The Five U’s Of UX
User experience (UX) is an exciting concept. It attempts to capture all the aspects of how a user responds to and interacts with a product. However, trying to be comprehensive is often a trap. Staying open to an infinite list of influence factors keeps us from clarity and mastery of a concept.
Instead, it leads to vague ideas and lower effectiveness. The concept of UX is particularly vulnerable to such vagueness. For several reasons:
- It might be used as a magic word that is actually used to hide ignorance.
- Companies have highly variable definitions of what the UX is supposed to be.
- Often, people focus heavily on the design aspects of UX, which leads them to overlook other essential activities.
I have been teaching UX fundamentals to many students for more than five years now. My goal is to provide them with a robust understanding of the whole UX process. I bet that with such an understanding, they will make better decisions and will know more clearly what contribution they could provide to the team and why.
I therefore propose a model of the full UX process based on five pillars. To have a clearer understanding of the UX process, get to know the five U’s of UX:
- UX strategy
- User Research
- UX design
- User testing
- UX maturity
Let’s go through this list.
UX maturity is the blind spot.
It seems obvious that your capacity to be good at UX requires some organizational culture around it. At the same time, if you don’t have this culture, you can’t see how you are failing to implement a proper user-centered process.
What’s the UX maturity level? Maturity characterizes the evolution of an organization to implement a better and deeper user-centric process.
J. Nielsen1 2 provides a convenient model based on eight sequential stages. While the first stages are mostly about increasing consideration and budget for the user-centered design process, the highest stages are focusing on how the user experience became the center of one organization’s strategy.
Clearly, doing design for or with the user is not the whole story: you need to do research, test hypotheses against real data, and articulate all those components with strategy.
In other words, UX maturity is the first U on the list; it’s the most essential and the hardest to get right.
Tools to consider: data on UX activities and return on investment (ROI); success stories of user-centered product design; lean UX.
Expertise area: leadership, organization knowledge, project management, interdisciplinary.
Strategy is about setting goals, defining success metrics and outlining a plan for success.
If you don’t have a strategy, others will choose one for you.
But what is the UX strategy about? It’s about aligning business goals with experience design goals. Success is not merely the realization of a pleasant experience but rather an experience that does have an impact, which makes a product stand out.
Products are meant to change how people live their lives in a better way. Hence, impact emerges as a product vision and mission statement. A great experience does not emerge from a great vision alone, it should be rooted in an actual understanding of users’ activities.
The success of a product is always a modification of target users’ behavior.
Stating explicitly what mission and long-term vision the product tries to achieve will provide a better understanding of how an innovative product or service is supposed to change people's lives.
In turn, impact translates into specific behaviors (purchase, subscription, visits, etc.) that match the business model of the product (sales, subscriptions, advertisements, etc.).
Achieving these goals is not possible in a single step; it requires a roadmap in order to prioritize features and organize subsequent UX activities.
Finally, UX strategy is a hypothesis based on users’ mental models. This hypothesis needs to be tested, and design activities require being constantly updated with such knowledge of the user in order to stay relevant, both for the user and the organization.
Tools to consider: value proposal, vision document, mission statement, one-minute elevator pitch, MVP or Lean canvas, product roadmap.
Expertise area: marketing, business strategy, product design
Before it existed, the product was mostly an idea: a potential solution to a user’s problem. Fundamentally, the first concept of a product is an assumption.
You make the hypothesis that users have a specific problem, and your product is a solution to it.
However, even great ideas are often not true when they come out of the blue.
In contrast, the UX process requires you to “Go Out Of the Building” (GOOB principle): you need to meet users, collect data about them using selected methodologies, and analyze the data to translate it into insights for design decisions.
User research is about understanding users’ activity: what goal do they try to achieve? What tasks and tools do they use? In what social and individual context? What is the outcome of those behaviors?
User researchers are reducing uncertainty by answering key questions about business assumptions. There are many methods to choose from, and the quality of the data and their analyses are fundamental to achieving meaningful results.
