What Is UX? A Complete Design Guide on Principles & Best Practices

What is UX?
UX stands for user experience which is the total sensory, affective, and perceptive experience of a customer with a product or service. Experts emphasize good UX design for the creation and curation of brand touchpoints that create value and great experiences for customers.

Where is UX when customers usually experience a brand through different channels and multiple touchpoints? What is UX when more often than not, there is no seamless transition between these channels. When each touchpoint is a silo?

For most brands, losing information from past interactions is the norm. Customers lose patience and are quick to switch to competitors. It’s a losing situation. Sometimes, it is worse: each and every siloed channel or touchpoint is not consistent with the quality of customer service.

In this article, we will walk you through user experience definitions, principles, and best practices. We have included good user experience examples and designs as well to give you a better appreciation of what UX could do to your business.

What is UX? A Complete Design Guide

Empathy is a vital ingredient in creating an acceptable customer experience. However, it is not really being practiced by many. Managers and employees often design systems and enact policies that just make it easier for them to do their jobs. Many create systems just enough so they can collect payment at the end of the day conveniently. This is quite understandable. We all want to benefit more from doing little.

ux through the years

On the other hand, users want good designs that are efficient and optimal according to their own tastes and standards. However, when this design principle is applied to the designers of systems themselves, it is highly likely that they just put out inferior and less useful products and services target users do not enjoy using. Think of DMVs (in the States) and of any episode from “Kitchen Nightmares.”  There’s just no empathy for the experiences of target users.

However, good UX designers do not design for themselves. Instead, they turn the tables the right way and do it to improve user experiences. The field has been around for a long time and it has been exploding. But, many of its basic tenets are not given attention to by many companies. Today, it is a great time for professionals to get into UX. Also, it is a great time for companies to really apply UX best practices.

How do you define UX?

So, how do you define user experience? Well, there is no singular definition. There are many, many definitions of UX or user experiences out there. However, it all boils down to what some cognitive scientists and philosophers call qualia or more or less the individual subjective sensory & affective experiences, and how an agent perceives or interprets them. Put simply, it’s the totality of the subjective experience. Albeit, for our purpose, we apply this concept to customer’s interactions with brands. This would include experience with the chairs in the waiting area of a firm, the smell of the waiting area, the music playing in the restaurant, and, practically, everything.

To wit, people who work as UX designers try to influence these very series of qualia or subjective experiences to create a long-lasting profitable relationship for both sellers and buyers. Don Norman came up with the term “user experience” back in the early 90s.

Also, with his partner, they defined it as:

“User experience” encompasses all aspects of end-users’ interaction with the company, its services, and its products. 

That’s practically it. It is anything and everything in between that is related to a brand. However, there are some who confuse UX for another related term called UI which stands for “user interface”. Of course, in this digital age, it is quite understandable why one may confound the two as many businesses have their apps as the main touchpoints. Let’s tackle that in the next section.

UX vs UI

So, what is the difference between UI and UX?—UX vs UI?

Put simply, UI or the user interface is what we use to interact with machines. If you are on a desktop PC, this will be the screen, the buttons on the screen, the graphics on the screen, the layout of the programs, and also the hardware that you use to interact with it. This includes the mouse and keyboard. These are all part of your user experience with whatever brand (or a mix of brands) your PC is. Thus, UI, in the basic sense, is a part of UX—a very important part.

UX, as mentioned, is all about every facet of the experience. It is broader. However, there are some nuances that you yourself need to analyze for every situation. There are times where you encounter many customer UIs for a single business. Think fast-food restaurants with an interactive  POS system and delivery applications. They have digital UI touchpoints that contribute to user experience. However, they also have brick-and-mortar shops that play a big part as well.

On the other hand, there are businesses that don’t have UIs as a part of customer experience. Think about your typical convenience store or hardware shop. We hope that’s clear.

UI is part of UX, UX is broader: an example

Nielsen and Norman gave a good example of how can one thing of UI as it relates to UX.

Picture a website with movie reviews (something that interacts with its customers through mainly its UI). Now, consider that even if the UI for finding movies therein is wonderfully designed. The UX can still remain poor for a user if the database is not comprehensive enough to pull up the film he or she desires to read about.

Also, it is quite similar to mobile games with intuitive controls and beautiful graphics. The UI is great. However, when it is full of ads or notifications to upgrade your plan to premium, the UX becomes quite poor. It is also similar to ebook readers that lack support for some file.

