5 Fundamental UX Design Concepts to Improve Discoverability & Usability

UX design refers to the overall experience that a person gets from using a product. This is different than UI design, which is an aspect of the user experience (UX) that specifically involves the design of the visual interface.

Two critical aspects of UX design are discoverability and usability. Discoverability refers to the process of learning about a produce and understanding how to use it and what it is used for. Five fundamental concepts can be used to properly explain discoverability and its application to user experience.


1. Affordances


An affordance, simply put, is what a product is used for. A chair affords sitting; Uber affords car rides. Visibility is crucial to an affordance. If your app allows you to instantly order a pizza, it needs to be obvious to the user that they can do that. If the affordance of your app is not clearly visible, then your user will never realize that they can order pizza, which renders your app useless.

However, products also have anti-affordances: actions it cannot be used for. To be effective, anti-affordances must be easily perceivable. For example, glass offers the affordance of transparency and support, but offers the anti-affordance of allowing objects to pass through it. This is why birds often fly into glass windows. A signifier is necessary to identity an anti-affordance: the signifier makes the anti-affordance perceivable. Putting window clings or a sign on a glass door would act as a signifier.


2. Signifiers


A signifier communicates what the affordances of a product are. If you slide your finger across the screen to answer your phone, this needs to be clear to the user. In addition to these intentional signifiers, unintentional signifiers exist: signs that you did not intend to produce that the user interprets as signs. For example, if you have an arrow pointing down to signify that the user should scroll, they may incorrectly interpret the arrow as a button and try to tap or click it. Be aware of what users interpret when they test your app, and actively work to reduce confusion and make signifiers as clear as possible.


3. Mapping


Mapping refers to the relationship between the elements of two sets of things. For example, if you have an iPad magazine with multiple stories, swiping right and left (signified by arrows) might switch among stories, while swiping up and down (signified by the words “swipe down to read more”) would allow the user to read more of an individual story. When determining how to lay out the interface to incorporate these interactions, one must use mapping. Straightforward mapping is the goal: it should be obvious on a page what features can be tapped, moved, zoomed in on, etc., and the location of these signifiers on the page (mapping) should make sense. If you swipe right and left to go among stories, these arrows should be on the far right and left of the page. Putting the arrows somewhere else on the page can cause confusion; if you put right and left arrows under a photo, the user will think the arrows signify a photo slideshow, not the ability to read the next story.


4. Feedback


Communicating with the user is crucial, and when the user makes a request, they must receive an indication that their request was noted. Imagine if you turned off your device, and instead of seeing a screen that said “Shutting down; please wait,” nothing happened. You would assume you did not press the button hard enough and try to turn it off again and again. User feedback is essential. With that being said, avoid using too much feedback, as that will become annoying for the user. Feedback must also be prioritized; minor actions should receive less obvious and continuous feedback than major actions. Imagine a phone on vibrate: a long vibrate means a phone call, which is very important, whereas a short vibrate signals a text or email notification. If all interactions used a long vibrate, the user would be confused and annoyed.


5. Conceptual Models


A conceptual model explains how something works. This is usually highly simplified. Consider the desktop on your computer: obviously there is much more to an operating system than those 20 icons, but most users do not wish to know or understand the inner workings of their laptop—they just want to open the programs they need. Most users understand their devices based on perceived structures presented to them. Making these structures easy to understand is essential.

These five aspects of discoverability and usability combine together to create an effective interface that a user can easily understand and interact with. All five components are necessary to have a great product, and when these five elements are properly used, the end result leave the user feeling satisfied and rewarded.