Design Thinking Best Practices: What Makes Good UX Design?

Applying UI and UX design principles and best practices can help designers uncover new ideas, pain points, and ultimately create meaningful products and experiences.

Popular UI and UX design best practices include building a solid design team all the way through to a company culture that embraces design thinking.

Learn more about design thinking essentials here.

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Practice Empathy

The best design thinkers gather more data than they actually need in order to paint a vivid picture of user personas and uncover untapped user experiences.

Here are a few ways designers practice a highly empathetic approach in the design thinking process:

  • Conduct interviews. This is by far the most direct and intimate way of gaining genuine insights from end-users. The more conversations a designer has, the better they will understand their users’ needs and pain points.
  • Use an empathy map. Empathy maps help designers explore user feelings by directly identifying their pains and gains. To use an empathy map, designers dial in on specific situations to see how a real-life user might react and what actions or responses they might take.
  • Engage in field research. An incredibly important part of all UI and UX design work is research. Design teams will usually have designated researchers to conduct field research of real users and their natural environments to better understand their behaviors, and thus help ideate more specialized solutions.

Team Up and Collaborate

The trap to watch out for within any design occupation is the assumptive one. To avoid jumping to conclusions, designers work with teammates and constantly sync with other designers to test assumptions.

Below are a few ways that design teams approach collaboration.

  • Consistently ask for peer review. To avoid leaning into their assumptions, designers are consistently ideating with their peers and looking for constructive feedback. Promoting a culture of asking questions is a key implementation of design thinking best practices. Designers should feel confident to take advantage of the insights their teammates have to offer. A great way to do this is to establish a weekly cadence of peer review meetings.
  • Work beyond designers. Designers aren’t the only ones that can contribute to a company’s design thinking process. To promote design thinking and design thinking best practices, designers should open up their proverbial doors to all corners of the office, as those who are not designers by trade can frequently contribute valuable perspectives and insight.
  • Tool correctly. More than ever, collaboration with others can be difficult without the right tools in place. The tools and technologies that design teams use to share ideas and discuss should be adopted team-wide, if possible, as they are crucial to implementing design thinking best practices from the top down.

Implement Human-Centered Thinking

A designer’s process should be centered within the wider company culture. This allows designers to work within project timelines and scopes that align within the overall structure of the rest of the workforce. To be truly successful in implementing a company-wide design thinking approach, the methodology should extend across departments, and not simply be limited to the day-to-day of the UI and UX design teams.

For example, implementing a genuinely human-centered approach (a core part of the design thinking methodology) can extend to the hiring process. When hiring and recruiting new employees, companies can use design thinking principles to identify what challenges current employees are experiencing. Thus, an ideal new hire will bring value to the team by contributing new skills that will help a team’s overall experience.

In this case, not only does human-centered thinking make for a more specialized and targeted hire, but it also promotes a more empathetic company culture, ultimately driving meaningful change down the line.

Iterate Where You Can

Just as scientists are not looking to validate their assumptions but continually test against them, design thinkers must continually iterate on their ideas to accommodate for changes in their users or target audiences.

  • Failure is a resounding success. Just because an idea doesn’t work in ideation or prototype doesn’t mean that a designer has failed. Rather, failure is an opportunity for a designer to analyze and reflect on where they might have gone wrong and finetune the idea in a different direction.
  • Don’t pick favorites. Just because design thinking provides the means of challenging assumptions doesn’t mean that designer’s work without preferential bias. Good design thinkers know when to say goodbye to their favorite ideas and assumptions, regardless of how convicted they are that they have the right solution.
  • Own the idea as a team. Design thinking rewards collaboration with peers, so designers rarely claim ownership over a single idea. A team consistently iterates and learns together and when collaboration is adopted as culture, design egos disappear.

Listen To Your Users

Since design thinking is focused around having a user-centered approach, it’s important to constantly be hyper-aware of the customer or end user’s insights and input.