Thus, UX is distinguished from UI as the latter is but the delivery mechanism of value. Additionally, it is quite understandable how people would confound the terms. Some even pit them against each together as if they are at odds. In most cases, it’s the UI vs UX point of view just doesn’t work. UI and UX design should work together in the fashion where UI design serves the overall UX design.

What is a good user experience?

Of course, a description of what a good user experience varies from person to person. It’s just like playing a certain game. Some people just want to play the same game alone and others want to play it with others more. Answering the question, “What is good user experience?” is very complicated as it is different in every case. However, there are factors that influence what good UX is. Some represent these via the User Experience Honeycomb.

It is made up of seven interconnected factors that influence UX:

  • Useful – content should fulfill a need and is original
  • Usable – must be easy to use
  • Desirable – design elements evoke positive emotions and appreciation
  • Findable – brand elements including products should be easily locatable
  • Accessible – make every touchpoint accessible to customers, especially those with disabilities
  • Credible – use design elements that help users trust your information more
  • Valuable – products must deliver value to customers, sponsors, and stakeholders

user experience honeycomb

Also, it is not just information in the sense of content but also in every bit of experiential aspect. These factors are a bit broad to pin down exactly what they could be for each business. However, for factors like credibility, we have the Web Credibility Project as pointed out by experts. This project begins to find out what influences people to trust things online. However, we should all remember that everything centers on creating value because this is the bridge between sellers and buyers. And, honest value goes a long way. So, in order to create honest value, one should consider the UX aspects enumerated in the User Experience Honeycomb as a guide.

What are UX principles?

People often ask “What are UX principles?” The answers have been many in numbers. However, let’s start by defining what principles really are. The Cambridge Dictionary defines principles to be basic truths that explain or control how something works or happens. Thus, many times, the list of principles for things, concepts, and entire disciplines are always not too long.

We will keep up with this theme. Thus, we will discuss some user experience principles that are the most fundamental and most important found in current UX literature.

Empathy and Human-Centered Design

Experts believe that the job of UX professionals is to advocate on behalf of the user. It’s a principle of Human-Centered Design (HCD) that is grounded in empathy.  However, this is also being confused with sympathy which is somewhat a related term yet doesn’t quite capture the requisite for HCD.

In fact, sympathy can cause bad designs to be created. And, most UX professionals today practice sympathy rather than empathy. While sympathy is the acknowledgment of the suffering of others. Many times acknowledgment isn’t enough. When designers create a designer-centric (self-centric) product in a way that “instructs” users how to solve their problems in a complicated (and sometimes condescending way), users don’t respond well. This is what HCD is trying to avoid.

Also, this is why empathy is key. UX designers should really try and walk using other people’s shoes rather than just telling them what to do. On the other hand, empathy is defined as:

“the ability to fully understand, mirror, then share another person’s experiences, needs, and motivation.”

To have empathy for target users is the best state for one to be in when designing products, services, and experiences that are truly valuable to target customers. Through a smart practice of empathy, one can create offerings and experiences that are useful, usable, desirable, and everything mentioned in the User Experience Honeycomb. Empathy is the bridge into the users’ minds and is the greatest asset of UX professionals. Also, anyone would be crazy to disagree with it.

The Focus on People Principle

As the name suggests, Human-Centered Design (HCD) focuses on people. It is centered on the users. However, it is not sufficient for designers to just focus on target users per se. They need to use empathy smartly and understand the situations where they can provide value for their target users. This means you have to find the right problems to solve. You have to get to know your target users up to the point of how they think, and how they choose plus behave. Well, this is ideal and it’s very hard to actually achieve. However, it is something great UX designers shoot for. Through gradual research and testing, this has been achieved many times.

Also, a focus on people also involves what we can call your internal people. Yes, this includes your workers, your customer service representatives, and managers. You’d want them to perform well in delivering the value you want your end-users to enjoy. Thus, your design just doesn’t stop at the end-user experience but it also should include how you deliver your products and services. Obviously, the way you deliver them affects the end-user experience greatly.

UX designers should look at things as systems. It’s because there are times that we would only tend to fix local problems yet they don’t actually affect the bigger picture positively. We should look at interconnections, relations, and how the overall system operates. He added that as much as possible we should go for the fundamental problems and not just address the symptoms. A systems approach is thus apt for good user experience design.

