The UX process is a map to building great products. It guides you from zero knowledge about a product, user, and business to a fully designed experience your users love.
The UX process is the cornerstone of good UX design. The only problem is that UX designers (and many educators) don’t make it easy for new UXers to learn it! They use different terms and phrases for the same thing and confuse beginners with complex-sounding methods like "heuristic evaluations" and "affinity diagrams."
We’re here to change that.
Over the past decade of practicing and teaching UX, we’ve found a simple way to describe the UX process for absolute beginners and those designers in need of a quick reference.
Here’s what we’re going to cover in this guide:
What is UX (exactly)?
What does a UX designer do? The 6 core disciplines of UX
UX Process 101: A step-by-step guide for beginners
~Research & understanding
~Information architecture & wireframing
~Prototyping & usability testing
~Visual design & handoff
Cheatsheet: The UX process visualized
What is UX exactly?
UX stands for User Experience and is the process of making a product or service–both physical or digital–useful, relevant, and meaningful for its users.
Simply put, if you’ve ever gotten frustrated, lost, or confused using an app or product, the UX designer wasn’t doing their job properly.
That still might be a little high-level, so let’s use a simple example: a door.
Imagine you’re walking up to this door. What would you do?
Push? Pull? There’s no clear indication of what you need to do in order to get what you want (i.e., go inside!)
Even if you put a big sign that said PUSH it might not be enough. The design of the handles screams for users to try and pull. That’s bad UX.
Instead, a UX designer would look at this door, talk to users, and design ways to change its core elements so that people know what to do right away. If they do their job right, every person who opens that door should do it without thinking. That’s good UX.
The golden rule of UX design is: the user > anything else.
(The person who built those doors above cared more about their aesthetics than functionality!)
However, UX isn’t just about making everyday products and services easier to use. The UX process is so important because it helps you to:
Build empathy with the people using your product
Differentiate your product from the competition
Validate your ideas before committing to code
Create products that are accessible
So how do you manage all those responsibilities at once? First, you need to understand the skills and tools that UX designers use, then, we put them all together into the UX process.
What does a UX designer do? The 6 core disciplines of UX
Before we get into the actual UX process, we need to talk through the tools you’ll be using throughout it.
UX design is comprised of six core disciplines:
As a user researcher, you’ll be the voice of the user. You’ll conduct user interviews, usability studies, heuristic evaluations, and use all sorts of other user research methods.
As a business analyst, you’ll understand business goals and strategies and why they matter. You’ll help ensure business objectives are being considered throughout the design process.
As an information architect, you’ll build the foundation and framework for your designs. You’ll design the navigation, create sitemaps, build the taxonomy, and organize information logically through schemes and structures.
As a content strategist, you’ll use text and structure to guide users. You’ll help write copy and create, organize, and map out content.
As an interaction designer, you’ll bring the design to life. You’ll create storyboards, sketches, wireframes, prototypes, and animations that map to users’ mental models.
As a visual designer, you’ll make your designs beautiful. You’ll create style guides, apply color theory, choose typography, create graphics, build icons, and design the final user interface.
Those are the core skills and responsibilities that every great UX designer has (although some people specialize in just some of them).
UX Process 101: A step-by-step guide for beginners
The UX process is what brings all of those core disciplines together in a way that’s repeatable and impactful. Think of it as your guide to making better experiences. When you get lost or frustrated, just return to the process and move onto the next step.
However, when you look up “UX” or “UX process” on Google, it can quickly get overwhelming. Especially if you’re just starting out or looking to transition from a different career like graphic design.
Rather than one clear set of guidelines, skills, and techniques, it feels like there are tons of different UX processes out there to choose from.
But here’s the thing: no matter what terms or phrases you use to describe the UX process, the high-level steps are quite similar.
The process boils down to four steps:
Discovery: Find a problem to solve that helps users and works towards your business goals.
Create: Build basic versions of a few potential solutions to that problem to see what works best.
Test: Get your solution in front of a few real users to get their feedback.
Build & Iterate: If all goes well, add visual elements and collaborate with developers to get it ready for the rest of your users!
(If you’re familiar with the principles of design thinking, you’ll see a ton of similarities between it and the UX process. That's because design thinking is baked into the process.)
Now, if you just read about the core disciplines of UX design, this process probably sounds overly basic. Where’s the user research? Or prototyping? Or affinity diagrams?
Jumping straight into those specific skills and tools can be unnecessarily confusing. Instead, we want to keep the UX process we just outlined top of mind and then talk about the specific steps you’ll take during each phase.
Here’s what that looks like:
Discover = Research & understanding
Create = Information architecture & wireframing
Test = Prototyping & usability testing
Build = Visual design & handoff
Now, let’s keep getting deeper and talk about the specific skills and tools you’ll be using on a daily basis!
The first step in any UX project is to do research and understand the problem space you’re trying to work in. That’s why it’s critical, before anything else, that you fully understand your business, users, and product.
Researching all of these elements will help you uncover how people use your product, how their behaviors impact business goals, and where they’re having problems or issues. This is the launching point for the rest of the discovery phase of the UX process:
Framing the problem. Before you look for solutions, make sure you’re solving the right problem. This means talking to stakeholders like product managers and developers, as well as using ‘how might we’ questions, thinking through your assumptions, and understanding the questions you need to answer. (We put together a free ‘Framing the Problem Template’ to help guide you through this process!)
