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The ultimate guide to user experience (UX)

15 min read
UX (user experience) has moved from buzzword to core business priority in a few short years. Here’s everything you need to know about what UX is and how it fits into your business strategy.

What is user experience?

User experience definition: User experience is the relationship between users and the things they interact with, starting from a human-first point of view.

As a school of study and practice, UX is concerned with making things intuitive, easy, relevant and enjoyable to use. It also seeks to understand the psychological, cognitive and contextual factors that influence that outcome. UX designers work to help the things we use make sense to us and maximise their usefulness and usability in our lives.

The Interaction Design Foundation describes user experience design in terms of the What Why and How of product use.

Why? What does the user want from the product? What are their motivations for engaging with it? What tasks do they want to accomplish, and what outcomes are they working towards?

What? What should the functionality of the product be? What features will it include?

How? How will the product’s features and functions be designed so that it’s aesthetically pleasing and accessible to its user?

Where did UX come from?

The term ‘user experience design’ was coined in the 1990s by cognitive scientist Don Norman, then an employee at Apple. When Norman began to explore the idea of user-centred design, the idea of placing end users at the heart of design thinking – something we now see as intuitive and logical – was a new and challenging concept.

Despite historical precedents like the philosophy of ergonomics and the tendency of ancient humans to design tools around themselves, UX didn’t truly enter public consciousness as a design requirement until relatively recently.

So how did UX gain traction and become widespread?

One factor is the mushrooming growth of the internet, and with it the ability of technology companies to shape our world through their ideas and innovations. Like Don Norman, Apple’s Steve Jobs was an advocate of user-centred design and made a point of building it into highly influential technologies such as the iPhone.

User experience design and technological development are deeply intertwined, both in terms of methodology and culture. UX designers naturally work digital-first, and UX methods have been shaped around software development workflows like waterfall and agile.

Humans are biologically evolved – we’re made a certain way and there’s no quick way to change this. Technology on the other hand is fast-evolving, mutable and easy to revise and change in a short space of time.

As we become increasingly dependent on and connected with digital forms of communication and learning that are man-made and complex, we have more and more need for those interfaces and systems to be shaped around our biological nature.

It makes sense to mould technology around the human rather than vice versa. UX helps us to make those changes so that we can best use the technologies we create.

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Why is UX important?

As UX design has become better known, end-user expectations have evolved. Rather than expecting to just cope with using something difficult or unintuitive, more people have become aware that complex or confusing designs are a decision rather than a fact of life, and we now expect and demand ease and logic from our experiences.

In recent years, businesses delivering great user experiences have been able to stand out from their competitors and pull ahead financially.

Today, UX has moved from advantage to imperative.

As consumers began exercising informed choices and rejecting poor UX, competing businesses began differentiating themselves on their ability to provide good experiences. Those failing to meet the standards of user experience design have found themselves suffering in terms of sales and reputation.

Meanwhile, good UX has been recognised as a powerful way to create good customer experiences, building positive emotion and loyalty through consistently smooth and intuitive interactions. Good UX means happier customers, fewer drop-outs and pain-points during interactions, and ultimately a healthier and stronger business.

Core principles of UX

Whatever the focus of a UX project, there are certain foundational principles that UX practitioners bring into play in order to assess needs, design solutions and refine and develop towards a final outcome.

Garrett’s elements of user experience

Some of the most enduring concepts in UX are outlined in Jesse James Garrett’s “Elements of User Experience”. Despite being published in 2000 and mostly concerned with websites, Garrett’s basic principles remain a solid reference point for those wanting to get to grips with the core concepts in UX. They include:

1. Visual design

The look and feel of a product or service, including colour, shape, sound and image quality.

2. Information design

How informational content is presented in order to support user understanding (for example, the fact that this list is presented in bullet points). Garrett also mentions Information Architecture – the way content on a website or similar environment is hierarchically structured to make it easy to find what you’re looking for.

3. Interaction design

The logic and sequence of interactive applications or environments, and how well they support a user’s ability to meet goals and complete tasks.

4. User needs

The external requirements and expectations an end-user brings with them. These must be understood through user research, market research, psychology and other kinds of background knowledge.

5. Navigation design

The design of a navigation system, such as website or app menus, buttons, link text etc. to support a user’s movement through an interactive environment.

Norman’s 6 design principles

Another great resource for foundational user experience design knowledge is Don Norman’s 6 design principles. Through these, Norman wanted to help designers minimise the gulfs of execution and evaluation.

Gulf of Execution: Differences between a task as a user imagined doing it, and the reality of actually working with a system. (“Why do I have to update the software before I can play a game?”)