Tools to consider: interviews, focus groups, field studies, contextual inquiry and surveys.
Expertise areas: social sciences such as ethnology, sociology and psychology; marketing; and statistics.
User experience design#
User research insights are input for the design process. Design activities are giving a living shape to the concepts from the strategy and insights firm research.
Designers will implement prototypes of different types. The key principle here is to decrease the cost of error. A prototype is a design assumption: this particular design will suit this particular user in order to fulfill that particular need. The design of a product integrates expected qualities that will make the user react positively.
What makes the user respond positively to the product is its set of qualities.
Several quality-centric frameworks have been proposed, including Morville’s UX Honeycomb3 , Hassenzahl’s pragmatic vs. hedonic model4 , Garrett’s elements of UX5, and Gatteau and Sloïm’s VPTCS Web model6.
Qualities must be appreciated by a human, the user. They don’t exist alone. Psychology of users could help understading them: D. Norman assumes7 that there are three levels of the user’s response to consider when designing a product (visceral, behavioral, and reflexive). Other models, such as that of Karapanos and collaborators describe8 how long-term user experience is taking place over time
Most digital products constitute integrated experiences; thus, a superior user experience can only materialize when all these qualities are present and valued by the user. Achieving this requires the collaboration of cross-functional teams or, if needed, individuals with an interdisciplinary mindset (T-shaped profile).
Tools to consider: personas, sketches and mockups, user journeys, experience maps, mood boards, storyboards, and prototypes.
Expertise area: design thinking, art, interactive design, information architecture, human-computer intersections.
Even though prototypes have been implemented thanks to data and insight from the research phase, it does not guarantee they will actually work with users. To increase the probability that a specific design will work, we need to test it against real users’ behavior. This phase involves more quantitative methodologies than the user research phase. Indeed, while user research aims to explore potential problems and solutions for the users, user testing is about making a decision about the effectiveness of a design.
Any prototype is, in essence, a design assumption or hypothesis. A hypothesis is tested against real data using rigorous methodology.
The questions the UX professional is trying to answer in this phase are related to the actual behavior (performance, preferences) and also the perceived pragmatic or hedonic value of the product when interacting with it.
This phase is the one that answers the questions raised by strategy in the first place: does the product create a better experience than competitors? Does it create the specific experience it was meant to? And does users’ behavior actually respond to design and business expectations?
Tools to consider: prototypes, user testing, thinking out loud, A/B testing, usability and UX-related scales, traffic analysis, and eye-tracking.
Areas of expertise: experimental sciences, cognitive psychology and ergonomics, human factors, cognitive and usability engineering
Iterate, of course!
A single-shot process won’t allow the organization to fail, learn, and progress.
This process is not to be understood like a treadmill. Depending on the situation, the project could catch up the process at any point. Also, a one-to-one relationship between each phase needs to be explored further.
Finally, the importance of each phase may evolve across the lifecycle of the product. At the early stage of product design, uncertainty about users’ mental models and activities is very high. Hence, closer loops between research and strategy seem more relevant. When the product fits well with its target audience, uncertainty is lower and UX decisions mainly revolve around highly specific optimizations.
Nielsen, J. (2006). Corporate UX Maturity: Stages 1-4.
Nielsen, J. (2006). Corporate UX Maturity: Stages 5-8.
Morville, P., & Callender, J. (2010). Search patterns: design for discovery. ” O’Reilly Media, Inc.”.
Hassenzahl, M. (2007). The hedonic/pragmatic model of user experience. Towards a UX manifesto, 10, 2007.
Gateau, E., & Sloïm, E. (2019, October). VPTCS, un modèle transversal pour la qualité de l’expérience utilisateur. Paris Web. Retrieved January 2022
Norman, D. A. (2004). Emotional design: Why we love (or hate) everyday things. Civitas Books.
Karapanos, E., Zimmerman, J., Forlizzi, J., & Martens, J. B. (2009, April). User experience over time: an initial framework. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on human factors in computing systems (pp. 729–738).