Create a research plan. Next, you’ll decide how you’re going to approach the properly framed problem. A research plan can include all sorts of different research methods (we go through the most common ones here!) This could mean surveys, user interviews, usability testing–as long as the research method helps answer the questions you came up with when you framed the problem, it’s fair game.
Analyze your data. Now, dig through that data to see what it tells you. As a UXer, it’s your job to read between the lines of what users are doing and get to why they’re doing it. This isn’t always easy, which brings us to...
Use an affinity diagram to make it actionable. A really great tool that designers use to combine their research into actionable and understandable chunks is an affinity diagram. An affinity diagram groups your research data into categories that help you see patterns across all of your research.
[Optional] Create personas. Finally, use these categories to create personas–fictional representations of your target users based on your research. Personas help keep the user at the center of your process. If during the UX process, you get stuck, you can always look back and ask what your personas would need in that situation. We say personas are ‘optional’ because not everyone uses them. Personally, we don’t fully believe in the usefulness of personas, but wanted to present them here so you can make your own choice!
Whew… that was a lot to get through.
But that’s only because what you do during the research and understanding phase will impact every other step in the UX process. If you get off course now or jump into solving the wrong problem, you don’t know where you’ll end up.
2. Create: Information architecture & wireframing
Now that you have a better understanding of your problem and have done some serious research and analysis, it’s time to have some fun.
In the IA (Information Architecture) and wireframing phase, you’ll generate and sketch as many potential solutions as possible. If you were building a house, this phase would be pouring concrete and laying the foundation to support the overall structure.
The tools you’ll use in this phase include site maps, scenarios, storyboards, user stories, sketches, user flows, and of course, wireframes.
What’s a wireframe? A wireframe is a simple, black and white ‘skeleton’ of a website or application. Wireframes structure the initial details and concepts to help clarify design direction and intended functionality.
They’re one of the most common and important deliverables in UX (and something you’ll get really used to making as a UX designer).
3. Test: Prototyping & usability testing
Once you have a decent grasp of the design and direction, it’s time to validate those designs with some real users.
In the prototyping and usability testing phase of the UX process, you’ll create a test plan (i.e., how you’re going to approach testing), build a prototype (i.e., a low-to-mid fidelity version of your app, tool, or service), run usability tests with users, and then create a report based on your findings.
At this point, you’ll be at a bit of a crossroads.
If the feedback from your prototype was positive: Move onto the next phase.
If the feedback from your prototype was negative (or just not very good): Head back to wireframing and incorporate your learnings into the next iteration. Do not pass GO. Do not collect $200.
4. Build & Iterate: Visual design & handoff
You may go through multiple rounds of iterations on your prototypes and designs. But once you’re confident that your designs are usable and solve user pains, it’s time to move onto the next phase.
During the visual design and handoff phase of the UX process, you’ll take your wireframes and add visual elements such as colors, fonts, images, and graphics.
As any graphic designer will tell you, this phase can get complicated because you have to balance new functionality with existing company design patterns such as color choice, button styles, and the controls you use.
(However, this is also why we think graphic designers make such great UX designers! If you’re a graphic designer looking to make the leap to UX design, check out our UX/UI Expert program. We built it just for you!)
You can also use this phase to run usability tests and get another round of feedback on your designs.
Finally, when you feel like everything is just right and you have the approval from your project stakeholders, you'll hand everything off to the engineers and work with them to implement your designs.
Typically the handoff phase includes deliverables such as UX specifications of color, spacing, behavior, and animations. These can be handled through tools like Figma, Zeplin, InVision, and the cloud storage app of your choice.
As the designs get built into code, you’ll test them out and give the developer feedback so that they can get the product to look and behave as close to your designs as possible.
Lastly: These steps don’t always happen in order
There’s one more curveball we need to address before we move on.
The steps of the UX process don’t always happen in order. In fact, it’s pretty common to jump back and forth between them. And while this may sound even more confusing, it makes a lot of sense when you think about it.
Let’s say you’ve done a ton of research, discovered a problem space, ideated solutions, and built out a prototype. But when you test it with users, they don’t do what you thought they would. Instead, they’re even more confused and upset than they were before.
Now, would you take that prototype and start adding colors, fonts, buttons, and animations to it? Or would you head back to the discovery phase and see what went wrong?
That chain of events happens all the time in UX design. And for beginners, it’s often hard to realize that you don’t know what you don’t know.
But that’s what’s so special about the UX process and about being a UX designer. If you talk to enough users, stay open-minded throughout each step, and continually test and iterate, you essentially make your job failure-proof.
Here’s what the whole UX process looks like
To make things simple, we put together a free downloadable UX process ‘cheatsheet’ that quickly explains the steps of the UX process. Use it as a quick refresher or when you need to step back from learning UX and get a high-level look at each phase.
Enter your first name and email to download the cheatsheet:
This cheatsheet covers pretty much every role and methodology you’ll use as a UX designer. However, you don’t have to use every method to solve a problem.
Instead, the UX process is dynamic and flexible. And a big part of your job is knowing which is the right tool for the job.
You wouldn’t use a hammer to bash a screw into place, right?
What’s next? You start all over again!
The work of a UX designer never really ends.
Depending on the product and your business goals, once it’s out in the wild, you’ll see how it performs and follow the process again to improve it even more.
But that’s the beauty of the UX process.
It’s a low-pressure way to figure out the right solution.
Instead of being told to ‘just go make a genius design’, you get to talk directly to users and build the product they just told you they need!
In short, if you continually follow the UX process, you’ll have a foolproof way to build the right solution, and users will be super stoked.