Know Your UX Terms: Common Words and Acronyms in User Experience Design


This is a guest post by Amber Stechyshyn, UX Designer and Content Fellow at Springboard.

When starting out in a new field, one of the first things to adjust to is all the new terminology.  Job applications are full of them, networking event attendees use them casually, and many articles assume that you know exactly what they are. Glossaries and online searches can be useful, but some use dense language and aren’t easily understood.  Knowing these UX terms are essential, so we have compiled a list of some of the most common terms and concepts that you’ll run across, from events to job applications and from books to pitches. We have also linked to some related resources on the subject.

Affordance: How well an object’s purpose can be understood from its design. A common example – how do you know whether you should push or pull a door to get through? The following image shows that the door handle lacks clear affordances, so the store owners had to use a workaround (the sticker of a man) to show people to push instead of pull. 


Example of affordance

Agile: Originally used just for software development, the term has extended into other fields such as UX. Agile is a set of principles that focuses on simplifying processes, constant creation and user feedback on products, close cooperation between different teams and departments, and rapid prototyping. This is in contrast to the Waterfall technique, which divides analysis, design, coding, and testing into separate phases of a software project. Not every team that you come across will be Agile, but someone may ask if you have experience with Agile teams at some point in your job hunt.

A/B Testing: An experiment in which you take two versions of your product, and present them side by side to a group of users, to see which one the users likes more. This type of testing is used once a decent working model of the product- such as a Prototype or MVP– has been made and you have begun User Testing. Also known as Split Testing.

Card Sorting: Using cards or sticky notes to design, reorganize, or evaluate ideas into different categories. It is also commonly used to decide the order of pages or screens for an app or website, creating a physical Sitemap. This technique can be done with a group or one person.  


(courtesy of Rosenfeld Media)

Card sorting could be used to decide whether the user’s profile page should be under the Home menu, or whether it deserves its own menu.

Color Theory: The use of color both for aesthetic and psychological purposes.  Understanding color theory allows us to understand which colors are complementary to one another, how contrast works, and how certain colors elicit a particular emotion in users.

Content Strategy: This is a process that writers and content producers use to increase the likelihood of their content being shared and remaining popular. It involves understanding the audience, which mediums to use, timing, and tone. There is significant focus on why and how you are creating content.

Empathy Maps: A document with several sections, representing different parts of the user’s mind: How do they think/feel? What do they see/hear (or influences)? What are their tasks? What are their overall goals? What are their Pain Points? Empathy maps are used as a quick way to understand a user’s needs and issues.

HCI (Human Computer Interaction): An area of research and education that focuses on the design and use of technologies by humans. While it started as a branch of Computer Science, it also ties in with Human Factors Engineering and Cognitive Sciences.  Although they are different fields, UX practitioners can learn from HCI researchers and vice versa.

IA (Information Architecture): The art of organizing information on a website, database, app, or intranet. This is where sitemaps, menus, navigation, and Interface Designer: While user experience designers focus on the users and the overall feel of the app or site, interface designers get into the specific details of how those interactions will work- designing elements, choosing particular animations for buttons or images, and aligning the visual elements with what the user experience designers have planned out ahead of time.  Quite often, user experience designers and interface designers are combined into one job, depending on the size of the organization.

KWHL Chart: One of the first steps to figuring out how to organize any research you conduct on your users. There are four categories- K: what you know; W: what you don’t know; H: how you’ll figure it out; and L: what you hope to learn.


Example of a KWHL chart (courtesy of Springboard)

Lean: In UX, Lean is a process that focuses on constant collaboration with other departments right from the start, creating quick MVPs based on assumptions about the users, and very quick and dirty user research. Lean focuses on getting products out the door as quickly as possible so that UX designers can get feedback from real users ASAP.

Low/High Fidelity: These terms are used to describe either Wireframes or Prototypes. Low-fidelity is simple, focuses on functionality, and are quick to create. High-fidelity versions contain most visual design elements, show off interactions and functionality, and typically communicate more information to the client or other departments. Most projects will either use both or go directly to high-fidelity.

MVP (Minimum Viable Product): Not to be confused with a prototype, this is a version of the product that has the minimum amount of features (or only certain features) so that it can be handed over to test users or stakeholders. This allows for more detailed and elaborate testing of hypotheses without having to build the entire project.

Pain Points: These are issues or complaints that a user has about a problem or an existing product that the UX team needs to solve.

Personas: A human representation of a group of users that share similar needs, pain points, understanding of technology, and behaviours.  There will typically be more than one POEMS (People, Objects, Environment, Messages, Services): Is a research framework developed by Kumar and Whitney.  According to the creators themselves,”The POEMS framework helps researchers tag video observations of user interactions by giving them lists of words in five categories.” If one is observing an elderly woman trying to use an email app using the POEMS framework, one would write under People ‘woman in late 60’s’ and in Objects “email phone app”, “used glasses”, “had trouble with buttons”, while one might write while observing a young black man, “prefers casual language” under Messages, “appeared uncomfortable in the testing room” under Environment, and “really likes the Listen Now feature” under Services.

Prototype: A demo version of an app or product which can be used for testing, presenting to other departments and stakeholders, and bug checking. It does not have full functionality, and may use stand-in images or fake user profiles to show how certain features work.

Responsive Design: Typically used in web design, but can apply to any app that could be viewed or used across multiple devices, it is built-in response to the user’s behavior and environment based on screen size, platform and orientation.  It allows someone to move from mobile to desktop to tablet, without losing any functionality or important information from each page or screen, and therefore removing the need for separate mobile sites.

Sitemap: A chart or list that shows where and how pages are organized on a website or app.

Scrum: This is another methodology from software development that involves very close collaboration between all members of a development team. At the beginning of each sprint (the name for the chunk of work timeline), the team discusses what needs to be completed, what is held over from the last sprint, what work takes priority, and what goals this work should accomplish.  While not directly a UX term, many UX-friendly businesses use the scrum method in their offices.

UCD (User Centred Design): A set of processes that focus on the end user throughout every stage of development and design. This is achieved by constantly testing, researching, and verifying elements within the product.

UI Elements: User Interface Elements are virtual items used to craft an interface: buttons, search fields, message boxes, dropdown lists, etc.  They can typically be found in library sets (collections of elements all made by the same designer or team), so that all the elements match each other, but some user interface designers like to craft their own.

User Flows: This is the path that a user takes to complete a task in your website or app. Different users follow different paths and have different tasks they need to complete, but each one should be designed to flow effortlessly and logically. Planning ahead of time allows UX Designers to see where a user might get stuck, or where there are logic failures.

User Task Analysis: A detailed description of how a user performs certain tasks. This can be observing them use a competitor’s product, an older version of a product, or even a non-virtual version of the task.  The goal is to understand what major steps are involved in the process, where the pain points exist, and which steps are unnecessary and can be removed.

User Journeys: Not to be confused with Task Analysis or User Flows, these are larger stories that explain not just the user making use of the product, but also what lead them to use the product, and how they felt about the product or task after completion.

UX Assets: This refers to all materials needed to create your app or product- images, text, UI Elements, graphics, audio files, databases, etc.  

Wireframe: This is the skeleton of your app or product- no images, no content, no interactive elements. It is a blueprint for where each asset will live on the screen and it makes it easier to organize and redesign how it looks without spending too much time on it.