UX Design Basics, Part I


Before beginning with the design process of CoffeeBoy I wanted to organize my knowledge about UX design. The upcoming series of posts will give you an introduction to this broad topic. Since some information will be in note form you will get links for further readings. This post describes what UX design is, which activities and disciplines are usually involved, and what they generate.

CoffeeBoy Series Schedule

Youthful follies

Have you ever participated in (or heard about) a project’s kickoff meeting where the attendees were directly discussing about the product’s strategy, the target markets, the target users, the users’ needs and their desires? Ahem, well, yes…actually not. Dealing with such abstract and high level topics in the very first phase of a project seems to be a natural and obvious step. However, we often find ourselves directly starting talking about architectures, technologies, the infrastructure, release dates and so on, right?

One of my first projects during my studies, namely the development of a web shop for a friend’s company selling car parts, started with the evaluation of technologies and tinkering with CSS styles. I decided to give the MySQL database, the JBoss Seam web application framework and the RichFaces JSF web component library a chance. Because I liked the style applied by the Joomla content management system, I decided to go with the web shop’s design into the same direction. All decisions were simply based on my personal taste. Then the planning phase of my project was finished. I’ve not even created any screen mock-ups, nor have I collected any requirements, but directly started to develop the web shop as it was constructed in my brain.

The web shop consisted of two major components. While the shop component allowed the customers to purchase articles, the content manager component enabled my friend to manage the article inventory.

The development of the shop component went very well. Thanks to countless examples on the web for an articles list, a shopping cart or how an ordering process looks like, the shop component was finished in time.

Then I started to develop the content manager component. Let me sum up briefly: it took too long, got never finished and frustrated my friend. What went wrong? Well, before starting to develop the web shop I didn’t deal with
(1) my friend’s business context: By means of the content manager he was able to create, edit and delete articles. But his inventory contained hundreds of very similar articles. Though the content manager didn’t allow him to create a new article based on an other one. So he was forced, as he later told me, to copy-paste article properties between browser tabs. A create copy of article feature would have saved him much time.
(2) my friend’s IT background: The article description editor forced him to author the description text by means of a specific template language1. He had to learn this template language as a non-techie. A rich text editor would have been the better choice in this case.

Furthermore it turned out that the implementation of the ordering process was suboptimal. Namely it included a step where the customers could either authenticate by means of their existing credentials, or create a new user account. That way recurring customers could be identified during future ordering processes and thus were not prompted to specify their address and stuff again. However, my friend later told me that he had non-recurring customers. So the account feature were developed for nothing and certainly annoyed the customers who had to accomplish this additional and useless step during the ordering process.

If I would have had first concerned myself with the users of the web shop, that is my friend and his customers, I would have generated a better UX, saved time and a lot of hassle.

UX design in a nutshell

UX design aims to maximize positive experiences of a person when she faces a product or interacts with it. Persons have individual goals and desires, and it’s not always obvious how to satisfy them. UX design, also called user-centered design, provides the tools to achieve that. Thereby the user always takes center stage.

UX design is not only limited to software products. It’s not even limited to products, but also services and systems. UX “takes place” every time a person watches a product’s advertising spot, perceives its brand, purchases it, unpacks it, reads its manual, interacts with it, visits the product company’s website, talks to a service hotline personal in order to get support, uses the product’s accessory or an other product from the same product line.

Because there are so many things that have a bearing on UX, UX design is a nontrivial, longsome and expensive step in a product development project. From my point of view these are the prevalent reasons why UX design often gets completely skipped in projects.

UX design activities and disciplines

UX often gets designed within a more or less strictly defined, iterative process. While there is an ISO standard2 for such processes there nevertheless exist different approaches. Without going into details about the different approaches (we’ll learn our UX design process in the post after the next) they all have in common the inclusion of some of the activities and disciplines briefly described in the next sections.


Each product is based upon an idea. Creativity disciplines like brainstorming help to formalize first ideas.

User Segmentation

This activity helps to build groups of users which are similar with regard to their demographic (age, gender) and psychographic (interests, opinions) profiles. An example for a user group may be “Women between 30 and 40, living in San Francisco’s urban hinterland, working in the IT sector and playing social games in their spare time.”. Such user groups form the foundation for the user research activity.

User Research

Based on the information from user segmentation, user research aims to collect further insights about the user’s behaviors, needs and desires. These get gathered with the aid of, amongst others, ethnographic studies, surveys, interviews, focus groups, contextual design, scenarios, prototyping and user testing.


All the information gathered about the potential users of a product often flow into the creation of personas. A persona is a fictive representative of a whole group of users. In order to give her a vivid face a persona gets described by means of a short profile, often featuring a photograph, a demographic description, as well as a list of the persona’s goals, attitudes, aptitudes and motivations. In all phases of a UX design process personas get involved in discussions and help to communicate and reason design decisions (“John wears black clothes. His notebook is black. He will hate this light-blue theme!”). Ultimately they are the (representatives for) people for which we design our products and which need our empathy!

Interface Design

Together with a couple of complementary and related disciplines, interface design puts strong emphasis on the aesthetics, simplicity and efficiency of software user interfaces (UIs). Thereby functions and information get provided to the user in a way that she can accomplish her tasks and achieve her goals with ease and without having to think about the approaches. The best way to achieve that is to map the user’s mental model as much as possible to the UI. That means, working with vocabulary and metaphors the user is familiar with. We will learn more about mental models in the next post.

Complementary and related disciplines of interface design include: interaction design, navigation design, information design and visual design. The following list shows typical output these disciplines can produce:

Industrial Design

In contrast to interface design, the design subject within industrial design is an interactive physical device.

Requirements Engineering

In all phases of the UX design process requirements engineering helps to define, document and maintain requirements. Product requirements usually evolve in the early ideation and user research phases, but can also result from new insights in later phases.

Up next

The next post will cover important factors for successful UX design, answer the questions why and why not one should apply UX design, and discuss why good UX design can blow off in spit of intensive UX design efforts. Stay tuned!