Without a user experience design process, organizations can spend a significant amount of time and resources putting out design fires one at a time. When one crisis is averted, another flames up, and your team could find itself scrambling for solutions. A comprehensive UX design process pulls the entire organization together and rallies them under a singular cause that aligns efforts and improves productivity. If you master the user experience (UX) design process, you can increase productivity and decrease product lead times.
What is a UX design process?
Like a user interface (UI) design process, the UX design process is a journey to understand the user's needs, brainstorm ideas to meet them and create a functional, usable product with a delightful experience.
The UX design process is iterative and user-centered. Team members are constantly refining and improving specific steps based on user feedback. This creates a self-sustaining cycle of development and improvement, ultimately producing a process that leads to the best possible product.
The evolution of the user experience design process
Donald Norman, an Apple employee, coined the term "user experience" in 1993 to describe how users interacted with a product throughout development. It highlighted accessibility, discoverability, and efficiency as ways to meet customer needs.
Today, the term has taken a life of its own, with new technologies dominating everyday life. Thanks to platforms like UserTesting, organizations can get videos that capture users' reactions to a product or service in real time.
The tools used for designing products have also gotten much better. Nowadays, powerful software like Figma gives designers a wide range of features that can make creating high-quality user experiences even faster. As technology continues to evolve, so will UX design processes.
The importance of the UX design process
The benefits of UX design are far-reaching, so designing a process around it is critical. By improving products based on customer feedback early and often, your organization builds more satisfaction with every iteration. When a product is easy to use and meets users' needs, they're more likely to continue using it and recommending it to others.
Moreover, the UX design process can improve operations within the organization. For example, imagine your customer service team is receiving feedback that a product is challenging to navigate, but designers never see the information. Consider updating your UX design process to include regular communication between departments so no customer feedback goes unheard. As the product design method becomes more efficient, customer needs are addressed sooner.
But to successfully implement UX design, your organization must first understand the fundamental principles that guide the UX design process.
Key principles of a good user experience design process
Use these principles as a focus point when developing your UX design process.
When a design team receives a brief or becomes aware of a new project, leadership must carefully consider what experience levels and skills will be required to complete the project.
Is the project straight UX, or will it have a visual component? Will motion design, branding, or animation play a role? How much work is there? Should a separate Project Manager exist, or can a Design Lead run it all themselves? How many junior or senior designers are needed? These are essential questions to ask so everyone feels supported and the right people can get involved early.
Whether you work in an agency or an in-house design team, every new project needs a kickoff meeting. This meeting is the first time all necessary stakeholders and designers sit together to review existing data and research, articulate the problems to be solved, and identify opportunities. This meeting aims to identify the riskiest assumptions or knowledge gaps that researchers can answer. After this meeting, team leaders should be able to start dividing the work and assigning responsibilities.
Once the kickoff meeting has concluded and the mission is clear, the design team will fall into their established cadence of internal meetings and—if necessary—external stakeholder meetings that will be followed throughout the project. For embedded design teams, there are both design team cadences and cross-functional team cadences. This cadence will differ depending on the team. But at a minimum, the design team will meet at least once weekly to align on roadblocks, responsibilities, deliverables, and deadlines.
A design lead or project manager typically leads these meetings if they’re part of the team structure. If the design project is being done for a separate team or a client, then regularly scheduled external meetings will be held to show progress and ensure expectations are met.
It’s worth mentioning that many design teams like to have weekly or bi-weekly critique sessions in addition to the aforementioned meetings. In these meetings, the design team presents the work they’ve completed to the broader design team or organization. It’s a chance for other groups to understand what the design team is working on, provide feedback, ask questions, encourage, or suggest ideas.
Collaboration and solo work
Every design project is different. But one of the best things organizations can do for their designers is make sure they have fellow designers they can collaborate with throughout a project. Too often, designers find themselves siloed with no one to bounce ideas off of. This hurts morale, slows production, and limits creativity. For embedded teams, designers should facilitate cross-discipline ideation sessions where the collective genius of the group—regardless of function—is considered. The best ideas often come from collecting differing viewpoints rather than from designers alone.
There’s usually at least one instance in a project where a meeting like this is necessary. Most of the time throughout the project, designers will need time alone to focus on their assignments to bring work back to internal meetings for feedback. But even with solo work, designers will always benefit from the support of being able to pull a team member in for ad hoc feedback or collaborative problem-solving.
Prototyping and testing
As the project progresses, designers will combine their ideas, eliminate those that don’t work, and slowly settle on an agreed-upon design direction. Through review and iteration, that design will usually be fleshed out into a clickable (no-code) prototype that can be tested with users or stakeholders.
Once the design team reaches this project stage, they can see the light at the end of the tunnel. The prototype is then tested and refined—based on user feedback— in multiple iterations until the experience is as smooth as the team feels it can be. Testing is a vital project phase and should be used as frequently as possible to validate ideas and answer questions.
Handoff to development
As we know, a good design is irrelevant if it can’t be developed. To mitigate risk, the developers should be involved throughout the entire process, from problem definition to ideation to prototyping, through development and release.
For organizations with more of a hand-off process, once the prototype has been approved by the necessary stakeholders and optimized for accessibility, the design team will clean up and organize all components so that the development team can access what they need. As a best practice, one or two designers should stay on the project throughout the hand-off phase to ensure development has the support they need to implement the design.
