A comprehensive guide to experience design
September 03, 2021
Go back ten, twenty years ago, and the word ‘design’ conjured up images of graphic designers, artists, architects… people concerned with solving problems in ways that looked nice.
Nowadays, the industry has exploded out into a range of specialties, all of which have changed the way we think about the act of designing things. Now, rather than it being about solving problems, it’s about creating meaningful experiences.
Whether you’re planning a shop floor or creating an app, it’s important to put the user at the heart of all your decisions and consider every interaction as one cohesive whole. This is what’s known as experience design, and it’s transforming the way we approach the design process. Read on to find out more…
What is experience design?
Experience design is the act of designing products, services, or environments focusing on the quality of the user’s experience.
The idea of designing for user experience takes its bearings from a man named Don Norman, the first User Experience Architect at Apple. He also first coined the term — and from there, ‘design’ ballooned out into being a variety of things beyond just something to passively consume.
To really get to grips with the concept of experience design, it might be helpful to hone in on one word: experience.
Experience can mean all kinds of things, objective and subjective. In other words, it could be a journey or a sight, a building or a feeling. It could be something individual or shared — really, the possibilities are endless. However, when you add that word ‘design’ back in, you can see how the two work together as a concept.
Here are some key features of experience design:
- It’s not just digital
- Design is centered around the user experience
- It’s iterative
- It looks at every touchpoint a customer encounters on their journey
Which digital design specialties count as experience design?
The short answer? Pretty much all of them. But, here are some of the digital design specialisms that are most commonly associated with experience design:
- Customer Experience (CX)
- User Experience (UX)
- UX Researcher
- UX Designer
- User Interface Designer
- UI Designer
- Visual Interface Designer
- UX Engineer
What does experience design look like in action?
There’s no set route, but experience design — whether it’s for an app or an architectural diagram — follows four stages.
- Discover: This is the research phase. Designers try to imagine the problem through their audience’s eyes and gather insights.
- Define: Designers try to make sense of the information they’ve gathered to turn it into a solution to the problem they defined in Stage 1.
- Develop: Designers begin brainstorming ideas, creating concepts, and evaluating each one.
- Deliver: During this stage, designers start creating prototypes, which they’ll test using real users. After that, they’ll take their findings and iterate until they reach something that best meets their user’s needs.
Experience design: Tools and techniques you need to know
From research to delivery, there are plenty of techniques to help designers create a product that puts their user’s needs at the heart of their design. Let’s run through some of the most popular options:
During this phase, designers work to understand the needs and motives of their users. Here are some popular research methods:
- Brainstorming: The design team gathers together and shares ideas about the kinds of needs and problems their users might have.
- Qualitative research: Interviews and focus groups can help designers get under the skin of their users with in-depth personal responses. For best results, choose a mixture of people from within your target demographic. Since you’ll only have time and resources to interview a handful of people, make the range as wide as possible.
- Quantitative research: Mass surveys can be an effective way to gather lots of basic information quickly. They’re also cheap to do and analyze — though be sure to spend some time planning to make sure you’re asking the right questions.
Check out our guide to conducting user research for more tips.
During this stage, designers need to make sense of all the data they gathered during the discover phases, with the goal of turning it into something actionable. Here are some popular routes to achieving that:
- User personas: A user persona is a fictional character who represents your typical customer or user. It helps designers focus on a specific set of needs that have the broadest appeal to the majority of the group.
- Customer journey maps: A customer journey map plots the user’s route through their experience with your product, with every touchpoint marked up. This helps designers empathize with their needs each step of the way.
This stage is about getting down as many ideas as possible. Here are a couple of idea-generating exercises you can try as a team:
- Brainstorming: Designers gather in a room (or online via a cloud diagramming tool) and get down as many ideas as possible. At this stage, there’s no such thing as a bad idea: everything counts.
- Crazy Eights: Designers are tasked with sketching eight ideas in eight minutes without any kind of filter. The goal is to break out of traditionally careful ways of thinking.
Want to learn more? Turn your team into a creative powerhouse with these ideation methods.
The delivery stage is all about prototyping. Prototyping is an essential tool for testing out ideas and bringing designs to life early on while they’re at the low-fidelity stage. This enables designers to learn a bit more about how users interact with their product — findings they can then take on to the next stage. A big advantage of prototyping is that if you need to make changes or pivot, it’s far cheaper to do that if you’d have waited.
“If a picture is worth a thousand words, a prototype is worth a thousand meetings.” (Tom and David Kelly)
Prototypes can be done throughout the entire design process. They can encompass the entire product or journey or a small portion of it. A wireframe is a type of prototype — as is an MVP, a render, or a mockup.
Here are some of the benefits:
- Prototypes help the team and stakeholders grasp ideas and understand concepts
- They offer a different, more practical way of learning and researching
- They offer a way to test assumptions about what people need
- Finally, they are a way to test, share, and improve on ideas
Essentially, the role of prototypes in experience design is to test ideas early and get feedback from real users — then use this information to refine the product during the next stage of development. Here are some of the different types of prototypes you should know about:
- Low-fidelity prototypes: These include sketches, storyboards, models, wireframes, and roleplays. They’re pared back and low on detail.
- Medium-fidelity prototypes: These are still pared-back but include a little more detail. Wireframes might have click-through options; storyboards might have more speech or color added.
- High-resolution prototypes: These are nearly complete versions of the real thing, with specific details added.
As products and services become more interlinked, experience design has become ever-more important as designers work to create enjoyable, meaningful experiences for people.
Empathy sits at the center of this way of thinking. Combining well-researched evidence with thorough analysis and exploration is the best way to see the world through your user’s eyes and create the best possible product. This includes methodically gathering data and carefully crafting it into something that will positively impact someone’s life.
As with all things involving large amounts of data, this works best when you turn your experience design into a process that’s organized and collaborative. Prepare with thorough research, then work together to generate ideas. Some diagramming tools, like Cacoo, also allow you to create and edit diagrams in real-time — meaning you can host the entire session virtually. Something that’s especially useful as more and more of us embrace remote ways of working.