As the tech profession continues to grow globally and remote design work becomes the standard, the question “What is UX design?” is an important one for 2023.
User experience design is a vast, multidisciplinary and fascinating field. It shapes the products and services we use on a daily basis and can make or break the success of a business or brand.
A career in UX design is fast-paced and challenging, requiring a highly diverse skillset. If you want to break into this field, there’s plenty to learn!
In this guide, we’ll provide the ultimate introduction to UX design and tell you everything you need to know about getting started in this exciting industry. We’ll start by going over what is a UX designer, then briefly go through its history. Next, we’ll look at some of the disciplines involved, as well as what a user experience designer does in their day.
Lastly, we’ll consider the immense value of UX design to the world, and outline how you can go about becoming a designer yourself.
If you’d like to skip ahead to a particular section, simply use the clickable menu:
- What is UX design?
- The history of UX
- UX design disciplines: The quadrant model
- What does a UX designer do? Processes, tasks, and tools
- The value of UX design
- How to become a UX designer
Let’s get started!
1. What is user experience (UX) design?
User experience (UX) refers to any interaction a user has with a product or service. UX design considers each and every element that shapes this experience, how it makes the user feel, and how easy it is for the user to accomplish their desired tasks.
This could be anything from how a physical product feels in your hand, to how straightforward the checkout process is when buying something online. The goal of UX design is to create easy, efficient, relevant, and all-round pleasant experiences for the user.
“User experience encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.”
— Don Norman, Cognitive Scientist & User Experience Architect
UX designers combine market research, product development, strategy, and design to create seamless user experiences for products, services, and processes.
They build a bridge to the customer, helping the company to better understand—and fulfill—their needs and expectations.
For a broad overview of UX design, check out this video of designer Dee explaining what UX design is all about:
The difference between UX and UI design
When talking about UX, the term user interface (UI) design will inevitably crop up. However, it’s important to recognize that, despite often being used interchangeably, UX and UI are two different things.
It’s important to outline that user interface design is not the same as UX design. UI refers to the actual interface of a product; the visual design of the screens a user navigates through when using a mobile app, or the buttons they click when browsing a website.
UI design is concerned with all the visual and interactive elements of a product interface, covering everything from typography and color palettes to animations and navigational touch points (such as buttons and scrollbars). You can read more about the work of UI designers in our guide.
“UX is focused on the user’s journey to solve a problem; UI is focused on how a product’s surfaces look and function.”
— Ken Norton, Partner at Google Ventures, Ex-Product Manager at Google
UX and UI go hand-in-hand, and the design of the product interface has a huge impact on the overall user experience. Learn more about the difference between UX and UI design in this guide.
UX design is everywhere: the layout of a supermarket, the ergonomics of a vehicle, and the usability of a mobile app. While the term “user experience” was first coined by Don Norman in the 90s, the concept of UX has been around for much longer.
To understand the principles of UX design, it helps to explore the history behind it.
2. The history of UX design
Some of the most basic tenets of UX can be traced as far back as 4000 BC to the ancient Chinese philosophy of Feng Shui, which focuses on arranging your surroundings in the most optimal, harmonious, or user-friendly way.
There is also evidence to suggest that, as early as the 5th century BC, Ancient Greek civilizations designed their tools and workplaces based on ergonomic principles.
In the late 19th century, great thinkers and industrialists like Frederick Winslow Taylor and Henry Ford began integrating basic experience design principles into their production processes.
On a mission to make human labor more efficient, Taylor conducted extensive research into the interactions between workers and their tools—just like UX designers today investigate how users interact with products and services.
Another key figure in the history of UX is industrial engineer Henry Dreyfuss. In his book Designing for People (1955), Dreyfuss provides a very accurate description of what we now know as UX design:
“When the point of contact between the product and the people becomes a point of friction, then the [designer] has failed. On the other hand, if people are made safer, more comfortable, more eager to purchase, more efficient—or just plain happier—by contact with the product, then the designer has succeeded.”
