UX: The art and science of problem solving

User Experience is brought to life by an interface. But the core of UX has less to do with pixels and more to do with finding and solving a human problem.

Josh Smith

By Josh Smith, 7 minute read

User Experience design often brings to mind workshops, research methodologies and wireframes. These are some of the tools and outputs of UX design, but they do not get to the heart of what it is. UX is about understanding a human need to be met or a problem to be solved, then formulating solutions based on how people think, act, perceive the world, and make judgments about it. 

A user experience is any interaction a person has with a product or service. UX design considers how each and every element shapes this experience. The most challenging aspect of UX is that humans are not necessarily logical, consistent and predictable in the way they see things, the judgments they make, and the things they want. That’s why UX design is both an art and a science. And, why it attracts professionals from a wide variety of backgrounds including psychology, sociology – even law. In fact, despite the name of the profession, many UX designers do not come from a design background at all. 

The goal of UX is to create easy, efficient and positive experiences

The core of UX design is a humanist, organic one. A UX designer is primarily concerned with the human puzzle to be solved and how to overcome the design challenge within technical and business constraints. The puzzle could be how to make a loan application process more efficient or how to design an app that’s easy and fun to use. These aren’t questions a user can be asked directly. Users generally don’t have the expertise to design and optimise a product themselves. 

Understanding how people work means understanding all the differences as well as similarities between how individuals perceive their world. It’s the UX designer’s job to find out how users understand their problems and needs, and what they will find appealing and helpful. And that process is not necessarily straightforward because the human mind is not as easy to understand or predictable as you may think! Here’s why.

Mental models

Mental models are internal representations we all carry around about how the external world works. We use mental models to make sense of new information that comes our way based on past experiences (and our judgment of those experiences). Mental models help us to reason, form judgments and make decisions. Because mental models are built over time based on individual experiences, each person’s mental model will be slightly different. This makes things tricky for UX designers because mental models mean different people will have a unique understanding and draw different conclusions – even given the same information or products. So how does a UX specialist use mental models to create and optimise the user experience? There are two key ways.

The first is to find commonalities and themes between individual mental models which point to a solution that will be the most helpful and positive for the audience you’re looking to serve.. The tools we have to do this are research and testing. Research is about finding similarities through investigation, inquiry and observation. Testing is about making assumptions or using the insights from research to create solutions, then observing the quality of the experience people have during their interactions with it. The ultimate goal is to identify and work with the common features across individual mental models.

The second pathway for UX designers is to use mental models to create shortcuts in the design process based on shared real-world norms and conditioning. This is often about matching virtual products to real-world solutions. For example, we all have a similar experience in real life when we press a button. We understand how to use it and that it will lead to an effect. That’s why buttons, levers and sliders are so common in digital applications. You don’t need to teach people how to use them because they are already so well, and broadly, understood. Affordance is a big word in UX and it means something that has been designed to afford a person the ability to do something (such as scissors – they afford a grip and motion that makes cutting paper feel natural). This is an example of how mental models can point to powerful solutions when they are used to identify shared representations and understandings about the world that can be translated into digital products.

Cognitive biases

If mental models are the internal lenses through which people see the external world, biases are the shortcuts they take to simplify it. Reality is complex and the mind is always trying to find ways to make a person’s understanding of the world easier. It’s trying to be lazy and conserve energy. A bias is a strong, inflexible notion we have formed about someone or something based on our subjective way of thinking (instead of objective reality). Biases can feel good because they help us see the world in more simple, black and white terms. Unfortunately, they usually run counter to reality and can actually make things more complicated, rather than simpler, for people. Every single one of us, despite our education, intellectual dedication and best intentions, is susceptible to biases. 

Some of the most common biases are Confirmation Bias and the Dunning-Kruger Effect (though there are many more). Confirmation Bias is the tendency people have to seek out and believe information that already supports their point of view. Changing one’s mind about a long-held belief can be a difficult and even painful process for humans. So we tend to actively ignore, dismiss or even attack information that goes against what we already think and cling to any information that supports it (even if the information is questionable). This is an extremely common flaw in human reasoning.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect can basically be summed up as people not knowing what they don’t know (and not wanting to find out). In a complex world, feeling like a complex subject is actually really simple can be very comforting, because our brains have reduced a complicated subject into a simplistic understanding. This bias reduces curiosity and makes us resistant to learning. It also makes us highly prone to making mistakes.

For UX designers, biases mean we should expect irrational human behaviour, and ensure it is accounted for. Because people look for ways to simplify their world and for the path of least resistance, this knowledge is something UX specialists can use to design experiences that feel intuitive and natural to users. Understanding – and accounting for – unconscious cognitive bias can actually make the design process clearer because it allows for how humans actually think, not how we might think they should.

Aesthetics

Aesthetics encompasses things like colour, balance, scale, shape, pattern, movement and visual weight. Aesthetics also includes things like voice design – think of Alexa and Siri. Yet to a UX designer, aesthetics is much more than how visually (or audibly) pleasing a solution is. Aesthetics extends to an understanding of translating real-world experiences into virtual ones.

For example, UX designers borrow from the world of industrial design to develop solutions that feel familiar and comfortable. When you click on a well-designed digital object, it should feel solid and trustworthy. That’s because interacting virtually with a button that ‘feels’ similar activates the same pathways in the brain as if you were pressing a button in real life. And that’s a very powerful tool UX designers can use to communicate a lot of important information to a user instantly. 

Another example of how UX can guide aesthetic design decisions includes implementing common human gestures. Did you know that when people swipe left or right on a popular dating app, they are actually making the thumbs up and thumbs down gesture? Even if people aren't consciously aware of this, the action still feels very natural and familiar to them. Incorporating expected directionality (e.g. right = progression, completion and positivity) and commonly understood visual symbols, such as hearts, stars and pluses, into design is another aesthetic tool that UX specialists can use in order to communicate information easily.

Bringing it all together

UX design is a science because it is grounded in proven principles about how people think and act. However, it is also an art because the application of these principles relies on the observations, understanding and skills of the UX designer to convert insight into easy, efficient and positive experiences for humans. This is not always straightforward because the human mind is complex, often irrational and hard to predict. 

The mental models and cognitive biases individuals carry can make it difficult to solve problems in a way which is optimal for all people. However, understanding how mental models and cognitive biases work helps UX designers not only understand differences but find and utilise the commonalities between people. Aesthetics is also an area rich with common understanding and symbolism that UX designers can use to create solutions that not only look appealing but feel safe, easy, trustworthy and intuitive.

At its heart, User Experience design is about understanding and embracing all the things that make us human. And using that knowledge to make the world a little better, easier and brighter for all of us.