How come the UX design process is so difficult to pin down? Above all, its meaning has shifted over the past 10 to 20 years as technology has advanced and development cycles have shortened.

As a result, it can now mean different things to different generations of designer. On top of this, as with any design process, it will always look a little different depending on the user needs and business needs in any given project.

In this piece, we’ll explore some of these considerations, before outlining the version of the UX design process that we teach here at Designlab—and why.

How the UX Design Process has evolved

In a sense, all design since the dawn of the human species has been user experience (UX) design, because every designed object is intended for a use. However, that’s not what we mean by “UX design” in the context of today’s design industry. 

Instead, the term “UX design” refers to a specific design discipline that is concerned with understanding user needs and shaping a product experience that meets those needs well. Most of the time, the product in question is a digital one—today, most often a website or mobile app.

When the UX design process emerged in the 1990s, it was quite a techy discipline. Sandy Chen, Director of Product here at Designlab, explains: 

The universe of UX design has changed so much in the past 10 years. UX used to be more about data organization (‘Information Architecture’ or IA), click-through flows (‘Interaction Design’ or IxD), and the usability of digital interfaces.

What we could call “classical” UX design didn’t focus on the aesthetics of interfaces, although this was one consideration amongst many. Rather, the focus was on the usability of those interfaces, and everything about the user’s situation that contributed to, or subtracted from, a product’s ease of use. 

So what is the classical UX design process?

The classical UX design process, which is now pretty much obsolete, took a “waterfall” approach. This means that each stage of the process was undertaken and completed before the next stage of the process could begin.

The UX design process therefore took a linear format, through the stages of gathering requirements, designing a solution, implementation, verification, and maintenance.

The Classical UX Design Process

This worked pretty well in an age when digital products were updated at intervals of several years (think of software like Microsoft Office). But during the 2000s the pace quickened, and it became essential for product teams to work more quickly and responsively.

Eventually, the concept of “Lean UX” emerged. Where the waterfall approach had been linear and long-term, Lean UX is iterative, and organized around 2-week or 4-week development cycles:

The Lean UX Design Process

Lean UX remains a common approach within established product teams, where it’s possible to continuously gather user feedback and develop features in response to data.

What is the UX design process today?

Lean UX wasn’t the end of the end of the story, though. Although it’s a process works well for established products, it’s not always great for new products, because user needs tend to be less well understood.

So the dominant meaning of the UX design process today is a hybrid of the classical UX design process, Lean UX, and a method known as “Design Thinking”.

Design Thinking is an approach to design which focuses in particular on deep empathy with the user. It considers the situation they are in, the goals they are trying to reach, and the barriers they face.

It’s a recursive, iterative process that has 5 stages: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Design, Test.

Here’s Sandy again to explain:

Today, UX design—or rather, the Product Design methodology—we’re teaching students, is a form of ‘design thinking’, and it stems from classic Industrial Design practice.

(If you want to read more about design thinking, check out our post about Tim Brown of IDEO, one of the leading innovators of the design thinking model.)

The Design Thinking UX Design Process

When an Industrial Designer designs a non-digital product, they go through a process. They begin by defining the product’s target market, researching user needs, and building user personas.

They then move on to prototyping, testing, and iteration, before reaching a final specification and going to market. Sandy continues,

As everything turned digital, the digital product design industry borrowed this process to build apps and websites. Classical UX designers evolved with the industry, and adapted Design Thinking to help formalize digital product design. But really, it’s not a brand new school of thought.

This philosophy is decidedly less techy than classical UX design. Although classical, data-driven aspects of the UX designer’s work—like Information Architecture (IA)—are still part of a product designer’s work today, they are now combined with the Design Thinking approach to design problem-solving.

Teaching UX Design Process today

When we were putting together UX Academy here at Designlab, we set out to build a curriculum that equips students with a complete set of foundational product design tools.

To help with picking up these tools, students are paired with an experienced design professional, who acts as their mentor. 

Through this relationship, they learn what a designer’s true mission is: to use creative power and knowledge to solve people’s problems. 

In each project, students focus on a single short “flow” within a larger digital product concept. The aim is to resolve the pain point that will bring the most value to users, and to solve that problem in an innovative way. 

Through that process, students learn to present their ideas, solve problems creatively, fill their toolbox, and extract incredibly valuable practical knowledge from their mentors.

Here’s Sandy one last time to explain UX Academy’s mission:

UX Academy provides a baseline of knowledge that students can continue to build on. The program is not a magic bullet, and learning should never stop at graduation!

Designers should continuously move with the industry and evolve their skills. But what we aim to do for our students is to instill confidence, to provide opportunities to practice, and to build a peer-to-peer and student-to-mentor community for constant support and inspiration.

More about the UX Design Process

Thanks for reading! We hope you’ve found this brief introduction to UX Design helpful. Why not check out some of the resources below to learn more?

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Andrew Wilshere


Designer, Writer, and Mentor

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