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A Design Problem

In this activity, you will construct a solution to a simplified interactive design project in around 2-3 hours.

The solution will take the form of an outline plan that can include a few rough sketches. The plan aims to describe a practical solution that satisfies the requirements of the design. It will explain the sequence of tasks that the user will need to complete in a path towards achieving their goals. The objective is to keep the burden of tasks to the minimum necessary to achieve the goals while also providing a good user experience.

The hand of someone sketching a sequence of interface elements in a wireframe style.

Initial ideas need to be captured, revised and tested with the most flexible tools that you can find. Paper is much easier to recycle than poor decisions that end up in the digital production pipeline. Photo: Kelly Sikkema.

Sample Scenario

A university student in their final year needs to find information on opportunities for progression into employment or further study. Initial research has been conducted and discovered that the user goals are to:

  1. Be aware of all relevant opportunities as they arise
  2. Have sufficient information to make informed choices
  3. Reduce the time spent filtering non-relevant opportunities
  4. Save and recall specific information to allow later review
  5. Share chosen information with others


  1. Understand the problem
    Think of similar problems found in different contexts. Try to develop empathy with the user and think through their situation and the why they would use your solution. Will your design communicate a shared understanding of the problem, instil confidence and function effectively? Remember that the users's aim is progression into employment.

  2. Sketch ideas
    Capture as many ideas as you can by using simple sketches and notes. If you are working in a group then set a target of 8-10 ideas from each person. At the end of half-an-hour review your own ideas or if working with a group, ask each person to spend a minute to explain their best ideas. Choose one or two ideas to go forward to the next stage.

  3. Identify the context
    Think about how, why and where the user will access the solution. Consider the characteristics of the interactive system you plan to use. If you are not completely familiar with the system, then take some time to investigate the types of interaction available. A smartphone for example will generally offer a touch screen, haptic (tactile) feedback, geolocation, motion detection, voice control and audio/video functions for recording and playback.

  4. Consider the context
    An interactive application is made up of functional elements and informational elements. Functional elements need to be recognised by the user as controls or as part of the framework of an application. Informational elements, such as images and text, need to be recognised as passive content that may change but do not work as controls.

    There can be crossover between functional and passive elements. In some situations, an image can also be a control (e.g. to enlarge itself when clicked) and text can also be a control (e.g. acting as a navigation link).

    Make a list of the elements you expect to see in the application and identify them either as functional or informational. Keep an eye on where these elements are used and review their status as functional or informational. Think how the user will understand what type of element they are by the context in which they are found and their appearance.

  5. Architect and structure
    Define the entry point and the interaction options that you are providing for the user. Write down what the user can see and what the user can do. It will help to draw simple boxes representing the interface elements.

    Identify how the user goals are brought closer for the user by following each of the interaction options you have defined. From this point forward, you are constructing the solution and creating the experience. If any of the interactions do not advance the user forward to one or more of their goals, then consider changing or removing it. Take time to reconsider the effectiveness of the goals in helping to meet the aim.

    Draw a map that plots every possible user interaction option and make a connection to the result of choosing that option. Show how the user takes a journey along the path toward achieving their goals. Continue until you have created a solution that appears to offer a route to the achievement all of the user goals.

    Consider the experience of new users of the application. Will they need a different entry point to existing users? What sort of information will the user want to see before continuing with their interaction? Will your design require some initial explanation?

  6. Validate

    Invent a few individual user scenarios like the ones below to test your solution and see how it performs.

    ‘Dave is sitting in a cafe with a friend from his course. At the end of their current courses they both want to progress to a relevant postgraduate course in the USA. They each study different subjects but want to stay within a four-hour drive of each other so that they can meet-up at weekends.’

    ‘Gemma is a student graphic designer and wants to find a graduate-level job in London. She is aware that any opportunities are quickly taken and wants to be alerted to new ones as they arise so that she has the best chance of making a successful application.’

    Is the user able to form a logical mental model of the interaction path that you are designing? How hard is it for the user to undo a simple mistake such as choosing the wrong option or mistyping something?

  7. Iterate
    Review your solution and improve it until you are confident that it works reasonably well for the individual user scenarios that you have invented.

  8. Test
    You now need to make your ideas accessible for others to test. To do this, you will need to convert your notes and sketches into something that a user can recognise and interact with. Activity 12 is designed to help you do this.


If this is your first attempt at designing an interactive application, then this activity is likely to have been revealing and probably quite difficult.

We expect that you were slightly frustrated by the minimal information provided in the problem definition, the lack of detail about the interaction framework, and the difficulty of achieving user goals.

If you think that you need to go back, improve the user research and define the problem more closely before starting to develop solutions, then that is probably true. If you think that you have a better understanding of the problem by attempting to solve it, then that seems likely too.

Activity 12 expands on this activity by taking a design solution through to the prototyping stage. A real project staffed with a UX Design team of perhaps 4-9 people would spend much more than 2-3 hours on a problem like this. To aid the process they may run a Design Sprint; a highly structured and time-limited group activity that continues over a number of consecutive days. Google offer a Design Sprint Kit and more at: https://designsprintkit.withgoogle.com

The Bloomsbury Logo

Allanwood, G & Beare, P (2019)
User Experience Design - A Practical Introduction
ISBN: 9781350021709
(Basics Design Series) Bloomsbury Visual Arts
Cover illustration by Romualdo Faura.

Available at Amazon