User experience (UX) cannot be designed. User experience is rather the outcome of design, i.e. how a user feels about a product, when using it.

User experience often get’s mixed up with user-centered design (UCD), but they are not equally the same.

User-centered design is rather an approach or mindset to user experience, and it’s not the only one. There are alternatives. Let’s look at the various approaches.

Approach 1: User-centered design

In this approach designers consult at every step in the design process with users with the intent to create products that map better to the needs and expectations of users. The user-centered is a cyclical process. This approach is similar to design thinking, and consists of multiple key steps along the process:

1. Innovation

In the innovation stage ideas are created (in design thinking this step comes after the research part, which is the second step here). The innovation step consists of activities such as brainstorming sessions, mind-mapping; in some cases customer and market research will get used, too.

2. Research (i.e. getting an understanding of users)

In this step real users get involved. Designers take their ideas to a sample of their users and gather first feedback. There might also be other parts to be researched, such as technical feasibility of the product, project budgets, etc.

In this step designers want to find answers to some of the questions they have including:

  • What do users think of the ideas?
  • Would they use the idea?
  • How would they use the idea?
  • What do they think can be improved?

In order to get the answers they are looking for, designers have a range of toolset available such as focus groups, interviews, questionnaires, etc. Designers pick the tools that are most relevant to the users.

The answers give insights that educate the design process about what users need from the product or service, what are the pain points and frustrations, what are the derived and identified opportunities?

3. Use cases (here is where interactions get defined)

The focus in this step is to work with users in order to find out how they want to use the product.

Designers define the interactions before the product is built. In the case of software this means defining data requirements, buttons, labels, microcopy, tags, etc. and also the goals of each interaction in use cases.

This is where the scope of the work is defined.

4. Design (i.e. prototyping and evaluation)

In this step – and in the case of software – designers build on the use cases and the scope defined in the previous stage. It should be clear what needs to be designed.

This phase is an iterative one. Designers start working on basic mock-ups, often low fidelity, either on white board, or on paper, or perhaps basic tools such as Balsamiq.

Designers then test those first mock-ups with users and gather feedback which they use to gradually move towards a high fidelity prototype.

By quickly iterating through low-fidelity mock-ups designers get the feedback on design and usability instantly and can incorporate it as the design evolves and matures.

5. Development (Validation)

In the development step, the final high-fidelity prototype is used as input to build the product. Designers test the final release with users and take the insights and feedback to the innovation phase for a future release.

Approach 2: Self-focused design / Creative intelligence

In this approach designers act as user representatives. Designers design for themselves, and assume that their user base thinks and feels the same way about the product as they do.

This approach works best when the designers and the team are the actual users of the product.

Where this approach doesn’t work is when it is used to emulate users.

Approach 3: Experienced based design

This approach builds on the user-centered design approach. Designers and development teams have acquired plenty of experience from previous research, designs and developments. For similar projects, this makes it possible to cut corners on research for example.

Approach 4: Activity-oriented design

This approach works best when the team is tasked to build a product which is the first of its kind within an organization. Designers map out the activities that they expect users to conduct.

This method can be used as user-centered design, or as alternative given the project is a small functional change in the system.