The Beginner’s Guide to UX

What do we talk about when we talk about UX? While the two letters get tossed around fairly liberally these days, the foundations of the user experience are as old as, well, users.
From man’s discovery of fire to the evolution of Firefox, we have always interacted with products, systems, and services with some level of attention paid to the needs of the intended users. Here are the basic principles of user experience to get you thinking like a UX designer.
Man's discovery of fire: The original user experience? @WholeWhale's beginner guide to UX. Click To Tweet


“Usability” and “user” both stem from the same word (“use”), so understandably the main principle guiding UX is usability. This breaks down into several components used to determine quality.

  • Efficiency: How quickly will this product, system, or service allow the intended user to complete their task?
  • Errors: Can a user interact with this product, system, or service without making mistakes? Or, if a mistake is made, how quickly can it be corrected?
  • Functionality: Is this a practical solution to the user’s needs?
  • Individuality: Can this be customized to the individual user if need be?
  • Learnability: How easy is it to learn how to use this product, system, or service?
  • Memorability: When learning how to use it, is it an easy process to remember?
  • Predictability: Can a user intuit how to interact with this product, system, or service to some degree of accuracy?
  • Satisfaction: Is it an enjoyable experience?

Usability isn’t a static factor in design — consider how the usability of a VCR has evolved in the last 25 years — and so for designs both existing and evolving, testing is a core component of the UX process. Whitney Quesenbery distills the testing process down into the 5Es: The UX must be effective, efficient, engaging, error-tolerant, and easy to learn.

The 5Es

Testing against Whitney Quesenbery’s 5Es means allowing these dimensions to help define usability in each context. It also puts the “user” part of “user experience” into perspective. For example, in Whole Whale’s work with Power Poetry we examined the actual users of the Power Poetry website: teenage poets. This in turn showed us some of the gaps in our knowledge (we’re young at heart, but our high school days are definitely in the rear-view mirror). Let’s break this process down with the 5Es:

  • Effective: We measure this against how often the intended tasks are done accurately and completely. In this case, it was watching how many teens were contributing poems to the Power Poetry database.
  • Efficient: Timing is everything. How long was it taking users to upload poetry to the website? Is the screen layout of the website optimized for productive use of a teen’s time?
  • Engaging: Do people actually want to be on the website? Is it confusing and difficult to read? Or is there an innate ease of use that encourages users to stay onsite?
  • Error Tolerant: Mistakes happen. Can users recover from them quickly? Are the required fields on a form indicated to help teens successfully sign up and submit? How many error messages does the average user receive?
  • Easy to Learn: How much instruction is needed? How much can be intuited? When you land on a piece of content on Power Poetry’s website, there are three calls to action to sign up and submit to help move users towards greater engagement.

On Power Poetry’s website, site speed is a great indicator of efficiency. Their content strategy includes a number of resources on how to write specific types of poetry, which was added after we saw how users reached the site. We realized this in observing the normal traffic patterns of users, and saw that adding this type of content would meet a demand effectively. Written well, the content is also combined with several calls to action to facilitate engagement. We can track this by how many people sign up after reading a certain piece of content. We can also track both error tolerance and how easy the site is to learn by seeing when users abandon the site.

There’s a catch: The Paradox of Technology

In The Design of Everyday Things (1988), Donald Norman writes:
“The same technology that simplifies life by providing more functions in each device also complicates life by making the device harder to learn, harder to use. This is the paradox of technology.”
As much as technology has been able to free up areas of our lives, it’s also helped to further restrict them. We often make technology more complicated than it needs to be in order to solve problems that seem more complicated than they actually are, which means the learnability drops.
What UX designers keep in mind is the information scent. Humans are often referred to as informavores, and our frequent consumption of information and sense-based cues means that, with the right guidance, we are able to pick up on the scent of our ultimate goal and work towards it. The goal of effective technology is to not block that scent. Often, including constraints will help to with letting that info scent fly.

Where does the design in UX design come in?

We look for several principles in creating and evaluating strong UX patterns. Design elements should be visible and findable (because that’s how we’ll pick up on the information scent).
Beyond that, there needs to be a strong relationship between the elements and their use(s). In UX, this is referred to as mapping, both direct and indirect. Direct mapping indicates an explicit relationship between an object and its function (think the “Submit” button). Indirect mapping is a little less obvious and may mean that the object is intended for multiple functions. This is acceptable in UX design but means that the user will have to think a bit more about what they’re doing before clicking.
WIth the idea that every experience on a website is a user experience, take a minute now and go to your organization’s website. Look at the homepage. Are the actions that you want users to take represented in visible, findable elements? Are you blocking their scent on taking those actions? How does your website measure against the 5Es, and, diving deeper, where are you at on functionality, individuality, memorability, and satisfaction?

The most important part

For all of the user experience elements you may now be on the lookout for, the most important aspect of all of this is feedback — for both the user and the provider.
The most important aspect of UX is feedback — for both the user and the provider. Click To Tweet
When users sign up for your newsletter, donate, or register for events, they should always receive feedback as to whether or not their action was successful. The most important part of the experience is assuring the user that their time was positively spent.
We’d like to add to this that receiving feedback from your users is also essential for staying ahead of the curve. As technology continues to change, user expectations will also change, which means your platform will need to change with them. You can get a lot of feedback from your Google Analytics, but also consider soliciting direct feedback from intended users. Get a fresh set of eyes to help you see clearly and bring the focus back to the guiding why for your website, service (or anything beyond that).
In the middle of a website redevelopment? Check out our complete resources on website optimization.
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About UX* (But were afraid to ask) Click To Tweet