since asking your user to accept a small change upfront is usually the best practice.
The standout site that often breaks this rule is Facebook. How many times have you logged in and seen a completely different design? It's considered poor UX design when Facebook completely reworks their interface, usually with no warning to the user. "It shouldn't be about what Facebook wants, it should be about what the user wants," Luke said." They're saying to the user 'you're going to get used to this'."
Another reason you should start with baby steps is that a huge overhaul takes a lot of time and resources. A small UX change, like changing navigation elements to be more intuitive, could require just one developer's time.
Think of a website like your house. Small changes, like moving furniture or buying accents that are relatively pretty cheap, are things you can do yourself. Large changes, like changing the location of a bathroom, cost a lot of money, require big changes to other parts of your house, and take a lot of people to implement them.
User Experience is not about the tech aspects of design. It's always taking your user into consideration. The user could care less about the design unless it doesn't work for them.
"UX designers will kind of always have a purpose, since there's always room for improvement," Luke said. "If it's good already, always be thinking about how can you make it great."
Some books that Luke recommends for aspiring UX designers are: Evil by Design by Chuck Nodder, Lean UX by Jeff Gothelf with Josh Seiden, Don't Make Me Thinkby Steve Krug, and Rocket Surgery Made Easy also by Steve Krug.
If you'd like to learn more terms about web design and what they mean, we've compiled a PDF of common terms you'll come across in the world of web design: