To put it simply, user-experience (UX) design is about crafting the way a service or product feels for the user. The idea is that by better understanding a user's emotions, behaviour, beliefs and physical response, you can start to identify ways in which to enhance the experience.
Experience design plays a huge role when developing a new product and should work side-by-side with the functional and aesthetic qualities of design. Let's take an example from the world of car manufacturing. A car has to function correctly, which is dependant on the car's engine and internal structure. Then comes the aesthetic design; the outer shell, the colour, the shape, etc. But arguably the most important stage is the experience design. What's it like to sit in the car? What feelings does it evoke? What sets the experience apart from its competitors?
A process often linked with UX design is user interface (UI) design. The purpose of interface design is to make the user's interaction as simple as possible, which should then make for a better experience. UI design has become integral to technology in recent years, with the rise in everyday "touch devices" (smartphones, tablets). This is where conventions in behaviour play a key role when designing for a wide audience. As humans, we have basic mental models which tell us what to expect when interacting with something. In design, features that suggest how something should be used is called "affordance".
A simple example of this in the 'real world' might be this door...
Faced with a handle the user's initial reaction would be to pull, with the expectation that the door should open. The label, however, reads 'push'. This corrupts the affordance developed with this form of interaction.
If the feedback we receive from the model differs from our expectations, this becomes confusing. That's why the most successful UX/UI design in mobiles and tablets tends to promote familiar gestures and functions, such as swiping to unlock the screen of a mobile. These are conventions we have become accustomed to and learned to accept as part of our everyday lives.
There are different ways of gathering user research, each with their pros and cons. Quantitative research is a quick, data-led method for finding quick answers in large sample sizes. This might include online surveys, card sorting, or analytics. By contrast, qualitative research allows for a more focused analysis, such as interviews and fields studies. For me, one of the most efficient methods to be able to fully understand if something is going to work properly, is to test it against its own audience; i.e. user testing. Usability testing puts the product or service in the user's hands, in situations of controlled observation. Testing in this way allows you to acknowledge each step of the user journey in detail, whilst taking note of user behaviour, any pain points the user faces, and how they tackle each stage of the journey.
“What people say, what people do, and what they say they do are entirely different things.”- Margaret Mead
It really is important to observe as well as listen to the user. Ultimately, if there is a lack of consideration in how you conduct your research you are likely to receive a biased response. In 2009, Walmart surveyed its customers asking "Would you like Walmart to be less cluttered?" The result was a loss in $1.85 billion in sales. Why? Because Walmart paid attention to what people said as opposed to what they did by asking a leading question.
When designing for web there are various online tools that designers can use to put their ideas into context, away from the lifeless artboards they are created in. Marvel is a prototype app that we use to test designs before going into development. When uploading artwork in Marvel, we can create hotspots that link to other areas of the site in the same way the site would function once it's completed. This means we can process the user journey and find any weak spots within the site. The uploaded 'screens' can be shared with the team, allowing multiple designers to collaborate and change or upload additional designs, wherever they're working. Once happy with how the prototype is working, a sharable link can be shared with clients so they can view the designs in their own environments across different screen sizes and multiple devices.
Another app we use is Sketch. Built for designers, with a flexible workflow and support for multiple screen sizes, Sketch great for any UX/UI designer. A recent plug-in allows the designer to upload their artboards straight to Marvel for prototyping, which is convenient when working in a rapid and iterative workflow.
There are different ways of experiencing a product or service depending on its purpose, so it's difficult to summarise exactly how one user journey is balanced against another. Fundamentally though, a successful experience should flow naturally for the user. It should be easy and intuitive. A user shouldn't have to think about the process they're going through to get from one step to the next. If they do, then the UX needs reevaluating!