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Beyond Wireframing: The Real-Life UX Design Process

We all know basic tenets of user-centered design. We recognize different research methods, the prototyping stage, as well as the process of documenting techniques in our rich methodological environment. The question you probably often ask yourself, though, is how it all works in practice?

What do real-life UX design processes actually look like? Do we have time for every step in the process that we claim to be ideal? In this article, I’ll share a couple of insights about the real-life UX design process and speak from my own experience and research.

User-Centred Design: Truth Vs. Fiction Link

A few years ago, I joined one of the biggest e-commerce companies in Eastern Europe. When I entered my new office, I immediately spotted a huge user-centered design (UCD) poster on the wall. The whole process was described in detail that left hardly any doubts about the step-by-step approach to design. Exciting interior design for an aspiring UX designer, right? I stared at the poster with great hope and imagined how exciting following the ideal UCD process would actually be. Guess what? They didn’t apply a single step from the poster to the actual process. They never did any research, nor any serious analysis of user behavior. Yikes, they didn’t even prototype! This fancy poster simply hung shamefully on the wall.

For the next three years, we worked hard to put user experience design at the heart of a developer-driven culture. We forgot about the poster and structured our own process, which fitted well with the company’s capabilities and allowed us to constantly optimize our main service. Why didn’t we use the crystal-clear theoretical approach? Because we couldn’t afford to go step by step through a classic UCD process with a lot of different activities. It would have taken too much time, and therefore it was economically invalid — the budgets for our projects were way too tight.

To deliver a user interface on time, we were forced to get really lean. We used a classic UCD process as inspiration and created a process that was simple but actionable for the company. We defined the problem, defined the scope of the project, iterated through paper prototyping and wireframing, pushed code to production as fast as we could, and always used multivariate split-testing and detailed Google Analytics event tracking.

Post-launch was the time to measure and plan optimization, which we executed immediately. Unfortunately, only huge projects had budgets for qualitative testing. Huge projects were also full of preliminary diagrams (site maps, flow charts, conceptual diagraming) — a enormously recommended activity to find order in a complex mess of information.

All in all, our process was simple but efficient. Of course, in general terms, it was a UCD process, but compared to any popular approach and a famous UPA poster, we used about 20% of the recommended tools and studies. We assumed that users don’t benefit from poster unicorn processes. Users benefit from the hard work of a product team; therefore, a simplified process is better than a robust unactionable theory.

UPA UCD Poster1
Designing the user experience. (Large version2)

Suddenly, I started to wonder how others managed to apply UCD. There’s a lot of talk about wireframes3, but what does our work look like beyond wireframes? Was I the only one with a simplified approach? What can we do to create successful designs? What does the process beyond “the poster” look like? Is there a pattern that works well for the majority of designers?

The Reason For Research Link

Luckily enough, I was about to find some answers to my questions about the design process. I was forced to perform a worldwide reality check on my opinion about the classic UCD approach and design processes. Sharing this reality check is the raison d’être of this article.

  • If you’re fresh in the UX design world, learning how more experienced designers work might be useful.
  • If you’re a seasoned designer, treat this article as an incentive to reconsider your approach to design. We’re all rushing our designs every day. This is the time to take a breath, see what others are doing and think about what works and what doesn’t work in our real-life approach — beyond a UCD poster.

You may wonder what force persuaded me to revise my approach to the design process. The answer is simple: my own startup. Together with my friends, we created paper prototyping notepads to make our process more efficient, and then we created our own collaborative wireframing application. We suddenly became quite popular, took VC investment and decided to face the challenge: to create a user experience design toolset to support teamwork in the design process.

We felt that we were trying to fight Godzilla (or Tywin Lannister, if you prefer Game of Thrones to old Japanese movies). If my UX teams couldn’t apply a classic UCD approach, how could I be sure that using any theoretical framework would enable me to design a toolset that fits anyone’s real-life process? I couldn’t. Is there any pattern in design processes that we actually apply in our companies? I had no idea.

We felt that we needed to find out the truth about real-life design processes and we needed it now. It appeared to us that our research might be of vast importance to the community and even beyond. A simple equation: a great tool for the design process equals less work for designers on the tools side, equals more time for creative work, equals better designs for all of us.

