What Does a UX Designer Do? A Step-by-Step Guide


In “What the Heck is UX?” we gave an overview of what UX design is. But because UX design is such an umbrella term, we want to really break it down for you.

Patrick Neeman suggests reading Steve Psomas’s “The Five Competencies of User Experience Design,” and this really is a fantastic place to start demystifying UX design. Psomas labels the five competencies of user experience as Information Architecture, Interaction Design, Usability Engineering, Visual Design, and Prototype Engineering.

The designers at UXmastery add a disclaimer to any UX design process breakdown: just because these phases are listed in this order does not mean that they must be completed in that order every time. A designer should look at the project at hand and decide how he / she would like to proceed.

Now that we understand that there is no exact formula for UX design, let’s look at the different steps involved and some of the tools designers use for each.

Information Architecture or “Wanna know why you should use me?”

This is the time when a designer should focus on the goals the company has for the product. What are the rules / regulations you must follow? What is the brand behind the product?

Some of the research involved in this phase is:

  • Competitor Analysis

It’s important to understand the playing field. Observing other companies that are influencing your niche can be very helpful. Inc. has a great article that explains the process for performing competitive research and the benefits of doing so: “How to Conduct Competitive Research.”

  • Stakeholder Interviews

These interviews can help you get a better grasp on what the client wants from the product. Steve Baty has an article titled “Conducting Successful Interviews With Project Stakeholders” that helps navigate designers through these meetings.

  • A Content Audit

It may be a tedious task, but conducting a content audit can help a designer really understand what the client is looking for. Donna Spencer wrote a beginner’s guide to content auditing for UXmastery: “How to Conduct A Content Audit.”

Interaction Design or “Hey, user! How can I make you understand this product?”

A lot of user research is conducted during this phase. For an in-depth description of this research I STRONGLY suggest you check out David Sherwin’s “A Five-Step Process For Conducting User Research.” He walks you through identifying your objectives, the different types of hypotheses you should have, and how to match user-research techniques to your needs.

Here are some of the research procedures and tools included in Interaction Design:

  • Contextual Inquiry

The post “UX Design Defined” on uxdesign.com, says that the skills of an Ethnographer are borrowed from the field of anthropology and included into UX design for “contextual inquiry.” Unlike Usability Testing, a person is observed using the system how, where, and when they normally would.

Gerry Gaffney, in his post “Contextual Enquiry – A Primer” guides us through this process.

  • Analytics Review

Andrew Maier’s post, “Complete Beginner’s Guide to Analytics,” explains how success of a system went from measuring solely the number of “hits” that it got to how the user interacts with the system.

  • Surveys

Online surveys are conducted to get feedback from users.

  • User Interviews

Liz Danzico provides a lot of helpful tips in her Slideshare presentation “User Interview Techniques.”

  • User Testing

UXmastery describes User Testing as “Sitting users in front of your website or app and asking them to perform tasks, and to think out loud while doing so.”

  • Personas

A UX designer/team may also create “personas” or hypothetical models of users. Read about a UX designer’s use of these personas in Matthew Magain’s “Build Your Own Data-backed Personas.”

  • Essential Tools for Interaction Design:

Wireframes, UXPin, Whiteboards, Post-its, Index Cards

Usability Engineering or “Does this thing work?”

Usability is all about making sure that the system is going to work for its user. Can the desired audience for this system get what they need by using it? Is the website set up in a way that allows the user to understand what is important and what they need to do in order to get the desired outcome?

One type of research that is done during this competency is:

  • A Heuristic Review

Leigh Howells explains how to tell when a website just doesn’t work in her post for Smashing MagazineA Guide to Heuristic Website Reviews.”

Visual Design or “Do users think it’s pretty?”

At this point the brand really starts to show. Everything has to be cohesive and also functional. Psomas points out that, “what people often overlook is that, for every type of user interface element the interaction designer specifies, the visual designer must design a widget or devise a corresponding style. And the visual designer must consistently apply these styles to every instance of each element throughout the application.

Prototyping or “We think this is what it’s going to be like.”

Prototyping is all about getting the product ready to launch. This means that all of the bugs have to be fixed, it has to work for the client, and it has to work for its desired audience.

One step in the prototyping phase is:

  • The Alpha and Beta Launch

The alpha launch occurs within the company with the release of the product to employees and sometimes friends and family. The beta launch is the release of the product to a limited amount of users. These initial launches are done in hopes to catch any bugs that may still be hiding out in the system. UXmastery.com suggests you read Joel Spolsky’s post “Top Twelve Tips for Running a Beta Test.”

There is lot that goes into UX design. Remember, the process doesn’t necessarily go in this order. There is a lot of overlap between competencies and a very cyclical testing and design relationship. You’re not gonna get it right on the first try. It’s all about testing and creating based on those results. Then testing again.

Homework time! This list is good jumping off point for anyone interested in the field. Each of these websites has more posts that will help you understand UX design. Take some time to look through them. Read more posts and when you feel confused about a topic, do a little more research.


4 Responses to “What Does a UX Designer Do? A Step-by-Step Guide”

  1. Alexandre Lima

    You’re considersing UX Design as a tool for interface development, and this is worng… UX Design is something much biiger that can be applied to anything, from physical products to services, the digital world, social work, environment issues, urban design, architecture, etc. It’s a way of thinking and conducting the process, not a set of technical skills.

  2. lou suSi

    seems a little off — especially when it comes to the items you’ve put under the umbrella of ‘interaction design’

    the bullet points under your ‘interaction design’ category seem to definitely fall under research, testing and analysis — that’s not to say that an interaction designer might not need to conduct the research methods you list there, but and IxD tends to focus on, believe it or not, designing interactions

    anyhow, a lot of these terms get muddled and people have confused the roles so often now over the last bunch of decades that this sort of confusion is understandable, but i would hope a blog post or article that separates out different approaches and deliverable types would make better use of the taxonomic hierarchy surrounding the profession — and maybe even point out some of the historic middle-ground fuzziness between the roles / categories


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