— Henry Dreyfuss, Industrial Engineer
In the early 90s, cognitive scientist Don Norman joined the team at Apple as their User Experience Architect, making him the first person to have UX in his job title.
He came up with the term “user experience design” because he wanted to “cover all aspects of the person’s experience with a system, including industrial design, graphics, the interface, the physical interaction, and the manual.”
Since then, each of these areas has expanded into specializations of its own. If you ask “What is a UX designer” the answer you get will vary depending on which industry or company you talk to. These days, there’s a growing tendency for companies to hire for very specific roles, such as UX researcher or interaction designer, to cover all of the different aspects of user experience.
For centuries, humans have been seeking to optimize their surroundings for maximum user comfort. These days, the term UX design has strong digital connotations, often referring to apps, websites, software, gadgets, and technology, but also appears is in the non-digital world.
3. UX design disciplines: The quadrant model
UX is a broad umbrella term that can be divided up into four main disciplines: Experience Strategy (ExS), Interaction Design (IxD), User Research (UR), and Information Architecture (IA).
Experience Strategy (ExS)
UX design is not just about the end user; it also brings huge value to the business providing the product or service. Experience strategy is all about devising a holistic business strategy, incorporating both the customer’s needs and those of the company.
Interaction Design (IxD)
Interaction design looks at how the user interacts with a system, considering all interactive elements such as buttons, page transitions, and animations. Interaction designers seek to create intuitive designs that allow the user to effortlessly complete core tasks and actions.
If you want to learn more about this discipline and how it relates to the other two main design areas, read our guide to UX, UI, and Interaction Design.
User Research (UR)
UX design is all about identifying a problem and designing the solution. This requires extensive research and feedback from existing or potential customers.
During the research phase, UX designers will launch surveys, conduct interviews, and usability testing, and create user personas in order to understand the end user’s needs and objectives. They gather both qualitative and quantitative data and use this to make good design decisions. Learn how to conduct user experience research in our article on it.
Information Architecture (IA)
The short answer is that information architecture is the practice of organizing information and content in a meaningful and accessible way. This is crucial in helping the user to navigate their way around a product. To determine the IA of any given product, information architects consider the relationship between different sets of content.
They also pay close attention to the language used and ensure that it is both convincing and consistent. We’ve created an in-depth guide to Information Architecture if you want to learn more about it.
Within these four areas, there is a whole host of sub-disciplines. As you can see in the following graphic, user experience design is so much more than just a case of sketching and wireframing. It’s a multidisciplinary field, drawing upon elements of cognitive science and psychology, computer science, communication design, usability engineering and more.
Now let’s take a look at how these disciplines translate into the day-to-day work of a UX designer.
4. What does a UX designer do?
“How do I explain what I do at a party? The short version is that I say I humanize technology.”
— Fred Beecher, Director of UX, The Nerdery
UX designers seek to make everyday products, services and technology as user-friendly and accessible as possible. They employ design thinking to reconcile the user’s desires with technical feasibility and business viability.
The Design Thinking Process
The following diagram shows the Design Thinking Process, adapted from the d.school. The Design Thinking Process can be broken down into four different stages: inspiration, conceptualization, iteration, and exposition.
During the inspiration stage, the UX designer seeks to understand and observe. To do this, they conduct extensive research and competitor analysis in order to fully grasp the problem or challenge they are setting out to solve. This involves interviewing those who are, or will be, directly engaged with the product.
The designer then uses this feedback to identify the user’s goals, emotions, pain points, and behaviors. All of this information helps to form user personas. The next step is to consider what these personas are trying to accomplish when using a particular product, and the journey they will take to do so. The designer considers information architecture and uses various techniques, such as card sorting, to map out user flows.