The stakes were great, and there was just one right thing to do: get out of the building, get our hands dirty with research, find out and learn about the real-life design process (if it exists), and literally hunt out pain points in it to make the work of our team much easier and more pleasurable. We packed our stuff and crossed the great pond, so to speak, to do some serious research in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Read on if you want to know what we found out about the design process!

The Customer Development Process And Tons of Individual In-Depth Interviews Link

The life of a modern startup is full of UX design work, even if the founders don’t realize it. Drake Martinet (Wall Street Journal, Stanford University) considers the whole lean startup movement to be a mere application of design principles to the business environment. I couldn’t agree more.

When starting a new project, you actually need to talk to people from your target group. Here comes what are well known as IDIs (individual in-depth interviews): moderated, individual interviews in which you try to learn as much as you can about the problems of your interlocutor in a particular area of their life.

Our target group was user experience designers, so we scheduled above 50 interviews (personally and via Skype). Each focused on the same theme: the real-life UX design process. We asked designers to tell us stories of their usual process based on one of their projects. During the interviews, we asked a ton of in-depth questions to learn as much as we could about the process.

We hardly asked about problems in the design process, though — we tried to spot them in the stories on our own and then confirm our judgment by asking questions (for example, “I understand that X was troublesome in this particular project?”). We tried as hard as possible not to push any views onto our interlocutors. Letting them speak was important.

We interviewed UX heroes Mike Kuniavsky, Indi Young, Luke Wroblewski, Peter Merholz, Brandon Schauer, Jeffrey Kalmikoff and John Zeratsky and some lesser-known but excellent UX designers. Among our interlocutors were in-house UX designers, designers from consultancies and freelancers. Surprisingly enough, the problems that usually trouble UX designers were similar in all three groups.

It was an intense learning experience, and I highly recommend considering such preliminary research in every project. It will give you a ton of ready-to-use knowledge — a kind of canvas to work from.

The Process That Emerged From Designers’ Stories Link

First of all, we didn’t find any unicorns, but we did find racehorses in excellent condition. While all of the processes that emerged from the stories were somehow simplified UCD processes, they were tailored to the specialities of the designers. Flexibility is what helps us survive in the diverse jungle of projects. Processes morph to fit projects.

The approach to an e-commerce website differs from the way we design mobile apps in the healthcare industry (guess where context analysis matters most?), and government clients differ from corporate stakeholders and startup entrepreneurs, and so on. With few exceptions, though, the process looks surprisingly similar. There is a visible pattern that we all use to design interfaces in different environments:

1. Collecting Information About the Problem Link

Every UX designer needs to be a kind of detective in the early stage of a project. We need to find out as much as we can about the three Ps (people, problem, project). Activities in this stage, in contrast with the classic UCD approach, are vastly simplified:

  • Meeting with the client (no matter whether externally or internally) and identifying the product’s requirements (often in the form of a standardized product requirement document);
  • Benchmarking and trend analysis (oh yes, most of the designers we interviewed do that).

We seldom perform user interviews, but writing user stories is one of the commonly accepted attachments to the product requirement document. Our user stories are sometimes created based on personas, which are hardly ever backed up with data. Field studies and task analysis are hardly used by any of the designers we interviewed.

2. Getting Ready to Design Link

This is clearly the ideation part of the process. It’s completely conquered by analog tools. I haven’t met a single designer who doesn’t use quick messy sketching or some other paper prototyping form at the early stage of a design process!

Designers try to act on the material gathered in the first step of the process and find a design worth refining. This stage is not about documenting; it’s about artistic fury and creative explosion. Many of us use Adaptive Path’s multipage templates4 to quickly create very generic sketches.

Unfortunately, testing lo-fi prototypes is not popular. We prefer to take the risk of choosing one option with a stakeholder and begin the refinement process. Not very UCD-like, but that is the reality.

3. Design Link

In contrast to the anti-documentation agile approach, most of the interviewed designers create wireframes and prototypes to document the experience and then hand them to the developers.