UX design process vs. design thinking process
The UX design process can be considered a more specialized subset of design thinking that focuses on enhancing user experience. Both methods prioritize the customer at the center of the process, but you primarily use the UX design process in the product space. Design thinking can apply to any area that requires problem-solving and innovative thinking.
Design thinking is a broader, solution-based approach to solving problems. It's not restricted to one industry or area of expertise. This process encourages organizations to focus on the people they're creating for, which leads to better products, services, and internal processes. It's great for addressing complex problems that need to be defined or discovered.
The UX design process involves deeply understanding users' needs, values, abilities, privacy concerns, and limitations. The goal is to enhance user satisfaction by improving the usability, accessibility, and pleasure of interacting with a product.
UX design process steps
Using the design thinking framework when developing ideas will help foster creativity and productivity throughout the process. The framework includes key traits like empathizing with the user, defining the problem, creating a prototype, and testing the results. Below are the stages in the design process your organization should prioritize.
Define your problem
The problem steers the direction for your entire project. It should be user-centered—based on your users' needs, frustrations, or desires, not just your organization's goals or technical constraints.
When you define the problem, you're not just identifying an issue but articulating what needs to change to improve the user experience. You may need to make a web UX design easier to navigate, simplify a multistep process, or create a product more accessible to a broader range of users.
With thorough research, you're designing in the light. Research helps you understand your users' behaviors, needs, and motivations, which allows you to make informed decisions when iterating the design process.
There are several ways to conduct research, including:
- Focus groups
- Usability testing
Your method will depend on your audience and your customer feedback channels. Do your customers congregate on Facebook or LinkedIn? Does your user base use chatbots? Do they respond more to text or email? Whatever the case, select a research methodology that will give you enough data to extract meaningful human insights.
You'll measure the progress of your design process by the original ideas you formed with your team. Once you've researched what the competition is doing and what your customers expect, you can start brainstorming and mapping out the solutions. Eventually, these ideas will form the basis of your next iteration as you continue to improve.
Identifying potential ideas is only the first step. You need to assess which ones are feasible, consider their impact on customers, and evaluate how much effort it will take to execute them. Consider who will lead specific projects and how many employees you want onboard to execute these ideas.
Analyze and plan
Analyze the feasibility and implications of your ideas. Consider technical feasibility, cost, time, and resources required. For instance, if your concept involves adding a new feature to your app, you'll need to determine whether your current technology stack can support it, how much it will cost to develop, and how long it will take. It's helpful at this stage to learn how to present ideas to executives who can help direct resources to the UX design process.
Next, prioritize your ideas based on their potential impact on the user experience and the organization's goals. For example, one of your ideas is to simplify the checkout process in your e-commerce app, and another is to add a new wishlist feature. You might prioritize the former if your research reveals that users struggle with the current checkout process, affecting conversion rates.
Creating a prototype starts with translating your design ideas into visual representations. Your goal should be to create a minimum viable product you can use for testing purposes. You're not aiming for perfection.
Depending on your product's complexity and the design process stage, you might start with a low-fidelity prototype such as a sketch or a wireframe. There are prototyping tools that can help you speed up the process by digitalizing all designs. These simple prototypes help you map your product's basic structure and layout. Once your prototype is ready, you can use it to conduct usability tests.
Before unleashing your product on the world, you'll need customer feedback on its performance. User testing allows you to validate your design decisions and uncover usability issues before your product goes live. It will enable you to see how real users interact with your product and how to leverage their feedback to improve results.
Start by defining what you want to test: specific features, workflows, or the overall user experience. Then, develop a testing plan that outlines the tasks you want users to perform and the questions you want to ask.
Launch your product
The launch is when your product, carefully designed and tested based on user needs and feedback, finally goes live.
Plan the launch meticulously. Decide on a launch date, prepare marketing materials, and coordinate with various teams like development, marketing, sales, and customer support.
Once your product is live, monitor its performance closely. Use analytics tools to track key metrics like user engagement, retention, and conversion rates. Gather user feedback to understand how users perceive your product and what improvements you can make.
Best practices for a great UX design process
A great UX design process is built by experience. It takes preparation, execution, and constant iteration. Following some of the best practices can shorten the timeline to success and preserve valuable resources:
- Create open lines of communication: The UX design process involves multiple departments, and they all need to be talking with each other.
- Use tools to your advantage:
- Feel free to experiment: You'll make mistakes, but that's part of the process. As long as you take notes and track your progress, learning leads to innovation.
- Don't forget self-care: The UX design process may be stressful, but it doesn't need to negatively impact your employees or the project's outcome. Don't be afraid to take a break when you need it.
Measuring success: UX design metrics and evaluation
You must collect, measure, and evaluate data points to make the right future decisions for your UX design process. Measure each stage of the design process to determine if it's providing a positive user experience.
Some UX metrics you should track include task completion, engagement, usability score, and abandonment rate. This data can be collected using tools like heatmaps or analytics software.
Once the data is collected and analyzed, use it to formulate a plan for improving your product. Implement small changes based on user feedback and track their progress to see if they impact user satisfaction.
By gathering and evaluating data regularly, you can continuously improve the overall UX design process to meet users' needs and develop a loyal customer base.
Maximize your UX process
The UX design process is essential for creating compelling digital experiences that enhance user engagement and meet organizational goals. By following the proper steps and best practices, you can maximize your UX process to ensure you address all user needs while optimizing for success.
As a designer, you're faced with making critical decisions every day. Your design is only as good as its relevance and connection with the intended audience. With this guide, get a better understanding of how designers in high-performing organizations test their work with their intended audience throughout their process.