Gulf of Evaluation: A gap between the user’s understanding of a system and what it is doing, and the reality of how the system works and its current state. (“Is this thing on? Is it recording?”)


1. Visibility

When the function of something is visually obvious, users will find it easier to know what to do. Functions that are visually hidden (for example small print, low-contrast colours or a cluttered layout).

2. Feedback

When a user takes an action, there should be feedback from the interface or environment to confirm that the action has taken place. A classic example is the convention for link text on websites to change colour once they have been clicked. Confirmation messages or ‘on’ lights that glow when a device is powered up are also examples of feedback.

3. Constraints

Limits or restrictions on what a user can do. By reducing the possibilities available to only what’s relevant to them, you reduce the cognitive load and the risk of overwhelm or confusion for your end user.

4. Mapping

Design that shows the relationship between controls and their effects. With a good design, the controls will signal to the user what their effects will be. For example, the arrow buttons on a lift door show whether they will call a lift going up or one going down. The word “stop” on a bus bell button shows what will happen to the bus when you press it.

5. Consistency

A design with consistency uses a set of rules to make things predictable and logical for a user. Elements with similar operations look and feel similar, and follow similar processes wherever they appear. For example, on a web browser, the “back” button always takes you to the previous page you were on. Conventions like these can be internal, i.e consistent design within a single interface, or more universal. Some consistency conventions are extended across a whole class of systems, such as web browsers.

6. Affordance

Where the appearance or form of a system gives the user an idea of how to use it. With a physical object, this might be something like the placement of a handle or the look and feel of a touchpad. In web or interface design, it might be the shape, prominence or wording on a call to action button.

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Digital UX

While UX isn’t exclusively concerned with technology, digital UX is a huge part of the field and also the arena in which UX design has, for the most part, been developed and pioneered. UX can be considered a truly digital-first industry, since it has developed in tandem with the internet and the digital landscape where we now live and work.

Digital UX is UX design and research that’s concerned with optimising online experiences and the human interfaces of digital technologies – the places where human and machine meet. Because of the investment in and focus on UX work in digital fields, it’s a job that’s often broken down into a number of roles and responsibilities within a team.

  • UX researchers are experts in defining user needs and carrying out user research
  • UX designers define requirements, create personas and develop wireframes and prototypes
  • UX writers focus on using language to improve user experiences
  • UI designers create the look and feel of websites and apps using visual design
  • Interaction designers help businesses create user-focused experiences on a product or service level
  • Service designers carry out high-level analysis and planning of end-to-end user journeys, taking into account people, technologies, processes and business strategies


Dive deeper into digital UX with our guide to improving website UX

User experience vs usability

If you’ve read anything about UX, you’ll have seen the term ‘usability’ popping up with great frequency. UX and usability are closely related, but they’re not quite the same thing.

Usability is an important characteristic of things that have good UX. It’s the property of being easy to use and intuitive. If something makes sense, operates smoothly in the way you expect it to, and doesn’t confuse you or complicate your task, it has good usability.

UX is a broader term. The user experience includes user goals and expectations, their prior knowledge, and the context in which they’re using the system in question. UX looks at whether a product or service is credible, findable, accessible, valuable, desirable and useful.

UX as part of CX

We’re often asked where UX fits into CX, and whether there’s a meaningful difference between UX and CX. In fact, the two things are different in scope and form but share some core characteristics.

  • UX is often short-term and practical, generally concerned with ‘rubber meets the road’ interactions like website navigation and ensuring the accessibility of digital resources.
  • CX tends to be longer-term and much broader in scope, with an emphasis on business culture and values and big-picture goals like loyalty and brand differentiation. Nielsen Norman Group has described CX as “UX over long periods of time”.

What the two fields have in common is a desire to be user-first and user-focused, and to develop a deep understanding of users and their goals through research and feedback.

Learn more about how UX and CX fit together

How to improve UX

If you’re interested in improving the user experience of your website, app, product or service, the first step is always to understand your users as thoroughly as possible.

Before you begin to put the ideas and principles covered in this article into practice, it’s a good idea to commit to a programme of user research and testing to create a strong foundation for your work.

User research helps you gain a deep understanding of your customers, what they want and need and how they relate to your products and services. It can help you identify where your UX is currently at and which areas you should prioritise for improvements.

User testing helps guide your product development and marketing planning by observing your end users interacting with your products and services at all the moments that matter. Through informed observation, testing and collecting feedback, you can see and evaluate your UX performance in real time.

eBook: The Essential Website Experience & UX Playbook