  • Give customers a voice—and then using your platform to amplify it. This is a great way for designers to connect with their users. The most successful platforms that genuinely solve a user challenge or problem can lead to the creation of user communities and ecosystems that continuously add value.
  • Incorporate user-generated content. This can also be a great way for new users to find additional connections and experiences within a platform. For example, the marketing platform Yotpo provides brands with a way to optimize reviews, visual marketing, loyalty, and referrals. What makes Yotpo’s product offering especially stand out in terms of user experience, however, is the ability for customers to post photos directly from their existing Instagram accounts. Not only is this a seamless end-user experience, but it also creates a sense of genuine engagement and community when seeing how a product looks when used by real people having real experiences.

What Are Digital Design Thinking Best Practices?

Beyond the above high-level descriptors, good digital design involves several other components that help to make complex software systems and websites user-friendly and evoke pleasure.

  • A logical user interface. The user interface must have a clear goal or set of recommended actions for the user to take and lead the user through each action quickly and easily. User journey maps help designers understand customer needs every step of the way. Equally important as allowing a user to take the right actions at the right time is informing them of what actions they can take using affordances (cues) that trigger the user to take the action. For instance, when web-based software applications like Canva (graphic design) or Tableau (interactive data visualization) introduce new features, a walk-through tutorial boots up at startup to familiarize the user with new site capabilities and corresponding actions they can take.
  • Gradual engagement. When it comes to complicated software interfaces (think InDesign or Final Cut Pro) or video games with a steep learning curve, it’s important to use progressive disclosures to present information to the user gradually, revealing only what is essential at first and then enabling the user to take more advanced actions as they get comfortable with the interface. Some prompts are even designed to pop up based on inferred user intent. For example, if site analytics show that a user has remained on a transaction page for a certain length of time without taking any action, a chatbot might pop up asking if the user needs help.
  • Thoughtful simplification. Like writing, good UX design is the art of eliminating unnecessary elements. Simplify the UI while still enabling it to do everything a user might want it to do. For example, alternative word processors like FocusWriter eliminate the crowded toolbars seen in Microsoft Word to enable the user to focus on writing without distractions. Modern web design is also focused on eliminating tests and using universally recognized visual cues instead.

6 Key Digital Design Thinking Best Practices All UI/UX Designers Should Use

Digital design thinking requires designers to pay attention to six key best practices.

  1. Connect with emotions. Emotional design is the art of creating designs that evoke emotions that result in a positive user experience. For example, Cleo, a personal finance chatbot, uses GIFs, emojis, and laidback language to congratulate users on budgeting, or playfully chide them for overspending. The overall effect is creating the impression of a trusted, brutally honest friend who is helping you stay on budget. Designers aim to reach users on three cognitive levels: visceral (a user’s gut reaction); behavioral (users should feel satisfied and in control); and reflective (a user’s lasting impression after they encounter your design). A pleasing, uncluttered interface generates a positive first impression and a feeling of control and enables the user to picture how they might use the product to achieve their goals. Finally, a successful user experience leaves the user with the feeling of having satisfied a goal.
  2. Design for engagement. The goal of a good user experience is to help users do what they want to do. Therefore, an “engaging experience” isn’t about animations or splashy designs; it’s creating a smooth user journey that delivers gratification.
  3. Gamify the experience and reward users. Gamification is a technique used by designers to insert gameplay elements in non-gaming settings to enhance user engagement. Examples include leaderboards and progress badges, which incentivize users to achieve goals and continue using the product.
  4. Provide navigation cues. Navigation design is a UI discipline which concerns helping a user navigate a website or app. UI elements such as call-to-action buttons, links, labels, tabs, and breadcrumbs categorize information and hint at further actions the user can take.
  5. Use feedback to tell the user what is happening. UI elements are used to inform the user of their progress or confirm that a certain action was taken. Examples include progress bars in application forms that tell a user how many questions remain, or an email confirming a purchase or subscription.
  6. Offer thoughtful automation. Users may be precluded from achieving their goals by lack of motivation or a busy schedule. Effective UX design helps them stay on track. For instance, digital health coaches help people with chronic health conditions keep up with their medication.

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