Once the user flows have been determined, the designer knows what steps the user needs to take to complete their desired tasks. They will visually brainstorm solutions for each of these steps, creating wireframes and prototypes of what the final product might look like.
With prototypes to hand, the UX designer will then conduct usability tests to see how users interact with the product. This shows whether or not the user is able to complete their desired tasks, or if changes need to be made.
UX designers not only come up with solutions to user problems; they also need to present their ideas and designs to key stakeholders as part of their day-to-day work.
Company size determines the scope of what a UX designer does
This is just a broad overview of the UX design process. In reality, tasks will vary depending on both the size and the specific needs of the company.
Larger companies might employ a team of designers, with each focusing on a specific aspect of the process such as research or visual design.
In smaller companies and startups, it’s not unusual for the UX designer to wear many different hats and take on the whole spectrum of tasks.
Key questions UX designers ask themselves
No matter what product or service they are designing, or what stage of the process they are at, UX designers will ask themselves the following questions:
- Is the product usable? Is it logical, self-explanatory, and easy to use?
- Does the product or service solve an existing user problem?
- Is it accessible to different categories of users? You can read more about accessibility in design below.
- Is the product or service desirable? Does it create a positive experience that the user would be happy to repeat?
Learn more: What Does a UX Designer Actually Do?
What tools do UX designers use?
UX designers rely on a number of different tools as they go about their work. At the research and inspiration stage, they will use survey and polling tools as well as video chat software to interview users and gather as much information as possible.
There are also specific programs for wireframing, prototyping, and usability testing, with Balsamiq, InVision, and UsabilityHub among the most popular in the industry.
In addition to design-specific programs, designers also use communication and project management tools to keep track of their work at all times. You can learn more about UX design tools in our beginner’s guide.
What kinds of projects do UX designers work on?
As the tech industry grows, the field of UX design is becoming increasingly varied. UX designers can find themselves working on a wide range of projects within various contexts. The following are just some applications for UX design.
Website, app, and software design
In the age of the internet and smartphones, the usability of a website, mobile app, or piece of software will largely determine its success on the market. Together with UI designers, UX designers are responsible for ensuring a smooth online experience for the user.
From e-commerce websites to dating apps, from CRM software to web-based email clients, each and every online journey you take has been carefully designed by a UX professional.
Voice user interfaces are revolutionizing the way we interact with technology. In the U.S., around 50% of adults use voice search on a daily basis, and ComScore estimates that, in the early 2020s, 50% of all searches will be voice-based.
UX designers have a huge role to play in the rise of voice, as products like Amazon Alexa can only be successful if they are user-friendly and accessible to the masses. Designing for voice requires a slightly different approach to that of websites and apps: learn more in this beginner’s guide to VUI design.
Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR)
With the global VR market expected to be worth around $44.7 billion by 2024, UX designers will increasingly be required to design immersive experiences. Likewise, since the Pokemon Go craze hit, augmented reality has also been working its way into the mainstream. More and more, UX designers will have to adapt their approach to ensure the latest technologies are accessible and user-friendly.
UX design doesn’t only apply to tangible objects and digital products; experiences need to be designed, too. This is where service design comes in.
As explained on its Wikipedia page: “Service design is the activity of planning and organizing people, infrastructure, communication and material components of a service in order to improve its quality and the interaction between the service provider and its customers. Service design may function as a way to inform changes to an existing service or create a new service entirely.”
Whenever you buy a coffee, stay in a hotel or use public transport, your experience is the result of service design, and service design methodology is very similar to that of classic UX design.
5. The value of UX design
Among the many UX myths and misconceptions is the erroneous assumption that UX design is “just a fad.” But in reality, the value of UX design is immense; not only for the end user but also for the business or brand behind the user experience.
From a user perspective, good UX design ultimately enables us to go about our daily lives as effortlessly as possible. From setting an alarm to chatting with friends online, listening to music, or using a calendar app, the ease with which we complete these actions is the result of good design.
