What UX Designers Do

Many individuals in software development believe we just "make things pretty" - which, yes, we do - but that's a very small part of our job. UX Designers' responsibilities range from identifying what users need, to testing the end product, and lots of things in between. Like most other roles in software development, we really do wear a lot of hats.

The goal for this article: establish a sequence of activities that demonstrate the skills and responsibilities of user experience designers.

Every project starts with a business need (aka a problem to solve). For this example, we've been asked to add e-commerce capabilities to our product.

Plan 

Analysis

There are several ways a business need can be introduced, including heuristic evaluations, user requests, competitor analysis, or simply identifying a gap in the product's market. Once a product owner introduces a business need, it's up to designers to understand as much about it as possible. 

"We can increase our revenue by selling products online."

User Stories

A big part of each project is confirming that the business need overlaps with users' needs, which sort of justifies the work to be done. What does the product need to do, for who, and why? User stories help the design team identify user tasks the product must support, as well as identify personas for the project.

"As a consumer, I need to view products online so I can purchase them."

That is just one example of many potential user stories for a project - some of which break down into more detailed user stories. How many different ways can users get to a product (search, browse, related items)? Which users prefer to search for products instead of browsing product categories?

This information is gathered by interviewing subject matter experts (SME's), and interviewing users to learn more about their goals.

Personas

Personas represent fictitious people which are based on our knowledge of real users. Documenting details such as their goals, environment, and influential factors help designers "think" like users throughout the project. Personas are usually established ahead of the project and refined using data collected in the user stories.

Jane - Age 32 - Employed full time - Mother of two
Goals: Saving money; Providing children with new clothes for school; 

Some personas are fairly basic, while some offer a very granular level of detail. Finding the right level of detail depends on your product and the complexities of those who use it. 

User Flows

This diagram for related user stories serves as a basis for users' journey maps, and also establishes an overview for wire frames.

Browse products ... View product detail ... Add to cart ... Check out ...

Identifying these steps are critical to ensuring your product matches the way users complete their tasks.

Concept

Sketching

Often referred to as brainstorming, this activity is really where user stories are fleshed out into more detailed steps. Whiteboard sketches, scribbles on paper, and voting on ideas are perfect for finding true solutions before being locked down by screen designs.

Wireframes

A bit more structured than the idea sketches, these deliverables are usually black & white roughs based on the user flows. Wireframes begin to address components and content, while still providing a format that is quick to revise. Showing these to other design stakeholders and users help establish a shared understanding of what's being built for the product.

Create

Information Architecture

With an understanding of the user flow and wireframes, designers can start planning out data structure and navigation to the functionality.

Often during this step, a usability test called a card sort can be performed to see how users group organize and group tasks (user stories). This quantitive data helps designers determine structure and navigation that matches the user's mental model of the product.

Prototypes

This can be a more detailed wireframe, a static or interactive mockup, or a working HTML web page. The appropriate format depends on methodologies, schedule, and a number of other factors.

For new functionality, as is the case with our e-commerce example, it's usually best to provide an interactive mockup, or working HTML page, for each major user story. The benefit of this is not only showing content and layout, but also mimicking functionality and behavior, which helps developers understand how the actual product should work.

Responsive

Today's designs must work on a number of devices and display sizes. So once you've got your prototype established, it's a good idea to investigate how your design responds in desktop, tablet, and mobile scenarios. Many designers rely on prototype libraries such as Bootstrap, which also provides pre-cooked responsive features.

Guidelines

Whether you decide to start during or after your prototype (and responsive design) are finalized, it's important to keep your design guidelines up to date with the latest new information and updates to existing content.

Test

User Observation

Testing a working product provides invaluable insight for designers. Whether in person or online, watching a user perform tasks and seeing how they react is a great way to collect quantitive data.

Analytics

Designers can rely on product metrics to provide more quantitive data regarding their designs. There are a number of benefits to having analytic data, but perhaps most importantly, this data tracks characteristics of users, the content users interact with, and where users might encounter issues.

In Summary

It's worth noting that this is not an exhaustive list of all UX activities. There are many other methods and practices that designers leverage to achieve a more usable product. These just happen to be the ones my team and I are currently using.

Also worth reiterating is no two projects are the same. The goal should be to build a toolbox of UX activities that designers can choose from based on the information they need, and the problem being solved.