If it feels like you’ve been hearing about UX design a lot lately, you’re not alone. UX (user experience) design is a growing field that’s becoming ever more important across all the industries it serves, thanks to rapid advancements in technology and increasing competition for market share among companies selling products and services
The primary idea behind UX design is “the optimization of the interaction between human and product,” said Kris Secor, instructor at the UC San Diego Division of Extended Studies User Experience (UX) Design Program
Why Is User Experience (UX) Important?
To put it in the simplest terms: good UX design makes things easy to use.
UX design is everywhere. It goes into everything you interact with, such as an app or website, the point-of-sale (POS) systems at a restaurant, the console controls on your car, and even the grip on your can opener or other kitchen gadgets. UX design has more specialized applications, too, like in surgical tools and medical devices, for example.
“We encounter UX design in everything,” said Secor. ”Think of a doorknob. It has a design for a purpose. It’s round because we assume it needs to be turned. It fits in your hand because that’s what you use to open it. It’s probably evolved quite a bit from the first doorknob into what it is today.”
So why has UX design become so much more important as of late?
“There’s a lot of investment going into any product,” said Secor. “It’s important to use the appropriate processes to make sure that this investment doesn't get lost.”
In short, when done correctly, UX design can help put better products out to market with a higher probability of success. Not only does it create a better experience for the end user, but it also helps generate more profit and less liability for businesses that utilize a well-thought-out UX design strategy in their product development processes.
What Are the Tools of UX Design?
If you’re interested in exploring UX design as either a career change or even to open doors for you on your current career path, you may be interested to know more about the primary tools and practices of a UX designer.
For starters, process is a very important concept within UX design. The adherence to process ensures that UX designers are testing and iterating in a consistent way to achieve consistent results.
“I've developed great faith in the processes of this business,” said Secor. “If you apply the processes and do them well, chances are you'll be on a path to success.”
The Experience Wheel and Lifecycle Process
At the core of process is the user experience wheel and lifecycle process. While the wheel is cyclical and designed so you can follow the next steps at any stage of the process, the primary starting point for any new product is research and development.
“We do all sorts of different experiments with potential end users to determine who might use the product, what they need, what would be valuable, and how they would interact with any given product,” said Secor.
This initial research sets the stage for understanding exactly why the product is needed and what would be most valuable to end users. All future steps stem from there.
Once you’ve got a conceptualization of what the user wants, you can return to thinking in terms of how you want the interaction to go and what you want the product to achieve. A popular tool for this is storyboarding.
“A storyboard is generally utilized to get an outside look at a user's interaction with a product and think about how it should go,” said Secor.
“Let's say we are developing an airline ticket counter kiosk,” Secor continued. “You have a check-in where you maybe show your ID and it prints out a ticket. We put thought bubbles next to the user to explore what they might be thinking at each moment and where they might get fouled up. Then we add in what’s called ‘cognitive affordances,’ which are little hints to help the user through the system.”
Examples of cognitive affordances can be as simple as icons that indicate the user to press a button or show their ID. It can also be part of the design interface that prompts the user where to look next.
“The storyboard’s intention is to evaluate whether our user might have problems with the cognitive affordances that the process should illuminate,” said Secor. “If your storyboard does that, it’s worth every penny you spend on the process.”
Another popular exercise at this stage is sketch ideation.
“The sketch ideation is where we ask the user what makes them angry or happy about the product,” said Secor. “We dive into the emotional perspective of the human interaction; it's that emotive state that generates phenomenal ideas. If you love something, make it better. If you hate something, change it.”
After you've developed your idea and your product, the next step is to test it on a real user to see how they interact with it. This is where you find out if your ideas on the storyboard and other processes hold up.
“There are all sorts of ways that we've tested in the past,” explained Secor. “One is called the ‘Wizard of Oz’ testing method. One aspect of human nature is that we tend to answer questions how we think people want us to. So, when we invite users in for testing, we hide our testing manager behind a curtain just like in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ to avoid injecting bias.”
The methods of testing have changed with new technology, too.
“Now we have digital products where we can simply screencast the interaction with the user and use an anonymous voice to give direction,” continued Secor. “The ‘wizard’ doesn’t even need to be in the next room anymore, or even the same state.”
The testing process doesn’t end just because a product went to market, either. Even after all that work the UX designer put into the initial product to get it right the first time, they’ll still carefully watch how the product does in the open market and continue their cycle of testing and improvement.
“If you’ve noticed in the last 10 years, the smartphone went from quite small to a giant phone, almost like an iPad. And then it got smaller again,” said Secor. “Now we're almost in a perfect middle. There’s been an evolution of these devices, and I believe it’s the UX design process that brought this about.“
What Will You Learn in a UX Certificate Class?
How does one go about learning UX design in a class like the one Secor teaches?
Secor shares that one of the most important elements of going through a UX design course is the examples and discussion that happen in class.
“I have one regular discussion in my curriculum where we're trying to update a company’s air traffic control software. How would you determine the user roles? Who would be the stakeholders? How would you start that whole process?”
Sharing feedback is another key part of the class.
“Most portfolio pieces get a screencast where we'll go in and do a short user feedback video on it,” said Secor.
Not only is the feedback helpful in how the students learn, but it also allows them to explore the work of other students and see how they solve UX design challenges too.
A third important aspect of the course from Secor’s perspective is the diverse experience levels of students in the class. Students come from different disciplines, like web design, computer programming, and product development; each background brings unique perspectives.
“I'd say about half of the students are already working in the field, and the other half are just getting their foot in the door,” said Secor.
Also, because the professionalization of UX design is relatively new, there are many course participants who have been working in the field for years without ever having formalized training.
It’s the mixture of all these different perspectives that makes for great discussion, Secor says.
“I make sure I have a lot of discussions because the new students bring a fresh perspective, and they also get to hear from the experienced people even if they’ve never been formally educated.”
When asked if he had any additional advice for aspiring UX designers, Secor offered, “A great portfolio will help get you hired. That should be the message that we make central to students. In this program, we're going to make sure you have four or five portfolio pieces in every course when you walk from here. Students aren’t always getting that elsewhere.”
To learn more about the UX Design Program
, please visit the program website, or contact UC San Diego Division of Extended Studies Arts, Humanities, Languages & Digital Arts department directly at 858-534-6731 or firstname.lastname@example.org.