Mind the gap between designers and users

In Norman’s seminal 1988 book The Design of Everyday Things, he discussed three conceptual models with gaps that need bridging. These are mental models that involve the designer, the user, and the products or touchpoints themselves. The first is the design model. This is the conceptualization that the designer has in his or her own mind. Second, the user’s model is the mental model being developed to explain the operation of the product or system offered by the designer. Lastly, the system image is the way a touchpoint looks, feels, responds, and the necessary manuals or instructions that come with it. Here, we can safely say that UI is a big part, especially in the digital age.

Norman points out that both the user and the designer communicate only through the system itself. Thus, the designer needs to ensure that the system itself reveals the appropriate system image. Put simply, your touchpoints should just be easily understandable and easy to use. Thus, the resources you have to create user experiences should lead towards helping users reach their goals enjoyably and in the best way possible in the most convenient manner.

However, this communication is designers communicate with end-users somewhat indirectly. Thus, there is a gap. Therefore, there can be tons of guesswork for both parties. And, it is the job of UX professionals to eliminate much guesswork as they can through systems that they design. We’ll get to how this can be achieved in our best practices section.

The Principle of Usefulness: Utility + Usability = Usefulness

Jakob Nielsen outlined the principles of how products and services could actually become useful. In the above video, he stated that Utility + Usability = Usefulness. First, Utility is what the system does. It answers the question of does it solve problems that the users want to solve. It is made up of features that allow users to find value in using the product. Second, Usability is the quality of which a system has been designed to allow users to employ it with ease to solve their problems. Thus, both Utility and Usability should be high for something to be useful.

If Utility is high while Usability is low, who would use the product? It’s really hard to justify to people to use a product to solve a problem when the product itself is problematic to use! Moreover, if Usability is high yet Utility is low, who would want to use a product when it doesn’t solve a problem? That’s why UX designers need to keep both Utility and Usability high in order for a product to be Useful. This is a fundamental principle the UX designers should keep in mind.

Jakob’s Law of Internet UX: What does it teach us?

This law is like the laws used in science where it only describes the behavior of a system. It’s posed just like Newton’s gravitational laws and the thermodynamic laws but is very much simpler. It simply states:

“Users spend most of their time on other websites than your own website.”

What are the implications? We’ll discuss two.

Firstly, one can say that users prefer your site to work like other sites that they frequent. This means that it is best to design patterns that users are already used to. Intuitively, this makes a lot of sense as you don’t want to overdo designs just to be unique. Sometimes this can work but uniqueness should always be kept as the handmaiden to usefulness.

Secondly, the first implication seems to apply to other products and services as well. It isn’t just limited to website user experience. Sure, how we go about our daily lives that had changed in the last few centuries. More so can be said for the last 30 years. However, human needs have stayed the same. We still have opposable thumbs that can grip the same way for at least thousands of years. Our brains seem to have never changed for quite some time. That’s why many psychologists subscribe to the principle that our modern skulls house a stone age mind.

Some aspects of our human nature remain unchanged. That’s why we look for the same consistencies and regularities when it comes to products and services that satisfy our needs and desires. Thus, UX designers must also be familiar with these human universals and design for them. This means keeping products consistent with needs and conventions.

What are UX best practices?

Now, we already know that UX professionals need to provide actual value to users by focusing on people and looking at things as systems. However, they are left with a ton of guesswork because they have indirect lines of communication. Thus, they have to eliminate the guesswork using the system alone–the set of touchpoints between the organization and users. Also, this includes internal users as well because they help deliver value. But how do great UX designers do these? What is UX designer job? What are UX best practices?

Firstly, one must really know and understand the user experience itself. The goal here is to focus on people, systems, and the right problems to solve. There are many ways to do this and different practitioners use different ways. Also, it is good to note that the methods they use vary not only because of conceptual differences but also the differences between markets and other factors like their budgets. However, a common theme shared by HCD practitioners is that they do these via iterated loops of processes.

Hear, Create, and Deliver (also HCD)

The process mainly goes through three phases: Hear, Create, and Deliver. First, UX designers must Hear (or listen to) and immerse themselves in the world of their customers. They would understand the people that they are designing products or services to the best of their abilities. Second, they must Create ideas and solutions with the relevant information learned from the Hear phases. Thirdly, it is time to deliver fine-tuned solutions to the world.

ideo;s six phases of design

IDEO, a leading design organization, has six phases in its Human-Centered Design process.

