When Do You Add UX to Your Design?

UX Salt and PepperIt seems that user experience (UX) is becoming more prevalent in the website design arena, but some sites seem to get more out of their UX efforts than others.

It’s not so much if you add UX to your process, but when you add it that makes the most impact.

Many curious design teams aren’t sure about this UX thing, so they sprinkle a little UX in, like salt and pepper, after the dish is done.

Mature design teams treat UX as the main dish, not simply as a seasoning. They start with UX, first.

UX is Proactive, Not Reactive

What immature design teams fail to understand is that UX is a proactive, two-step process, not a single-step, reactive afterthought.

  • Step one clearly and accurately defines the problem from the users’ perspective. Once the problem is well defined, the solutions become almost obvious.
  • Step two focuses on applying UX design practices to create high-performing sites that solve the problem identified in step one. Relying on just the design step won’t create high-performing sites.

Define, Then Solve the User’s Problem

This initial discovery research step is probably the least known, yet most important aspect of UX processes. Typically, companies merely assume they know what problem their visitors need to solve. In my 25 years of UX design, these assumptions have proven to be grossly inaccurate 100 percent of the time (no exaggeration).

I have never worked on a website that was based on an initially accurate problem definition. Knowing the problem is the key to success and UX research provides the most accurate problem definitions. Otherwise, the best you can hope for is to solve the wrong problem, very well.

UX research begins by interviewing (good) or observing (best) real users in their task environment. The focus is not on design, but to understand the users’ point of pain they are trying to address.

For instance, with ProFlowers, we learned that guys don’t go to flower shops to “build a bouquet.” They go there to find a bouquet for a specific occasion. Ahh, but which bouquet? Finding the right bouquet for a given occasion is their real goal.

Imagine what would happen if a husband bought a sympathy bouquet for his wife’s birthday. D’oh!

Usability Testing isn’t User Research

A common misperception is that usability testing is user research. Testing is useful to validate a design after it has been created, not to define the problem. Testing induces an inherent bias that the design solves the right problem.

Testing provides incremental reactive feedback about the solution, but does nothing to identify the problem. I doubt anyone has ever heard a test participant say, “That’s a good design, but it doesn’t solve my problem.”

Interestingly, many clients have asked why we need to spend so much time defining the problem when they already “know” the problem. As mentioned, they don’t actually know the problem, they are just hesitant to “waste” time on user research.

Your clients will be amazed at how much design and development time they actually save by spending the time to clearly define the problem, up front. Moreover, they are even more surprised at what this initial discovery uncovers. It always identifies an important, unmet user need that creates a clear competitive advantage.

Albert Einstein

“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” – Albert Einstein

This initial discovery research is even more important in a lean design environment because it’s the best method to adequately determine what the MVP really is. Failure to correctly identify the MVP needs of the users can kill a site. A startup putting all their eggs in one basket had better make sure they have the right basket because there isn’t enough time or money to redo it if they are wrong.


Instead of starting with a solution and then trying to find a problem to fit it into, start by identifying and clearly defining the problem, first. The key to unparalleled success is focusing on understanding the problem from the users’ perspective, instead of the marketing or technology perspectives.

UX success is the direct result of clearly and accurately defining the problem, first. Many other companies, such as 39 Signals and Kayak, have enjoyed stellar successes by accurately redefining the problem, first, as well.

Remember, if you don’t think you have time to do it right the first time, what makes you think you’ll have time to redo it, later? And just because everyone else is solving the same problem, doesn’t mean that anyone actually checked to see if it was the right problem. The first one to identify the right problem owns their market.

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