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Looks + Substance: An Introduction to User Experience (UX)

Published on
15 May 2015
Written by
Elizabeth Kaufer

What makes a great website great? You tell me. This is the core of UX: listening to what the user wants and needs in order to design the best possible product.

For my thesis, I’m researching online survey design and the way different design choices (such as putting a logo on your survey) may affect the responses you get. My research topic was inspired by my background in UX and user-centred design, which I learned as part of my masters degree in library and information science. While UX may seem like a very specialised field, its principles and methods can be used across many different fields and industries, including academia.

What is UX?

UX stands for User eXperience. User experience broadly refers to how a user interacts with an online interface or system (like a website or a mobile app). UX design encompasses methodologies and design techniques that aim to optimise a user’s interaction with a site so that the user has the best possible experience. The key component of the field is understanding what the users’ needs are for a site, and designing the site to best suit those needs. It also encompasses elements such as usability (how easy it is to learn to use a site) and information architecture (the structure and organisation of information in a site). The UX Honeycomb below illustrates the different qualities UX designers take into account when designing information systems and websites.


User Experience Honeycomb by Peter Morville showing the different facets of UX design

The UX field pulls methods and theory from many disciplines, such as visual design, human-computer interaction, information science, and cognitive psychology. UX designers use techniques such focus groups or interviews, testing prototypes of websites with users, surveys, heuristic evaluations of websites, or case scenarios to figure out what users need from a given site and how they may interact with it. Here are a few round-ups of different UX techniques and when to use them.

UX is all over the place. With its general-purpose methodology, it can be applied to many different fields, like tech companies, governments, and libraries.

Why does this matter to internet research and internet policy?

You know how frustrating it is when you go to a brand new lecture theatre, open up your dying laptop and get out your power adapter, only to find that the architects put literally no outlets by any of the seats? Because of a problem with the design of the space, you can’t do the work you need to do.

That kind of bad architecture happens online too. Where is the search bar? How do I adjust the volume on this website? When is the museum open and also, where is it?

Problems with interface design can have real effects on users. Poorly-designed websites impede users from getting what they need out of a website by making it too complicated or too confusing for them to learn how to use the site or find information. Anyone who wants to publish information or provide online resources in any field should not underestimate how crucial good design is to the success of a website.

The digital divide doesn’t just refer to access to the Internet: it also refers to the lack of skills needed to navigate the web

For instance, governments are putting more and more of their services online. While this has many obvious benefits, without good, user-focused design, many users could be left behind because the site is too difficult to use. The digital divide doesn’t just refer to access to the Internet: it also refers to the lack of skills needed to navigate the web. Website designs that don’t take many different types of users into account – from the most tech-literate to the least – may prevent some users from getting access to information and services. Anyone who tried to find an insurance plan on the infamously disastrous in 2013 can attest to that. Users couldn’t figure out how to navigate the site, were confused by the website’s layout and the overly-complicated process for finding information on different plans.

The philosophy of UX is also a useful way of approaching research in general. User-centered design has helped me as an academic because it trains you to keep your focus on the user at all times and back up your design choices with research, rather than assuming everyone understands what you’re talking about. This is important to keep in mind when writing papers, preparing talks, or even deciding how to approach a research question (for example, incorporating interviews or ethnographies in research design to understand users’ perspective on a topic).

For more on UX and user-centered design, I highly recommend Don Norman’s essential The Design of Everyday Things, which includes many of the core concepts of UX applied not just to websites, but to any objects designed by humans for other humans (also, if you read the original edition, you’ll get to learn all about poorly-designed late 1980s technology). After you read it, you’ll never look at doors the same way again.

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