  1. Observation
  2. Ideation
  3. Rapid Prototyping
  4. User Feedback
  5. Iteration
  6. Implementation

Phase 1: Observation

In this phase, HCD practitioners gather information through observing and experiencing for themselves how users interact with a product or solve a particular problem. In this way, they would know what the pain points, opportunities, and behavioral patterns are. It is at this stage that you try to understand the people who you are making a product or a service for. Thus, both quantitative and qualitative research and testing should be done in this stage.

Methods can vary from individual interviews, group interviews, and even in-context immersions. These methods are smart ways of practicing empathy. Researchers shouldn’t go blind with all their preconceptions and biases in tow. As much as possible, proven methods that allow them to empathize better should be followed. Furthermore, they should be statistically sound and scientific as well.

Phase 2: Ideation

During this stage, design teams try to come up with as many ideas as they can. Also, the ideas here should be based upon the information gathered during the initial phase. Furthermore, you should stay focused on the desires and needs of the people you are designing for at this stage. These ideas will be the bases for your prototypes and later development choices.

Phase 3: Rapid Prototyping

After coming up with ideas, IDEO designers quickly build simple prototypes for end-users to test right away. Also, it is known that IDEO is fond of cardboard mockups. This is because they don’t focus on high-fidelity prototypes that cost a lot and take time to complete. What they aim to do in this stage is to build something that will allow them to get user feedback as quickly as they can. The purpose of such is to make sure that their solution is right on the mark. It doesn’t need to be perfect yet.

Phase 4: User Feedback

Now, it is time to give people the prototype you designed for them. This may be the most important phase of the HCD process as you would know at this stage how to improve your design. Moreover, Jakob Nielsen advised companies to test once or twice a week using not more than five target users during the development stage. In this way, problems can be caught during development and be nipped in the bud. Thus, this is an iterative process.

Phase 5: Iteration

As mentioned, while you develop your product, you get people to test it right away. You do this as often as possible during your development phase to further identify pain points, opportunities, and patterns. Most of the time, when you iterate, you’ll learn something new until you are confident of the overall usability of what you are designing.

Phase 6: Implementation

Now, when your product or service has been validated through iterated trials, you can begin to implement your solution for your target end-users. When IDEO designs digital products such as apps, they typically go back to phase 1 and just iterate until they have fine-tuned the solution.

Two Examples: HCD in Practice

HCD focusing on user experience is being used in many types of projects worldwide. There are NGOs and for-profits that swear by this approach. However, different endeavors have different types of end-users as subjects. It is a very complex process and just like how groups of end-users are unique, the project management itself will be quite unique. Thus, many UX designers use project management platforms to keep things organized.

Speaking of project management platforms, one that has been among the leading favorite programs of creative teams is

Its prolific visual designs allow creative project teams to handle projects at any stage with clarity. If your work entails layers of unique tasks, lets you add customized modules as you see fit. It’s flexible too, which allows you to use it not just for managing creative projects but also highly technical ones.

An appealing test drive of all software features is available to you when you sign up for a free trial here.

Also, if your organization subscribes to an omnichannel approach, you should also consider hearing your users on the fly using social monitoring tools. In this way, you can keep up with user sentiments, pain points, behavioral patterns, and opportunities even when you are in the implementation phase. This is especially best for digital projects as mentioned.

Below, we’ll summarize two HCD UX examples. One for an NGO mission by IDEO and another for-profit UX practice. Additionally, you can read about digital tools that can use for customer experience (CX) here.

There’s no difference between UX and CX if you interpret them the same as Nielsen and Norman noted.

Accessible Hearing Aids in Rural India

One IDEO HCD project was to test out new hearing aid protocols in rural India. They wanted to make it accessible and deliverable by minimally-trained local technicians. After research, they develop a prototype that includes a fitting protocol, a kit for technicians, and other tools like training materials. Then, the IDEO team trained two local people to be technicians in just less than a day. After this, they went live testing.

They observed the technicians during the first day and identified problems. They found their protocol to be too complex and took too long. Thus, they simplified the protocol further and trained new technicians for the second day. Again, they found more inefficiencies even though the second round went better than the first. On the third day, they simplified the protocol even further and trained another set of technicians to conduct the tests. Then, they were able to find a simplified protocol that was working.

The takeaway? They gathered feedback early so they were able to change their design in between feedback sessions. This improves efficiency and they made sure that their solution was moving towards the right direction early.

