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Unbeknownst to many of us, the discipline of user experience design has changed the way we live on a major scale. Our interactions with user interfaces shape our day-to-day lives to the point where it's highly likely that a user interface is precisely what wakes you up in the morning.
The best user interfaces are those that we don't even register as being technological products, but instead a familiar tool whose mechanics feel like an extension of our own thought processes.
Even though the best user interfaces are intuitive in their nature, there is a surprising amount of design thinking and prototyping behind all of our most heavily utilised interfaces, ranging from our smartphone's operating system, to the formatting and layout of our social media feeds, our mobile banking apps, and virtually every other digital interface that you may find yourself interacting with on a daily basis.
A UX design course will likely see design students recognising functions and features within our digital interfaces that we've genuinely been taking for granted, simply because we were unaware of the strict and complex design processes that UX designers must follow in order to create intuitive user interfaces.
That's precisely why we'll be unpacking all the 'magic' behind UX design today, and providing insights into this often understated and overlooked design discipline that quietly pushes us further and further into this digital age.
All UX design projects begin with the practice of UX (or 'user experience') mapping. UX mapping involves making physical or digital flowcharts to represent the pathways that users will follow when interacting with your designed user interface.
These flowcharts help UX designers accurately picture their software prototypes prior to programming. In a nutshell, UX mapping can help UX designers pinpoint where to place specific functions along the length of their desired user journey.
In truth, UX mapping isn't too far removed from the art of storyboarding. Both processes involve sketching out a story or 'journey' from start to finish. Instead of plot points on storyboards, UX maps have 'touch points', otherwise known as select positions within your user journey where users must complete a desired action before progressing to the next section of an interface's design.
UX designers can use user journey maps to help figure out just how users can best be prompted to take these desired actions. Users are likely to be persuaded to act by design elements presented to them within your UI (or 'user interface') design.
Unlike UX design, UI design primarily focuses on identifying how best to present all the separate components and functions of a UX map in order to provide software or app users with the most organic user experience. In other words, UI designers build upon the functional foundations provided by UX designers.
The decisions made by UI designers aren't entirely guided by creative direction, however. There are just as many theories dictating how an app or other user interfaces look, feel, and even sound. One school of thought that has held immense influence over the process of user interface design just so happens to be behavioural science.
Theories of behavioural psychology can be used in tandem with UX design principles in order to provide interfaces with the best possible conversion rates, or a higher likelihood of users completing each chapter within a user journey.
Testing your user interface prior to your app launch can help UX designers identify any touch points that are failing to convert, or provide users with adequate incentives to reach the final stage of your outlined user journey. These identified problem touch points can then be improved upon by simply adding user incentives to prompt the user journey to continue.
These incentives don't even have to be 'incentives' in the traditional sense, i.e. discounts or access to promotional deals. UI designers can incentivise users to continue on with their user journey by providing them with little design 'nudges' in the right direction.
For example, providing users with a progress bar to show how far through a process they are, can help ensure users complete all desired actions and see that journey through to completion.
Similarly, adding a human or personable touch to your user interface (in the form of a unique image, cartoon character or mascot, or other branded graphic) can encourage users to interact with those personable elements all the way through to the end of that outlined user journey, as a means of seeing all the possible iterations of that element.
Of course, adding these little touches to your UX comes with its own set of responsibilities to maintain consistency in design as well as operational transparency for the comfort of your software user.
For instance, whilst they are easier to programme, the addition of fake progress bars can make users feel deceived, prompting them to lose their investment in completing your user journey.
Similarly, if the tone of personable elements comes off as ham-fisted and insincere rather than warm and inviting, UX designers are likely to find that these additions hurt their conversion rates rather than helping them. So how do you know how to strike the perfect balance between personable or supportive and pushy?
The answer is user and performance testing, of course! Although testing your interface is technically the last of the five phases of design thinking, UX designers are expected to continuously gather and work off of user data in order to improve upon their interface bit by bit.
User testing can help UX designers identify pain points across their UX map at an earlier point in time, so that there are less design concerns plaguing their minimum viable product (MVP) or app prototype.
It's beneficial to address all glaring design concerns prior to the beta testing phase of your user interface, as chances are high there will already be plenty of feedback and user data to learn from even with all those functional kinks worked out.
Simply put, the UX designer's job takes many months of labour in order to feel complete, and even then, the nature of software development demands that designers and developers keep innovating to stay on top of evolving technologies.
And there you have it! Once you see how the sausage is made, so to speak, UX design does feel a lot less magical and increasingly more methodical in its nature. In truth, this design discipline demands a merging of arts and sciences.
For this reason, it's common for many UX designers to dabble in UI design principles alongside fine-tuning their own heavily technical skills. Being able to maintain a balanced approach to a UX design project is likely to result in your end product being a highly intuitive and user-friendly interface.