UX Design Process: Must Haves for 3 Key Phases

Woman writes on paper on desk.

Adobe Stock / Konstantin Yuganov

When you Google “design process,” you get about 222 million results. Many people have tried to capture the sequential steps a designer will go through to solve a problem. These processes often get expressed as diagrams. Some popular models include the UK Design Council’s Double Diamond, and the Stanford d.school Design Thinking Process.

Double Diamond model.

UK Design Council’s Double Diamond model of design process identifies four phases – discover, define, develop, and deliver. Image Source

Stanford design thinking process.

Stanford’s d.school designing thinking process identifies five phases - empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test.

All design processes include understanding the problem you are solving, then going through a divergent phase of many ideas and a convergent phase of narrowing down possible solutions. Many design processes are iterative rather than linear — meaning that the problem solving happens in recursive loops rather than completely separate, sequential steps. Designers go back and forth between diverging and converging during a project.

UX design process: key steps.

In terms of UX (user experience) design process, many of the same points apply. The process is iterative, and involves both divergent and convergent thinking. There are many flavors and perspectives on design process, and in the real world, processes in design don’t always look like textbook models. Broadly speaking, there are three main buckets that UX Design Process includes:

  1. Scope and Research
  2. Ideation and Testing
  3. Launching and Measuring

Scope and research.

At the outset of a project, it’s important that the team and UX designer understand the scope of what they are trying to achieve. For an agency or consultancy, this includes defining the terms of the project such as timeline and budget. In an agile sprint, this is prioritizing the user stories to focus on. Scoping is about creating the sandbox within which the UX designer will work, defining the problem that is being solved, and the measures of success. Clear scope upfront will lead to better outcomes at the end of the work. Some helpful tools for this phase include Jim Kalbach’s UX Strategy Blueprint, or Rangle.io’s Clarity Canvas.

Strategy Blueprint.

Jim Kalbach’s UX Strategy Blueprint is a helpful framework for exploring the scope of a project. It can guide exploration during stakeholder interviews and initial scoping.

The scoping phase often continues into the project’s initial research, as interviews with key internal stakeholders, competitor research and user research will often reveal that tweaks and adjustments are needed to broaden the initial scope of the project. During the research phase, the UX designer will start to define project requirements and metrics or key performance indicators. The research will also build a clear picture of user needs and goals, and start to deliver answers to questions like: Who are we designing for? and What are their behaviors, needs and goals? Some helpful tools at this stage include the Austin Centre for Design’s research planning worksheet, or Dave Gray’s empathy map.

Coworkers chat at work.

Image Source.

Research with internal stakeholders and end users is a crucial piece of the UX process in order to understand their perspectives and needs.

Must haves for this phase:

-   A clear scope of work and problem statement
-   Defined metrics of success and KPIs
-   An understanding of the user’s needs

Ideate and test.

Once there is clarity on the problem being solved and the user’s needs, the next phase in the UX process is generating different possible solutions that will meet business needs and user needs, and that will be technically feasible. Here, divergent thinking comes into play with the ideal starting point being to create a high volume of ideas through sketching and experimentation. Over time, these ideas get down-selected and refined through feedback and design critiques. This is the process of converging — narrowing down the possible approaches to one or two to develop further and test. The concepts will iteratively become higher fidelity — perhaps starting with paper prototypes — before moving on to digital wireframes and clickable prototypes in tools such as Adobe XD.

Putting concepts on paper.

Sketching a high volume of ideas and concepts on paper before digital wireframing and prototyping will lead to better quality UX design. Image Source.

Preferably, ideas for solutions are being tested as they are iteratively refined. For example, a UX designer might start by quickly testing paper prototypes guerrilla style by running some informal usability tests with colleagues or family and friends. This is a quick way to validate the general direction and key aspects of the solution such as flow, language, and interaction patterns. As the concepts become more refined, more formalized testing with a recruited target audience can help to ensure that there are no usability issues. During this phase, the transition to building the product may begin, building interactive front end prototypes to test with, or starting to prepare back end infrastructure needed to develop the product. Usability Matters’ usability testing tip sheet is a great resource to use when planning testing.

Must haves for this phase:

Build, launch, and measure.

Once the team or UX designer is confident that the proposed solution will work for users and move the needle on the desired business metrics, the project transitions into build and launch mode. For the the UX designer, this can involve producing assets for the development team (or working with a visual designer to do so), and generally being involved during the implementation phase to ensure that the design intent is being carried through to the final product. This can mean providing feedback to the development team, or doing QA testing on beta versions of a product to check that interactions are as intended.

Google Analytics tools.

Tools like Google Analytics provide invaluable insights which can be used to measure a design interventions’ success after it has been launched. Image Source.

Once the product is live, the measurement phase begins in earnest. Have the desired KPIs and metrics shifted? Is the design solving the initial problem identified? Are there any unintended consequences or surprises since the launch? For in-house designers, this means keeping an eye on web or application analytics and metrics. (If you need somewhere to start with quantitative analytics, check out this beginners guide to analytics for UX designers.)

Must haves for this phase:

Context matters.

As with any problem solving process, the UX design process will very much depend on the context that a designer is working in, and the type of problem they are solving. Being in-house at a product company means a designer is more likely to be involved through a full project lifecycle (including the build and launch), whereas for some freelancers or consultant designers, they may not be as heavily involved at this stage. Lean UX and agile methodologies also have slight variations on how UX design plays out in a larger team context.

Finally, time and budget are always constraints which a process needs to adapt to. What’s important for UX designers is that they are effectively solving the problems that their teams and clients are asking them to solve. To do this, there will always be some form of scoping and research, ideation and testing, and building and measurement.