Experience Design Is Everything

Experience design is a crucial component of building a great product. Here are the basics of the discipline.

Written by Adam Thomas
Published on May. 03, 2023
Experience Design Is Everything
Image: Shutterstock / Built In
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How are you reading this?

That question isn’t just about the words on the page, despite the work I’ve put into writing them. There is more to the experience than that. 

Here are a few things to think about:

How are you reading this article? Are you reading it on a computer or phone? Are you listening to it aloud via a reader?

These are the questions that an experience designer works on. So, what is experience design, what does good experience design look like, and how do you implement experience design in your product development? Read on. 

What Is Experience Design?

Experience design involves understanding the whole experience of a given product’s user. Experience design is implemented and understood through user experience (UX) work. As a user experience designer comes to understand the user through research and product development, they can figure out what experience the user wants and design for it.

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What Is Experience Design?

Experience design involves understanding the whole experience of a given product’s user. Experience design is implemented and understood through user experience (UX) work. As a user experience designer comes to understand the user through research and product development, they can figure out what experience the user wants and design for it. The team’s product designer often oversees this work. 

Everything a product development team does should inspire action. Other people on the team have jobs like building the system behind the action (engineers) or understanding the viability of the action (product managers). The usability of the tool, however, including how the user understands the action on their end, is the domain of user experience. 

On larger teams, some designers may specialize solely on the user’s experience. These folks are called user experience designers, and they spend less time focusing on the interface and more time thinking about the users themselves. It may help to think of UX designers as researchers, as their work normally focuses on interpreting users’ actions and designing a system around them. 

Maps provide another way of thinking about experience design. Experience design is like the work a cartographer does to ensure that people understand how to read the map. A cartographer ensures coherence and legibility through the use of tools like colors, a compass, and a legend. These all ensure that the reader has a better experience with it. The work of a user experience designer is similar, ensuring that whoever uses the system they design can do so easily. 


What Does Good Experience Design Look Like?

Questions drive good experience design. The UX designer needs to understand the context of the user’s interaction. Just looking at what’s happening isn’t enough; curiosity drives good UX design. 

When we build a product, we start with an idea of what we want the user to do. Users don’t always follow our leads, though, and that’s where curiosity comes into play. We have to be curious about what they do. Despite this, good experience design doesn’t mean asking direct questions because they might not get direct answers. 

The reason for this becomes clear with a little introspection. Human beings hate appearing as if they are wrong. Think about your parents refusing to stop and ask for directions even though you realized they were lost. Even now, I’m betting that there is a piece of furniture that is a little off in your residence because you didn’t look at directions. So, if you ask people direct questions about their misuse of a product, they might evade answering to protect their pride

Out of this stubbornness, however, comes creativity. The flip side of the coin is that kids can take assignments and create something brilliant because they interpreted the directions in a unique way. Likewise, a beloved family recipe can arise because the cook felt like following the vibes instead of instructions. 

Software evolves the same way. We have intentions for the user when we build something. This intention shapes our hypothesis. The hypothesis is our attempt to merge our intended vision for the product with the real world. Experience design seeks to solve a part of this larger puzzle. In particular, it focuses on how we understand what the user sees, what value we can bring to the table with our insight, and what we use that to create magic. 

For example, when talking to a user, the experience designer would ask the participant to tell a story about how they use the product or even sit with the participant while they work. This is called contextual inquiry. By watching users, the designer can see all the creative possibilities that they can unlock. 

If you ask direct questions, you may miss out on all the possibilities that exist in the experience. If you don’t know about these potential avenues, you can’t design for them.


How Does an Experience Designer Do? 

We can’t ask yes-or-no questions, so how do we start to understand experience design? We do so through stories. Instead of asking direct questions, we can ask people to tell the story of how they use the product.

Human beings don’t like to admit wrongdoing, so the way around that is to assume they aren’t wrong and instead let them tell you how awesome they are. Tools like Heap or Amplitude can verify how people use the product through concepts like clickstream tracking, where you look at what the user is clicking on to determine outcomes. 

Experience designers should both track customers and work to understand the users’ stories. Doing so will allow you to create new directions to level up the product.  

So, here’s a prompt for you, whether you’re a designer or not, that will begin to give you a grasp on user experience. 

Questions to Guide User Experience Design

  • Identify the core experience you want to understand. Systems are built with components. What components drive the experience? Creating a clear demarcation between elements will help you understand what experience you want to affect. 
  • Identify core users whose behavior you want to understand. Not all users are created equal. Which users are the most valuable to the business? This is where insight from rightsholders and team members across the business can prove valuable since they work in other parts of the system you don’t. 
  • Invite a few users to have a conversation. Ask them to walk you through how they go through that experience. Do not add anything; it is important to hear the story from their point of view. 
  • Analyze the experience. Is it what you expect? How about frustrations from the system? What about novel ways of use that you may want to expand on? Each conversation will improve understanding and help you see patterns from users.

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Experience Design Improves Products

The user is king if you intend to have a user-centric development culture. Experience design is a major part of any culture that wants to be obsessed with its users. Good experience design leads to good products by understanding how users experience a product without telling them what to do. 

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