When designing these experiences, UX designers must consider how they can bring value to all kinds of users. They do this by practicing inclusive design—otherwise known as universal or accessible design.
Universal design (UD)
As motivational speaker Molly Burke explains, universal design is the practice of “designing and building everything to be accessed, enjoyed and understood to its fullest extent, by everyone, regardless of their size, their age, their ability, or their perceived ability.”
Universal design follows seven key principles:
- Equitable use: The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.
- Flexibility in use: The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
- Simple and intuitive use: The use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.
- Perceptible information: The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.
- Tolerance for error: The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
- Low physical effort: The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.
- Size and space for approach and use: Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of the user’s body size, posture, or mobility.
- 7 Universal design principles to follow to make your UX inclusive
- The Need for Universal Design for All—A TEDx Talk by Lacey Brown
- Why simplicity is essential in UX design
Good design is good business
From a business perspective, designing first-class user experiences is absolutely key to ensuring customer satisfaction and building brand loyalty. Only if a product or service is hassle-free and enjoyable will the user want to return.
“Good design is good business.”
— Thomas Watson Jr., CEO, IBM
The competitive advantage of design-driven companies
According to a study conducted by the Design Management Institute, design-driven companies consistently outperformed the S&P 500 by 219% over a 10-year period. Furthermore, a study commissioned by Adobe found that design thinking in business creates a measurable competitive advantage. Design-led companies reported 41% higher market share, 50% more loyal customers, and 46% competitive advantage overall.
User-friendly, universal design is beneficial to everyone, and UX designers are in a position to truly shape the world around us.
6. How to become a UX designer
As we have seen, UX design is an extremely multifaceted field. Working in UX requires a highly diverse skillset coupled with a passion for user-centric design. A career in UX can be very varied, challenging, and financially rewarding; according to Glassdoor, the average salary for a User Experience Designer in the United States is $97,460.
There is no standard background or path that leads to a career in UX. However, the best UX designers typically share certain qualities and attributes, including:
- An ability to think both creatively and analytically
- A strong gift for empathy and a user-first mindset
- An interest in technology and how humans interact with it
- Strong problem-solving skills
- Strong communication skills and ability to collaborate
If you’d like to hear a step-by-step guide to changing careers to become a UX designer from someone who actually did it, this video guide from Maureen Herben will really help:
What are the most important UX design skills?
UX designers come from all walks of life, and you don’t necessarily need a university degree to break into the field. Employers tend to look for a mixture of design skills, business acumen, and soft skills. Some requirements you will often see in UX designer job descriptions include:
- Proficiency in creating user stories, personas, sitemaps, wireframes, prototypes, and storyboards
- Ability to plan and conduct user testing, surveys, and formal evaluations
- Ability to iterate your work based on user testing data and qualitative feedback
- Understanding of interaction design principles and information architecture
- Ability to translate goals, objectives, and data into digital experiences
- Understanding of business metrics, and how your designs contribute to performance
- Strong communication and presentation skills; an ability to articulate and discuss your design decisions with clients and stakeholders (storytelling is key)
- Flexibility and adaptability
What counts as essential or desirable will vary depending on both the company and on the nature of the role. You can learn more about key UX design skills in our guide.
Many people switch to UX design after gaining experience in another field—like psychology, computer science, marketing or customer service.
Final thoughts: Learning UX design
Now that you’ve seen what a UX designer is, the origin and history of the field, and so much more, you might want to begin your journey as soon as possible.
To get started in UX design, it’s important to do plenty of reading and research, to get to know the UX workflow, familiarize yourself with industry tools and build up a solid design portfolio. The most effective way to prepare for a career in UX is by taking a structured course and working on practical projects.
Find out what exactly you should learn in a UX design course in our guide—and feel free to check out these free UX design tutorials.
If you’re interested in becoming a remote UX designer, you’ll want to take a few other things into consideration. Learn more in these three guides: