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What is the UX process?

Colton Schweitzer
October 14, 2020

UX designers follow a user-centered design process. This process contains methods and techniques from each of the 6 disciplines that take the user into account at every stage of the product life cycle. It allows you to turn a user problem from a set of questions and assumptions into a real world solution.

When you look up “UX” or “UX process” on Google, it can be confusing to see what seems to be many different UX processes out there. It doesn’t matter what you call the UX process or what the infographic looks like.

At a high level, the UX process boils down to 4 stages:

1. Discover  

2. Create

3. Test

4. Build & Iterate

Basically, you start by discovering a problem. You do research, list business requirements, and generally try to understand and empathize with users. Once you understand the problem and what users are going through, you create a bunch of basic concepts that solve their problem. After you've settled on one concept that solves their problem, test it with actual users to get their feedback. If it doesn’t go well, repeat the process. After it does go well, move on to the last stage where you create the high-fidelity solution and hand it off for final production. 

For digital products, we prefer to be more specific about what we’ll be doing during each phase, so this is what we personally call each of the four stages of the UX process:

1. Research & understanding

2. Information architecture & wireframing

3. Prototyping & usability testing

4. Visual design & handoff

Each of these stages contains a set of tools and methods to solve a user problem. 

It’s important to note that these stages aren’t necessarily linear and it’s not a step-by-step process. It’s typical to jump back and forth between them. Think of the process as being dynamic. Depending on the context and the problem you’re solving, you apply the method that makes the most sense. 

Let’s look at each stage of the UX process. 

First, “Research & understanding.”

Before starting the designs for any successful UX project, it's critical to fully understand a few things: the business, the user, the product, and the problem you're solving. 

That’s why “Research & understanding” always comes at the start of any project. That’s also why one of the first things you do on any project is what we call “Framing the problem.” This is a living document that you use as a north star throughout the UX process to provide clarity and help you focus on what you actually need to solve. Framing the problem is important because it helps to align the company’s goals with the project you’re working on. It also identifies the questions that need to get answered through research. 

After framing the problem, create a research plan. Use the questions from framing the problem to guide your choice of research methods such as user interviews, usability testing, and surveys. Don’t just use a research method because you think you ought to. Each research method you employ should help you answer the research questions you listed in framing the problem. If a method doesn’t do that, do the opposite of Nike and just don’t do it. 

After conducting a few of these research methods, you’ll have data to analyze. 

As a UXer, it’s your job to read between the lines of what users are doing and get to the why they’re doing it. 

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 helps you see patterns across all of your research.

From there, you’ll take the categories and insights from the affinity diagram and create personas. A persona is a fictional representation of your target users, created by grouping the user data from 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. 

After you’ve completed the research analysis, you're ready to start the second phase, “Information architecture & wireframing!”

In this phase, use your research insights to plan your designs and generate as many solutions as possible. Think of this phase as if you were in charge of building a house. This is when you lay the foundation to support the overall structure. In this stage, you might create site maps, scenarios, storyboards, user stories, sketches, user flows, and wireframes. 

Wireframes are an essential part of this stage. A wireframe is a simple, black and white skeleton of a website or application. It structures the initial details and concepts for a project. Wireframes also help clarify design direction and intended functionality. They’re one of the most common and important deliverables in UX. It’s critical to wireframe out many ideas for any given problem. 

The best design comes only after considering many different ways to solve the problem. 

Once you have a decent grasp on the design direction, it’s probably time for the “Prototyping & usability testing” phase, where you’ll validate your designs. 

In this phase, if the project requires usability validation, you’ll create a test plan, build a prototype, run usability tests, and create a report based on your findings. 

Depending on the feedback you receive, you can either move back to wireframing, repeat this process and incorporate what you learned back into a prototype to re-test, or proceed to the next phase. 

However long it takes, once you’ve decided to move past “Prototyping & usability testing,” it’s time for the “Visual design & handoff” phase of the UX process. 

This is where you take your wireframes and add color, fonts, images, and graphics to create the final designs. This might sound simple, but it can take a while to get the look and feel just right. This 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.

During this stage, you can also choose to run usability tests to get a last round of feedback on your designs. You can get the feedback using static screens or by testing a nicer looking, more detailed prototype. 

This is also the time to create animations to show how the design is intended to look and behave.

Finally, when you feel like everything is just right and you have the approval from your project stakeholders, you'll hand off your designs to the engineers. This is where you work directly with the developers 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 sites 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.

Once the product has been built, it’s time to iterate on your work. Depending on the product and the product goals, once the it's out in the wild, you’ll see how it performs and follow the process again to improve it even more. 

That’s the beauty of the process. It’s a low pressure way to figure out the right solution. It takes the burden off of your shoulders to be a genius designer. Instead, you can talk directly to users and then give them the product they just told you they need. In short, if you continually follow the UX process, you’ll end up at the right solution and users will be super stoked. 

That’s it. That’s the whole process. 

Here’s a summary of the types of things you’ll be doing at each stage. 

Again, you don’t have to use all of these methods to solve a problem. Instead, think of the UX process as being flexible and dynamic, and each phase as having its own unique toolkit. Different problems require different tools to solve them. For example, you wouldn’t use a hammer to bash a screw into place. A hammer doesn’t help you solve that problem…

In this case, the tool you’re looking for is a screwdriver. 

Similarly, don’t use a UX method just to check a box saying you did it. For example, not every project needs a survey. Depending on your goals, it might make sense to use one, but it’s not something you use in every project. 

This same principle applies to almost all UX methods and techniques. Only use what you need to solve the problem effectively and efficiently. That’s a big part of what makes up your expertise as a UX designer, understanding when and why you would use a particular method. 

At the end of the day, this makes almost every UX project unique. Sometimes you conduct user interviews, create personas, build sitemaps, conduct task analyses, and other times you don’t. So anytime you go through a project, first figure out what you're trying to solve, and then determine the best methods to solve it.

The methods/techniques in our UX vault are neither linear nor required! Choose the ones that make the most sense.

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Task analysis

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Research report

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