At Hunted Hive, UX is one of those topics we can’t wait to talk about. We love it because it is a development, design and creative schema that reliably yields brilliant solutions.

UX is all about acquiring an understanding of users’ needs, goals and behaviours and creating an interface that is natural and seamless for them to use.

Why do you hear so much about UX these days in the tech media considering the broad public use of the internet is now in its third decade? Well, for a long time the capabilities of increasingly ubiquitous connectivity could only be engaged with in a highly technical way (fair enough considering the highly technical people who made it possible).

This, however, didn’t meet with the lower technical skills of the critical mass of customers needed to fund continued innovation.

UX is the process of turning a layman’s difficulties in higher tech living into the smooth integration of new capabilities into workaday life. This is to say, part of everyday life, not a needlessly technical excursion from it.

UX history

As for UX itself, the concept is not new. Making new technological capabilities easily digestible is as old as industrial design itself. Some even date UX’s origins to around the year 1430 when Leonardo Da Vinci was consulted about designing a high-throughput kitchen. Fair to say, UX is no fly-by-nighter, it’s an old concept with a new name and an enlarged remit that’s being adapted to a new medium.

To encompass its goal it must touch on psychology, graphic design, user research, communication design, usability and user-interface theories.

The current prominence of UX is a product of several simultaneous trends that never quite gelled until the arrival of one epochal product.

UX both characterises this convergence and crystallization as beginning in the early 80s when personal computers came into people’s homes. The internet followed a decade later.

Advances in graphical user interfaces, cognitive science, and designing for and with the user became the foundation for the developing field of human-computer interaction (HCI).

“Suddenly, more people had access to computers and, along with it, a greater need to understand and optimize their use of them.”

No surprise then that the first dedicated professional in the field was a trained electrical engineer and cognitive scientist. His name was Don Norman and he was hired by Apple in 1995.

The company’s design and usability renaissance began shortly after in 1998 when it released the first iMac.

(Note: while the design of the Apple digital functionality was truly ground-breaking, the user functionality of the devices slavishly emulated the work of Dieter Rams 30 years earlier. More on this later).

The UX revolution

That first iMac made tech trendy and prepared the ground for the true UX revolution which occurred nine years later when the first iPhone was released.

It’s easy to forget how much the iPhone’s quantum leap in UX changed things. While it was a powerful phone for the time, its functionality was truly unprecedented because that hardware had been designed from the start to cooperate with the operating system, software and interface.

Smartphones had been around for years as specialised tools but their UX presented high barriers to entry. With the iPhone, the general public could finally grasp and capitalise on what a smartphone could do.

Steve Jobs called the iPhone a “leapfrog product” because the unprecedented UX wove the phone’s functionality into the lives users wanted to live. They weren’t confined by its rules - they were optimised by its capabilities.

Apple’s competitors noticed. They saw the power of UX and reorganised their development teams away from a purely engineering focus (“can it be done?”) to a functionality focus (“can the users do it?”). A clear sign of a maturing industry. And here we are.

UX in practice

Product development through UX principles begins with user empathy. It comes before the pen and paper, before the business case and before the whiteboard brainstorm. This is because UX is not something you can mix into the “cauldron”. It is the cauldron.

The School of Design at the University of Illinois at Chicago defines designing from the human experience as being based in grasping the user’s social, cognitive, emotional, physical, and cultural contexts.

This enshrines a fundamental structure at the concept stage and that guides the entire process of bringing it to life.

No customer-facing part of the business is beyond its ken, for every customer-facing part of a business is part of the product and thus part of the user’s experience.

UX isn’t branding, or graphic design, or a product’s styling … but it includes them

The broad reach of UX is crucial to understand. It is not about the graphic or branding assets as ends of themselves, it is about how they ‘work’.

You must anticipate what a user is seeking, feeling and reacting to at the moment they encounter your product and the subsequent string of moments as they interact with it.

There is a lot more to it than interface design and visual appeal. Ever notice it is as hard to get lost in a supermarket as it is easy to get lost in a casino? That interior UX design in practice.

Ever notice you can sit in almost any car and know where the controls are? That’s interface UX design in practice.

Ever realise that there are some websites that you can instinctively use the first time you visit? That’s web UX design in practice.

Now think of the times you’ve stared at a printer as it has displayed a series of baffling flashing lights and cryptic error notifications. That’s awful UX design in practice (ATMs are also notorious for poor UX).

The confusing overlap: graphic design, branding and UX

Think of it like this: styling shapes how you see a thing’s appearance; design shapes how you use the thing despite its appearance.

Yet, because all things have “appearance”, shaping a thing for function mandates a certain unifying logic for its looks. Generally speaking, people like looking at things that make “sense”, which tends to make well-designed things attractive.

So while UX tends to yield attractive solutions and this is partly intentional, it’s more a happy side-effect of earlier decisions about functionality.

The focus on function over form also means UX expressly includes the design of intangible services, contexts and moods that users don’t consciously perceive.

If brand character is the impression a client gets about you when you reach out to them with marketing messages, then UX is the impression a user gets about you when they reach back.

In fact, the real genius of excellent UX is being delightfully unobtrusive to the user.

How we approach UX

Hunted Hive builds digital tools, so our UX practises exist in that space. We use InVision to rapidly prototype and test user experience using hot-linked wireframes.

We iterate on concepts to bring a complex userflow down to it’s simplest and most usable form. The reason for it all is to create products that solve real-world problems.

The problems UX practitioners grapple with are necessarily as wide-ranging as the field itself. Among new issues every day, UX encompasses everything from:

  • Noting required fields on forms
  • Notifications
  • User ratings, reviews and feedback
  • Social sign-in
  • Readability and legibility
  • Calls to action
  • Load speed
  • Localisation of date, time and currency
  • First-use welcome messages and tutorials.

Before a visitor to your site does anything, UX matters. Before they click on a link, UX matters. UX is a buzzword in web development for a reason.

Proof that UX matters

UX is behind one of the “ancient” parables of good web development. It’s called the ‘$300 million button’ and it is a true story.

The story goes that the assumptions held by web developers for an e-retailer about ’checkout’ UX did not reflect the actual user experience.

The problem was when users had items in their basket, they would click checkout and then get sent to the log-in screen. Their frustration spiked at the crucial moment.

Instead of logging in to complete their purchase, a lot of people just left. When the developers simply moved the log-in earlier in the purchase routine, revenue went up $300 million.

This is a vivid example of why UX is the single most important way of thinking about whether your digital tool or website is ‘good’ - it persistently asked the question:

Does your product give the users what they want? Or, putting it another way:

Does your UX make the thing you want done the easiest thing for a user to do?

What is UX, really?

In this explainer article you’ve read how user experience is not a new concept and how it encompasses a lot of things. UX works by anticipating and facilitating the path a user will take through a digital tool, application or website.

It considers what their goal is and then works backwards to make sure they can achieve it in as simple and straightforward way as possible.

Additionally, it includes a person’s perceptions of the system in terms of pleasantness, utility, ease and efficiency.

User experience does have a subjective element to the degree that it is about an individual’s perception and thought with respect to the system.

Now that you know a little more about UX, think of times when you have shaken your phone in frustration at impenetrable app navigation or simply quit a website because something didn’t make any sense.

Now think of something harder: remember the times when you have used digital tools and found the whole interaction straightforward, immersive and pleasant. Seamless, in other words.

That was not an accident. That took a lot of work. UX work.