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5 key phases to the user experience design process

A blurred image of the design team discussing the UX process

Whether you are new to UX, run an in-house digital team, own an agency, or an employee to a company struggling with the modern digital world, getting a robust UX design process can seem like hard work.

The truth is there is no one solution that fits all. The process depends on the project. For example, the approach to a corporate website will differ from the way you would design a fast-fashion app.

“A user experience design process is an iterative method that helps you continuously improve your designs.”

There are principles in every section of the UX process that will be custom for each project. However, there are five key phases to follow in every process.

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1. Define

This is the most important phase in the UX process. Before you start, you must diagnose the right problem. Ask as many questions as you can because if you don’t get to the root of the problem, the project will be a waste of time.

You need to find out what evidence the client or business has that a new feature, for example, will solve the problem. Don’t try to impress them with solutions, impress them by really trying to understand them. More often than not what they think is the problem, actually isn’t.

Once you have established the real problem, you can move onto the following.

 

Kick-off meeting

To define the goals, you need to start with a kick-off meeting that involves key stakeholders — designer, copywriter, UX specialist, developer, data analyst, project manager — it can typically last around 2-3 hours depending on the size of the project.

The kick-off meeting should get taken seriously. Defining a fixed set of goals and expectations keep the design and build on track throughout the entire UX process. The outcome of the meeting should involve the following:

 

Focus on value
Value propositions will help the team form an agreement about what the critical aspects of the product will be. It focuses on the purpose of the product, the problem it’s going to solve, who’s going to use it, and when/where will it be used.

 

Product Story
The story is usually 1 or 2 sentences that sum up the value you promise to deliver to your customers. Below is a list of excellent examples.

  • Uber – The smartest way to get around
  • Trello – Lets you work more collaboratively and get more done
  • Slack – Be more productive at work with less effort
  • Digit – Save money without thinking about it

 

Plans for reaching the goals
The goals of the product that have been established and now you can start to think about how to accomplish them. I wouldn’t expect to develop a concrete plan during this phase, but you can begin to outline the key goals.

List of common goals to review:

  • End goals (KPI’s) – the project’s objectives
  • Prioritisation – organise a list of end goals
  • Target users – discuss any data/research you have, including user behaviour, workflows, and frustrations.
  • Information architecture – structuring the content of the website
  • Content – the tone of voice

 

Timescales
During the meeting, you will establish and define the purpose of the project, but one thing which often gets dismissed during this phase is timescales. It may seem very early to discuss timescales/deadlines, but, it sets early expectations and helps everyone understand any constraints of the project from day one.

 

Post-meeting debrief
After the kick-off meeting, collate and structure all the notes while it’s fresh in your mind. Draft a summary of everything discussed and send this to all the professionals that were involved — regular communication is vital.

The draft should include:

  • The product story
  • Goals, actions and deliverables that were agreed.
  • List any decisions that remain outstanding.
  • The identified target audience
  • Any notes on the plan of action

 

Concept sketching

Creating a quick mockup of what the team is looking to create can help to articulate ways to tackle the project from a design perspective. Sketching is an excellent way of communicating with the broader team and can eliminate any ideas that won’t work quickly and easily.

“Design solves a problem—to provide a solution, you first need to understand the problem.”

2. Research

Once you have defined the purpose of the product, the next crucial phase is product research — typically market and user research.

Market research is all about what people want. It is used to determine whether there will be demand for a product and provides a scope of what potential consumers want from it. Market research helps with the following:

  • New product development
  • Upgrading an existing product
  • Understanding what people will buy, and who will buy it
  • Centre consumers attitudes, and perceptions of a brand, or product

 

User research is a way to gain insights into user behaviours, needs and motivations — what is useful to people. It gets used when market research has discovered there is a demand for the product but needs narrower information on how it can be improved. User research helps with the following:

  • Makes it more straightforward to solve differences of opinion
  • Observing natural human behaviour, rather than alleged behaviour
  • Provides the ‘why’ to attitudinal data
  • Focus on how to enhance the user experience
“Empathy is at the heart of design. Without the understanding of what others see, feel, and experience, the design is a pointless task.” Tim Brown

The research phase is the most variable between products — projects vary based on complexity, deadlines, business requirements, resource and many other factors. However, excellent research can save a lot of time and money further down the design process. The research phase typically includes the following.

 

Competitor analysis
This involves looking into competitor products and comparing their current features. This type of research helps UX designers understand industry standards and identify opportunities to stand out.

 

Attitudinal vs Behavioral
Not only do UX designers want to know who their users are, but designers want to dive deeper into their needs, fears, motivations, and behaviour. It has become very apparent through studies that what people say they will do and what people do are very different.

  • Attitudinal methods include surveys, focus groups, interviews, customer feedback and card sorting.
  • Behavioural methods include web analytics, moderated usability testing, eye-tracking, A/B testing and click-stream analysis.

 

Quantitative vs Qualitative
Quantitative methods focus indirectly on the data (facts and numbers) that help UX designers understand the possible impact, whereas qualitative methods focus on the understanding of why or how to fix a problem.