Refined sketches from the previous stage are still rather lo-fi and are usually not tested. Hi-fi design is left for visual designers. In Aristotelian terms, we create the form, while developers and visual designers fight to create the matter. Heuristic evaluation is definitely out of fashion, while expert review backed up with a cognitive walkthrough is quite popular.

4. Approval Link

This is surprisingly an important part of the design process. Research documents and deliverables usually also serve as persuading factors in the “buy-in” process. This does not differ between in-house UX designers, freelancers and folks from consultancies.

Buy-in is the unfortunate peak of our process. None of us want to see our work go directly to the trash, and I’ve seen some great projects rejected just because the story behind the design process wasn’t particularly persuasive.

And guess what? A lot of the interviewed designers actually create a special presentation to tell stakeholders the design story. The presentations show stages of the process, deliverables and interactions, and they aim to give stakeholders lazy access to all of the information.

The four points mentioned above form a pattern visible in the majority of design processes that we went through with our interlocutors. You might have noticed that not a lot of iterative research is done in these processes. Sadly, the classic usability study is not a permanent part of the process. Why? The answer is simple: budgets are tight. Problems that appeared in the company that I used to work for appeared to be common. Tight budgets are forcing UX designers to tailor their processes and skip costly research.

I believe the best answer to this problem is guerrilla research methods. Startups do adapt guerrilla research as a part of the customer development process, but more “mature” companies, in my opinion, are strangely afraid of spontaneous and methodologically questionable yet efficient and cheap research methods. One of the challenges of the UX design community in the coming years will be the popularization of guerrilla research methods and bringing them into our real-life design processes.

Houston, We Have Several Recurring Problems Link

During our research, we tried to spot recurring problems in the design processes of our interlocutors — a so-called pattern of pain. Surprisingly enough, similar problems appeared in almost all individual interviews. Apparently, a lot of us live arm in arm with three tough unresolved problems that tend to slow us down:

  1. Spreading an understanding of the design process
    How to engage the whole team in the process and show them that UX designers are not people who lack talent in visual design yet still insist on drawing something? How to teach that there’s user experience beyond wireframes?
  2. Communication within the team
    How to communicate with a team throughout the process and actually use different perspectives of teammates to evaluate design deliverables?
  3. Demonstrating the process to get buy-in
    How to present the design process to stakeholders and developers to actually get buy-in, both formally and psychologically?


One of the UX designers we interviewed said the following:

Do you know what the most painful thing is in my job? Bureaucracy. Having to go to meetings. I would rather design than fight over the picky details. We should make at least part of the workflow online instead of in person. Have the approval process online, instead of in a meeting.

Another said this:

It’s really hard to show the process to clients and spread some understanding of the importance of design.

We have probably all tried to solve these problems countless times, but we still lack efficient and fast methods. This results in less time for creative work and research.

My hypothesis is this. We as UX designers need to resolve the three painful problems identified above to have more time for creative work and research. We need to demonstrate our work beyond wireframes, spread understanding of UX design and, in fact, sell ourselves both internally (within the product team) and externally (outside the product team, in front of clients and stakeholders). This is the recipe to increase our effectiveness.

Our real-life UX processes need adjustment, and since we share the pattern of the process and the pain points, we can solve them together. This is most likely the most positive outcome of this research.

Outcome Of The Research Link

The research shows that UX designers are constantly modifying the classic and complex UCD approach. Less emphasis on iterative usability studies and a narrower range of design activities (compared to classic UCD) are the main traits of the current real-life design process that have emerged from our research.

A process tailored to the capabilities of our companies and our clients proved to be generally effective, but it still causes some recurring troubles that should be eliminated.

This is, generally speaking, the state of our field. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t mean to criticize classic UCD — it still serves as an inspiration for our work. After all, I’m happy that I worked in that office with “shame” hanging above my head (yes, I mean the UCD poster), which constantly reminds me of the need for adjustment in the process. I’ve learned that what matters, though, is an actionable process — possible to use, adapted to the company’s culture and financially effective.

After talking with dozens of UX designers, I’ve started to wonder, however, whether we should actually create a poster that shows this version of the process. It could help a lot of aspiring UX designers take their first steps in the field and could be effective as an educational tool for our internal and external clients.

