The Heart of UX Design

by Stephen Ross
First Published: Medium, Oct 20, 2015 READ

Let’s take a short journey to the center of UX design and find out what lies at its heart. The only travel items you’ll need are a couple of minutes and a cup of coffee. I’m a technical writer and UX analyst for an international software company, in case you’re wondering.

So, what is at the heart of UX? What’s at the core? Or to put it in practical terms: What is the first thing a designer should consider when dabbling in the dark art of UX. And I say dark art, because to some, UX is a “black box” (they know what it does, but they don’t know how it does it (i.e., they don’t know what’s inside the box)).

First up, the user and his/her experience are central to UX (UX is an abbreviation of user experience, after all); but what exactly is it about the user’s experience that is important? And what is a “user experience”, anyway?

A sunny day is a nice user experience; a stroll in a park is a nice user experience; an afternoon spent chatting in a coffee shop with a close friend is a nice user experience; but these are PASSIVE experiences. We’ve known since we were infants how to walk, and talk, or drink out of a cup.

And the UX of a coffee cup is perfect. Behold: it freely stands on the table, it holds your coffee without spilling, and you can pick it up and drink out of it at any time. By analogy, as grownup adults, we know that any similarly sized and shaped vessel containing a liquid can be picked up and drunk from. We know this because it’s ingrained as part of our intuition.

Intuition may not be exactly the right word, but it’s close; it’s a nice word, and it’s better than “rote learning”, which sounds like high school. A better way of thinking of intuition is prior knowledge (i.e., that which is already known). And this is what’s at the heart of UX. Oh, sure, there’s a lot of other things in the “black box” of UX, but the users’ previous experience is the core guide for all UX design. It’s the starting point.

An ACTIVE experience is where a user needs to do something where he/she has no intuition to guide him/her. And for the purposes of this little article, we’re talking about the context of interaction with an interface: website, software, or app.

A user won’t arrive completely cold at an interface, he/she will already have some intuition about how to use it, even if she/he has never seen it before, based simply on analogy. Your shiny new website is highly unlikely to be the very first the user has visited — there will be a ready familiarity with the fundamentals: the framework of a web browser, scrolling pages, clicking links to navigate, etc.

The task for the designer is to be aware of what the analogy is and to intuit how much prior knowledge could be reasonably expected for users to bring to it. The designer needs to consider the expected conventions (of their website, game, killer app, etc.), and then provide an environment where the users’ intuition will work well.

If you’re designing a search function and there’s no input box to enter a search term, or something like a search or find button to click, your user will immediately hit a brick wall. How many websites have crashed and burned because the designer has thought oh, how amazingly mind-blowingly cool this looks, but to navigate anywhere the user has had to click the 47th pixel in the fifth row in the top left, when the rotating dolphin is pointing due south?

There’s an old expression: Don’t reinvent the wheel. Conventions might be conventional, but they are universally understood. You could invent a cool new letter for the alphabet, but is anyone other than you going to know what’s its for or how to use it?

Appreciating user prior knowledge (or thinking like a user) is easy for designers. Designers are, firstly, users themselves. The real trick is for the designer to remember that its UX, not DX that is at the heart.