  • Quantitative methods include Google analytics, closed-ended surveys questions and click-streams.
  • Qualitative methods include In-depth interviews, focus groups, observational research and open-ended survey questions.

3. Analysis

The purpose of the analysis phase is to extract insights from the data collected during the research phase—it confirms the assumptions made in the first two phases are valid.

At this time, UX designers will begin to extract learnings and align with them with business goals and user needs. We can then think about the following.

 

User Personas
A persona is a representation of different user types. It helps to create reliable and realistic descriptions of the key audience segments.

 

Experience maps
Experience maps help you sketch out the UX and determine any friction before designing the actual website or prototype. It is a visual representation that shows the user flow with a product/service.

4. Design

When the user expectations/goals of the product are secured, and the business objectives are clear, you can move through to the design phase.

A productive design phase is highly collaborative with key stakeholders, in particular, content teams and developers.

People don’t use a product because the interface is beautiful; they are looking to solve a problem. The fundamental purpose of a website is to execute valuable content to an audience.

Related article: How to design a better experience in the absence of content

The designs should be extremely iterative, and the designers should be looking to validate any assumptions. Early experimentation makes updates so much easier and helps teams work towards seamless user experience. Designers will often use the following techniques.

 

Hand-drawn sketches
Sketches are the quickest way of visualising ideas and solutions before deciding which one to choose. They are great for getting early feedback from key stakeholders — it takes little time and resource to re-draw sketches.

 

Wireframes
Wireframes are a quick, low-cost, design technique that offers early design insights. It is a visual guide that focuses on functionality, behaviour, and the hierarchy of content — we create a blueprint for our website when we wireframe.

Wireframing needs to be carried out by the whole project team — designer, copywriter, UX specialist, developer, project manager and the client. Many people don’t see the client as part of the team, but you should. Their involvement in wireframe creation is invaluable.

 

Prototypes
When we start to move beyond the wireframes, we can begin to demonstrate the site interactions by building low fidelity prototypes.

Creating a prototype addresses any assumptions and important decisions getting overlooked. At this stage, it isn’t expensive to make changes, so challenge everything.

For some projects, testing the low fidelity prototype with real users can be extremely beneficial but, the timescales and business demands often deem this an unrealistic at this stage in the process.

 

Design specification
Design specifications are detailed documents providing information about the product. During the handover, the designer must communicate how each element of the design looks, feels and functions to a developer.

Design specifications describe the process and design assets required to make a compelling product. They usually consist of:

  • Introduction – outline of the product or problem it solves.
  • Interface design details – colour, character styles, component measurements.
  • Information – user flows, task flows and user behaviours.
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5. Test

Once you have created the high-fidelity designs, it is critical to validate them with stakeholders and test the on end-users through a series of user testing sessions.

Note: I haven’t used the word validate too much — user research should uncover many negatives and some positives. By emphasising the word on ‘validation’, it suggests that you are merely looking for concrete proof and not looking to learn what doesn’t work.

Usability testing is the most significant thing we can do when designing a user interface or trying to improve the user experience. Shockingly, very few of us do this regularly because they find an excuse for it—not enough time and too expensive for small projects.

User testing doesn’t need to be expensive or complicated. A lot of the information that you may think about user testing is not necessary when starting. If you start doing some basic experimentation, you will soon see the value, and that will prompt you to invest more time and energy into it.

There are many different testing techniques, and some get used more than others. Each test has pros and cons, so a combination is often the best path to take. Below is a list of some of the most popular techniques:

 

A/B Tests
A/B testing is a simple method. It is carried out by testing design variations to a small segment of site visitors to get an insight into how the new design is performing in a live environment.

 

User testing
User testing is the best way to interact with real users — the key is not to test a lot of people, but do various cycles of testing. People see usability testing as expensive and time-consuming, but I would dispute that. There are many ways to perform user tests; some of the most popular is usability testing, focus groups, a/b testing and surveys.

 

Data analysis
Data analysis can indicate how a user interacts with the product, which can sometimes reveal the unexpected. What users say they will do and what they do are very often different. By using data, we can see behaviours that are not influenced by a face-to-face testing environment.

 

Internal testing
Testing the product with the internal product team is a great low-cost validation technique. There are some arguments that this can lead to potential biases as employees are more familiar with the company than external participants.

Takeaway

I cannot express enough how vital the first stage of any project is. If you cannot clearly define the right problem, don’t progress – money will be lost, and the brand will become damaged. Take your time to ask questions and understand the client or business challenges first.

Remember, no one solution fits all, but whether your UX process is basic or robust, the end goal is to create a product that delights your users. The UX process isn’t a linear, and you should expect overlaps of each phase. For example, as the project develops, you may discover new constraints that need further research.

I firmly believe communication is key in the UX process. The silo mentality will prevent you from creating a coherent customer experience. Information should get communicated during every phase of the design process.

If you have any questions or would like advice on your design process, get in touch. I would love to help you overcome the frustrations you experience during the design process.

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