After all, our work is not nearly as expensive and time-consuming as the old poster says.

P.S. A study of the process and the problems spotted in it inspired us to create “The UX Design System” — it’s a work in progress, and I’d love to hear your feedback.

Further Resources Link

Front page image: Image credits go to the Wireframes website10.


Footnotes Link

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Marcin Treder is a design enthusiast that literally lives for creating the best user experience possible. After years working as a UX Designer and UX Manager he focused on his own start-up UXPin that provides tools for UX Designers all over the world. UXPin tools are used by designers in companies like Google, Apple, Microsoft, IBM, Salesforce. UXPin was recently voted the best start-up in Central and Eastern Europe. Marcin enjoys writing (e.g. for UXMag, DesignModo, SpeckyBoy...), blogging (Blog UXPin, UXAid, Startup Pirate) and tweeting (@uxpin, @marcintreder).

  1. 1

    Wendell Fernandes

    August 29, 2012 5:36 am

    User experience is heavily related to the emotions it conveys to users/visitors. One of the things I have found out about the process of UX, is the important fact that ultimately UX should begin from within the organization. It’s imperative teams work well together and process it all cohesively. It’s clear that nowadays, UX has become what it should not, that is the train carts, instead of the locomotive force which pulls, drives and guides. UX and its process has to begin from within, relationships, interaction between teams, and this great experience, will drive the experience from our visitors and users.

    • 2

      Marcin Treder

      August 30, 2012 4:41 am

      Couldn’t agree more! Thanks for wise words Wendell!

    • 3

      Anders Schmidt Hansen

      August 30, 2012 11:07 pm

      I second this completely. And to elaborate on this comment in combination with Marcin’s excellent article, you would be surprised how this “unicorn process” is still heavily preferred at my university. Which stands in stark contrast to the fact that actual UX companies make their living in offices just next door to our classrooms. If I didn’t have articles like Marcin’s here to keep my mind up to date on this subject (even though I admit to find myself doing more a mix between visual design and front-end development spiced up with UX work), I would be years behind.

      So thanks for a great article and for doing some real-life research on this matter.

  2. 4

    Vigneshwar Raj

    August 29, 2012 6:27 am

    I like the way you presented the UX Design Process! Its Great!

    “User Experience” is like culture, it changes. The way we dress, communicate and the way we analyse the subject, it changes. Better UX should come with deep study of where we are and what we need right now! Common sense is the key to design a better user experience, no posters needed. :-)

  3. 6

    I definitely agree with everything. Thanks for this article.
    I think that UX is very near to Product management but often it is seen as mere interface design (and also confused with graphic design and front end development). For this reason, people in the team and external stakeholders expect something different from us. Sometimes they feel confused in front of a set of low resolution wireframes or in front of storytelling scenarios and storyboards (few days ago somebody asked me what I was doing with the coloured pencils!). They also don’t expect the design of new features (sometimes grabbed from lateral contexts of use).
    In my experience, showing a design is similar to sell the idea to somebody (it may be a client, your project manager or the developers). The success of this ‘selling’ depends on the story behind and on how this story is told.
    Sharing too many technical information about the design (such as IA, interaction flow and so on) may be confusing for them. At least at the start. They want to see what happens and/or how it affects the market/users/their interests.
    Sometimes I feel that showing the idea is harder than the design itself.

    About the classic UCD, I guess it is good to continue to keep the old poster. It is a inspiration and also a reference. The higher you aim, the higher you’ll hit. So hopefully, this is the method we aspire to follow. In reality… well, we know! Sometimes we use a technique and sometimes we use another one. Depends on the context, on the possibilities and on the environment. The classic UCD is a good reference of all the possible available techniques we can use in different contexts. It is our treasure box. When we need it, we open the box and we get the most appropriate tool.
    Spreading the awareness of this flexibility is a good idea though ( and a good help for the young designers’ mental health!)

    • 7

      Marcin Treder

      August 30, 2012 4:49 am

      “Sometimes I feel that showing the idea is harder than the design itself.”

