UX/UI designer sketching out lo-fi wireframes for an application development framework during a  design studio session

Focusing on the Foundations of User Experience

23 Feb 2017 by Adam Deardurff

“User Experience (UX)” has become a buzzword when describing anything digital. “Good UX” is used to describe anything with an interface or to validate decisions made in a vacuum. Everyone seems to get the idea, but no one can explain what it is. Everyone can describe a good or bad user experience they've had, but they're unable to explain why.

UX has many layers.

In 2000, Jesse James Garrett was able to create a simple diagram helping visualize the core components and dimensions that create a positive experience with his “The Elements of User Experience” model. And, for the most part, these concepts still hold true 17 years later.

Introduction displaying the basic elements of user experience
Source: "The Elements of User Experience"

When we think about UX, many either quickly skip to the upper layers of the model or focus on a feature-centered approach. The most important layer is the foundation of site (business) objectives and user needs. What the model implies (but isn’t clearly represented) is the need to maintain our focus on these objectives and needs as each layer of the experience takes shape.

A business-centered approach

Site objectives are often either driven by the client, buried in requirements, or extracted through a series of stakeholder interviews, work sessions and surveys. Identifying the right stakeholders can be a challenge and may involve many different touchpoints, but involving the business at each step of the process is integral to the objectives process. Whether it's at the end of development cycles or at different stages in the process, an inclusive process assures that the site objectives are being maintained throughout.

The most important piece of information to extract is a tangible Key Performance Indicator (KPI). Without understanding and agreement on what success means, the team responsible for crafting the experience cannot hold itself accountable for the performance or quality of the experience. It’s easy to be reactive and plan around site objectives that are dictated by individuals or internal politics, but the team must remember this is only one half of the foundation.

What makes or breaks a user experience is often rooted in an unclear understanding of the actual user needs and applying them throughout the process.

Focusing on user needs first

Garrett describes user needs as the “externally derived goals for the site: identified through user research, ethno/techno/psychographics, etc.” 

Abstract view of users needs with User Needs displayed over Site Objectives
Source: "The Elements of User Experience"

The key word to focus on is external. To create a true user-centered experience, this information often takes an unbiased party working to understand not just the needs, but also the thoughts and feelings that drive behavior. We have the ability to conduct and extract all types of qualitative and quantitative insights that, when aggregated, can paint a holistic picture of a user’s needs, including but not limited to:

Primary research

  • Analytics/proprietary data
  • User/usability testing
  • Focus groups
  • On-site observations/session recordings
  • Online or email surveys

Secondary research

  • Search data
  • Third-party studies
  • Paid reports
  • Industry and competitive audits
  • Social audits

This list of available tools and activities can provide insights into not just the digital needs, but also educational and emotional barriers that might get in the way of understanding the end user’s experience. Of all the inputs, it's probably most important to involve at least one observation activity.

As Jakob Nielsen says, “Pay attention to what users do, not what they say.” This is the only way to understand why a product impediment impacts users. But, this is not a one-time obligation at the beginning of our process.

Crafting a successful user experience

Just like our stakeholders, the team needs to involve external users through the entire process to understand quality and validate decisions. From navigation taxonomies to content design, getting our users’ feedback along the way will drive optimal product delivery.

There are many ways to solicit feedback before or during the product development, including card sorting, tree testing, usability testing and focus groups. Through observations of user interactions, we can more clearly see where our solutions meet user needs and what additional challenges or optimizations need to be made.

Success is user-dependent.

Steve Jobs said, “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back toward technology — not the other way around.” 

There are many other tools and touchpoints along the way worth consideration. Users are complex and don’t always respond to new technologies or progressive interfaces. Testing our products can mean the difference between a product user's love or hate to use. To visualize the focus necessary throughout the experience, an updated experience map might look something like this:

Updated view of the User Experience map

Final thoughts

It’s easy to get caught up in the requirements and complex systems that go into delivering an optimal experience, but if we don’t initially create the front-facing user value, then we risk alienating our user base or are forced to start all over again.

Measuring a good user experience isn’t just about KPIs; it’s about engaging your users in an ongoing conversation. Whether you're maintaining a quality user experience or undertaking an enterprisewide digital transformation, the job is never finished. It requires keeping a pulse on the foundation of site (business or product) objectives and user needs.

Headshot of Adam Deardurff

About Adam Deardurff
UX Consultant

Adam is a seasoned UX practitioner focusing on digital strategy, research, analytics and UX architecture. He looks to apply his experience across the business and help expand Insight's UX offerings.

Read more posts by Adam
Connect with Adam on LinkedIn