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UX, UI and more: A practical explainer

17 August 2020

Because user experience (UX) is such a broad and multidisciplinary field, it can be hard for non-UX folk to pin down exactly what it entails. Even those who work in the field may find the lines blurring from time to time, depending on the situation and who they’re speaking to.

But by and large, here’s what to expect when you hear these common UX-related terms fly across the meeting table.

First of all, what is UX?

“UX” is an acronym for “User Experience” and refers to how a person experiences a system they’re engaging with. The field of UX Design encompasses various sub-disciplines that include:

  • UI (user interface) design
  • Usability
  • Accessibility
  • Ergonomics
  • Human-computer interaction
  • Marketing

A user-centered mindset should apply from start to finish when creating systems for people. In larger digital projects where every project phase is its own distinct beast, UX thinking can manifest in a variety of ways, each aimed at contributing towards an outcome that’s engaging, smooth, and easy to use.

UX Research / User Research

UX research (also called “user research”) is the study of a system’s target audience, to better understand the needs and pain points of the users you’re designing for. Research tends to coincide with the discovery phase of a project — or, in the case of a redesign, may come before the project even begins.

Research activities may include:

Workshops, interviews and focus groups, where researchers consult personally with users or audience representatives to gain insight into what the system needs to provide.

Quantitative research, which may involve conducting surveys, studying analytics data, and assessing known and observable patterns of user behaviour.

User testing, which could include card sorting exercises, lo-fi testing with paper prototypes, eye-tracking studies, and more.

UX Strategy

Your UX strategy sets out a vision of how you want your audience to experience your digital offering. It’s the big picture that all of your interfaces and systems aim to align with. By the end of the research phase, you should have enough real-world awareness to develop a practical, evidence-based user experience strategy.

Key considerations when putting together a good strategy will include:

Your vision: the ultimate goal of the UX-driven work you intend to do.

Outcomes: what results and benefits you expect to see.

Development roadmap: an overview of changes you need to make to realise your vision.

Key performance indicators: an inventory of measures to determine the effectiveness of your improvements.

Internal development: what improvements to internal processes and team capabilities you’ll need to help realise your long-term UX vision.

UX Design

UX design is concerned with the overall experience of a system. Under certain circumstances, the terms “UX design” and “UI design” may be used interchangeably (with team roles combined), but this is typically incorrect. The UX design stage of a project comes before your visual designer even considers what a user will see.

Insights from your research and strategy efforts will go towards creating resources such as:

Workflows and wireframes, outlining the user’s journey as they progress towards their goals.

An information architecture map, sometimes casually referred to as a “sitemap” or “navigation map” (though these are actually slightly different things), or a “website topology”.

A content strategy, determining the presentation, timing, behaviour and governance of content over time. This strategy may be created by the UX designer, a content strategist, or both in collaboration.

User personas, ie. profiles of stereotypical users. It’s important to understand (and convey to your stakeholders) that personas don’t represent actual users, but are the personification of observed user behaviours, needs, challenges and attitudes — factors that may influence their experience of your product or service.

UI Design

UI design (ie. user interface design) determines how the end product looks, and can encompass a range of disciplines to create a product that delivers the ideal user experience. These disciplines may include:

Branding, ensuring the user interface represents your brand.

Aesthetics, that is, creating a visually pleasing experience.

Usability, typically involving design decisions that make an interface easy to interact with.

Content design, which is concerned primarily with how content is presented to the audience.

The term “UI design” is often used very broadly, so it can be difficult to set and manage expectations if specifics aren’t established before the work begins. A UI designer might specialise in highly usable interfaces, but still create an ugly and off-brand product. Conversely, skilled designers coming from a print background may not have the awareness of digital user interfaces to produce a user-friendly outcome.

Consider, however, that a UI designer could also have UX design skills, allowing for time-saving overlaps between your various project phases. When delegating UI design work, either to internal teams or external creatives, be sure to consider all the skillsets available to the project, and how best to communicate your needs to achieve an optimal end result.

Responsive Design

The term “responsive” refers to a website’s (or webapp’s) ability to “respond” to the device accessing it. A properly designed responsive site will provide a usable and positive experience, regardless of whether the user is viewing the site on a screen the size of a desktop monitor, tablet device or mobile phone.

Responsive design should be a holistic consideration across all stages of your project, as it will impact how users view and experience a product in many different scenarios.

With mobile devices often the primary means for many to access the web, responsive design (or mobile-first design) is now a key feature of a good web experience.

To sum it up…

UX is a multifaceted discipline concerned with how users experience the systems they interact with. UX research involves various activities aimed at gaining insight into the needs of an audience.

Your vision of how you want your users to experience your offering is captured by your UX strategy, informing the UX design, which in turn informs your UI design. With users accessing websites on a variety of devices and screen sizes, you will most likely need to employ responsive design practices to ensure an optimal user experience.

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