      Agree! Sometimes it is! The important thing to remember is that designer’s work doesn’t end up on preparing documents and sketches. It’s all about communication with the team and…making the design happen.

      Thanks for the kind words!

  4. 8

    Excellent findings and great knowledge to spread around. Thanks for sharing!

    From a pain point problem, communicating the need for UX becomes easier when one has a holistic view of all areas that will be implementing the UX. So putting the UX in terms that visual designers and developers can understand vs. just handing them the product, is key.

  5. 9

    This is very surprising, “We seldom perform user interviews, but writing user stories is one of the commonly accepted attachments to the product requirement document. Our user stories are sometimes created based on personas, which are hardly ever backed up with data. Field studies and task analysis are hardly used by any of the designers we interviewed.”

    User centred design but you are reporting not performing user interviews and personas which are hardly ever backed up with data? Field studies hardly used. How can this be user centred design?

    • 10

      Marcin Treder

      August 30, 2012 4:58 am

      This is the finding and I agree it’s quite far from the classic approach towards UCD.

      Either so designers that I interviewed are of absolutely top class and they create well performing products.

      I’d say that designer’s work should be judged by the final result (a product and its performance) rather than methodological approach.

      • 11

        You talk about research ‘findings’. Can you tell us more about your research method? Your sampling for example? You state that, “many of us use Adaptive Path’s multipage templates” and you list quite a handful of designers who have come from Adaptive Path amongst those you interviewed, so I can see why they might use Adaptive Path templates.

        It is very strange in this day and age to talk about a ‘classic approach to UCD’ and contrasting it with a more modern approach which involves no UC at all in the D !

  6. 12

    Thanks for outlining the results of your research! I’ve always wondered if I was skipping research and analysis steps to meet tight deadlines and budgets because of some shortcoming in my communication skills, or if this sort of practice was common. It’s good to know that I’m in good company!

    It’s definitely tough to convince our project owners to invest a little extra time in the UX process, but we’ve learned to make do as well. It’s all about leaner deliverables early on in the process (Style tiles/wireframes/charts instead of functional prototypes/hi-fi mockups).

  7. 13

    stakeholder report on creating stakeholder reports.
    like it.

  8. 14

    Sebastien Paris

    August 29, 2012 6:45 am

    Is that me or what. For a Webzine on UI-UX, this site is loaded of Ads and visuals distractions, yet we have to search to find the Share functions…

    • 15

      No kidding. At the top of the article my eyes were assaulted with six columns.

      10% 12% 24% 24% 15% 15%
      nav nav content add add add

      and the content column wan only 28 characters wide. <- why do I come here for design advice ?

      Also, who voted down your comment? My bet, someone that works at smashing.

      • 16

        The writer of this article has nothing to do with the UI elements you criticize. Send your feedback via appropriate channels, and write about the article in this comment thread. Thanks for your understanding!

    • 17

      You are not alone. I also spent time finding the share function…

    • 18

      You should try “Clearly”, a great chrome plugin by the creators of evernote. It takes away all distractions and lets you read the actual content that matters!

    • 19


      July 17, 2013 11:23 pm

      For me it’s okay. The obvious padding between article and navs/ads gives my eyes focus on the article.

  9. 20

    “We seldom perform user interviews, but writing user stories is one of the commonly accepted attachments to the product requirement document. Our user stories are sometimes created based on personas, which are hardly ever backed up with data. Field studies and task analysis are hardly used by any of the designers we interviewed.”

    Why is that?

  10. 21

    Aman Anderson

    August 29, 2012 1:15 pm

    Investing in UX has such a high ROI that more and more companies should value every word from a UX designer. It’s a field that seems to require a ton of patience and willingness to meet people where they are. It’s like being a medical doctor to ‘injured’ websites.

  11. 22

    Just as from manufacturing age to marketing age(age of plenty)…
    UX is also just a demand of time, no matter what difference in opinion ,it can’t substitute the power of visual design or the right brained developer.
    I think the UX can be implemented easily by visual designer as it would require only some amount of common sense , just a mix of psychology and marketing that’s all..
    Its reality that its just need seeking and goal matching procedure and nothing beyond.
    Its just a Bubble about to burst.