Kids Toothbrushes

IDEO, back in 1996, was tapped by Oral-B to design toothbrushes for kids. The first thing that IDEO did was that they needed to immerse themselves with how kids brushed their teeth. This was quite strange yet this was allowed. They actually went into homes and observed how kids do it as opposed to adults. No assumptions were made.

Alas! They found that kids brush their teeth differently than adults. Kids, in general, have less manual dexterity and they gripped their brushes using their fists. On the other hand, adults with higher manual dexterity use their fingers to execute finer movements. Thus, this led the team to design new types of grips for kids’ toothbrushes. The squish gripper was born. Remember those? IDEO designed them in a very user-centric way taking into account the total user experience.

The takeaway? Many times, it is not enough to just sit back and look at statistics. Designers must really come into contact with their target users. It isn’t just enough to know who you are designing for. You should really understand who they are, what they need, and how they satisfy those needs. Only then you can design products and services that can better satisfy those needs more conveniently according to their own standards and preferences.

Is UX design in demand?

UX design is not really a new field. It has been around since 1950. Furthermore, the top experts are still very active and contribute to the field. This is really a sign that something is still being developed and would require more abled-minds to fine-tune.

Recently, a UK study reported a 289% increase in requests for UX interviews. This means the job prospects are currently hot for CX professionals.

Understandably, as products and services migrate to or augment digital forms, the demand for UX professionals seem to be for the development of such things. The demand for UX designers is also growing for VR, AR, and wearables according to an Adobe report. 55% of managers are focused on hiring UX designers for mobile platform and 48% expect mobile to remain as the top priority for UX hiring for the next five years.

So, if you are planning to enter a UX designer career, today is a really good time to be alive. Also, the UX designer salary is not bad at all.

Source: UX Designer Salaries

How do I get good at UX?

Well, the first thing you need to get good at is listening. This is very important as good UX designs focus on empathy and its wise practice. Thus, you need to listen and understand not just your potential target users but also the movers and shakers in the field. You need to understand who they are, what they have done, and how they go about designing UX.

In some sense, you have to conduct research on yourself to exactly know what you really need and how you can achieve it. In this case, it is to become good at UX. Of course, this varies for everyone. Some may have had experiences with UX-related projects. Others may have studied aspects of it in school. While many out there are quite new to the whole program. No matter where you are at this point, it’s not a bad idea to apply the six phases of UX design by IDEO to your very career.

Moreover, there are many courses available online for UX design. We strongly suggest that you take Norman and Nielsen’s courses. They are pioneers and giants in the field. Also, their approach to the whole thing is systematic and largely scientific.

Furthermore, you would likely need to brush up on your quantitative and qualitative research skills. This is part of practicing empathy wisely. You can pick up books or take courses from your local college or university. Also, there are great sources on the web if these things aren’t fresh to you.

The great value of great UX design

Most great designs don’t even shine through. They are left unnoticed even by users themselves as they feel like second nature. Designed items, systems, and protocols like these feel natural to us. They are ergonomic in the physical sense and conceptual sense. They make a perfect fit. Moreover, they help guide us through their very usage.

This can be seen in apps and other digital products that we almost instantly enjoy. Great physical examples would be the most comfortable chair or clothes you have at home. The connections are instant as they exhibit cues that signify how they can be used and what the results are after using them. Great designs are clear, easy-to-use, effective, and direct to the point. Thus, they are just our everyday things.

If you are an organization, you want your products and services to be described like these. You want to be a household name for your target users. Also, you want your products to be a part of their everyday world. Thus, if you run a website, you want it to be something that people enjoy and go to almost every day. You want to score well on your website KPIs. If you run a restaurant, you want to be visited regularly by your target users. You want to be as natural to them as day and night.

And, this is the great value of great UX design. Companies and organizations not only connect with their target users but also build storied relationships. It is what makes good brands last. They become second nature. You may also want to check out or other project management tool for your UX creative teams. You can easily sign up for free trial here

Nestor Gilbert

By Nestor Gilbert

Nestor Gilbert is a senior B2B and SaaS analyst and a core contributor at FinancesOnline for over 5 years. With his experience in software development and extensive knowledge of SaaS management, he writes mostly about emerging B2B technologies and their impact on the current business landscape. However, he also provides in-depth reviews on a wide range of software solutions to help businesses find suitable options for them. Through his work, he aims to help companies develop a more tech-forward approach to their operations and overcome their SaaS-related challenges.

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