    • 23

      I don’t think so. For me, UX is more closer to software engineering.

      If you’re working with websites only, then the visual design and ux could be mixed, that’s fine, especially if the site is small.

      But when it comes to huge internal applications, grids, alignments, proportions are secondary, and the tasks within the application and the paths to execute those tasks becomes primary.

      I think UX is different exactly in what cannot be displayed on one page.

      It’s true, a lot of things are just shiny. I don’t like shiny designs. And I especially don’t like shiny interactions, they’re usually hard to learn (or in UX-speak: their affordance is low).

      That said, most design activities have something in common: mechanics or architecture doesn’t really differ from software engineering just in its tools, software engineering doesn’t differ from UX but it has a bit of different viewpoint perhaps, and UX doesn’t differ from architecture.

      I think it’s more a question of emphasis: UX brings its emphasis more on the user, while graphics design brings emphasis more on the visuals. It’s a bit more about the personality of the creator, than the task at hand, albeit not all tasks match the creator well.

  12. 24

    A welcome bit of investigation and commentary. Two things:
    1. A theory is an explanation of a phenomenon. A hypothesis is a testable element of the theory. The results of the tests are evidence that might validate or invalidate (not prove or disprove) the theory.

    THEORY: “We have observed X. We think X is happening because Y.” [Y is the theory.]

    HYPOTHESIS: “If THEORY Y is a valid explanation of X, we would expect to see Z condition (behavior, attitudes, etc.). [Z is the hypothesis.] Z condition has different parts and motivations – A, B, & C. We shall test A, B & C. If the overall Hypothesis Z is valid, then Theory Y might be a true explanation of X.”

    These tests can be in the form of expert reviews, putting prototypes in the field, in the lab, or directly into the market. Just be ready to measure the before and after results and be ready to keep, modify, or trash the hypothesis. Meanwhile, keep returning the theory – is the original explanation holding up?

    2. Dropping heuristic evaluations parallels the seeming decline of rigorous and dogged usability testing. Expert review with a cognitive walk-through suits our new leaner UX sensibilities.

  13. 25

    Hmm, SM is eating my comment!

    Here it is as a link:

  14. 26

    4 years have passed since i graduated the design school, and more than 8 since my very first contact with articles and discussion about design barriers, and it is always the same depressing arguments, i thought it was a problem only on my country(Brazil) but, after reading design old articles from bauhaus, 60´s and 70´s, the point is always the same:
    “nobody care about us but we gonna save the day, but we just don’t know how”

    Today reading stuff like this just make me depressed. I kinda ignore this topics and go on,i´m not a millionaire or earn as much as my medic does, but i have a good career growth perspective.
    Whats the problem with designers nowdays? will designers ever smile someday?
    just accept we are not superheroes and we have a job just like other normal people does.

  15. 27

    Great article!

  16. 28

    How nice to see you Marcin on SM :) Really nice article. I always enjoy your presentations too ;) Greetings!

  17. 29

    Appreciate the research and findings.

    Recurring theme of your article is desire for more “time for creative work and research.”

    Maybe I mis-read, but it sounds like wanting to get [close to] right design the first time. There is another approach to save time: “fail fast.”

    Admit before beginning the practical impossibility of starting with a good design. Create a bad one quickly, then just fix the worst parts based on critique (rather than “surprisingly … important” approval). Then more critique … rinse & repeat until the clock has expired.

    Remember the goal is not creative work and research, the goal is a highly usable product. Research in tiny bits (just to fix a couple of the worst parts) rather than big chunks doesn’t consume big blocks of time. Creative work is still 99% perspiration.

  18. 30

    Bardzo interesujacy artykul, dzieki za info!

  19. 31

    Thanks for shining a light on reality, when so much writing talks about ideals.

    I agree that lean usability methods are long overdue for another reason than budget. I’ve seen plenty of money for formal testing but most formal testing occurs too late in the process and is too clunky and unusable. The true benefit of lean usability is continuous usability starting earlier in the process.

  20. 32

    your aproach towards the ux is straight, clear. I like it!


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