Why Great UX Starts Between Your Ears (Not on the Screen)

Google the term "UX best practices" right now and you’ll get an endless stream of search results, the majority of which will be focused on tactical activities: UI design trends, how-to design articles, software tools and tutorials, a rehash of basic principles for UX or design or development.

These are all valuable, mind you, but they’re only a small part of what it takes to deliver a successful product–one that provides value to users and, therefore, value back to the business. One that helps people do things quicker, easier, faster, more accurately or more efficiently, in addition to looking good and not causing eye strain.

Great UX isn’t a product of the tools you use, and it isn’t what you build or design on screen. It’s how you think about those things.

Great UX isn’t a product of the tactical work you do; it’s a product of how you decide what tactical work to do. It’s not the decisions you make; it’s how long and hard you think about and arrive at those decisions. It’s not about how content, data or controls look on the screen; it’s about whether those things belong there in the first place.

Great UX

How UX Design Typically Happens (And Why It’s Wrong)

I spend a great deal of time working with design and development teams in enterprise organizations and mid-size companies, and there are some commonalities in the way they begin the process of UX, design, and development.

And before you read this next bit, I want you to understand that I’m not picking on anyone; I absolutely understand why it happens.

Here’s what I see a great deal of:

Why Does This Happen?

There are some very good reasons people take these approaches. In most cases, these courses of action with regards to UX design are symptoms of one or more of these scenarios:

The Answer? Think First. Design Next.

The title of my new book, Think First, reflects my firm belief that strategic thinking is the foundation of great UX. Think First was created on the idea that a little strategic thinking goes a very long way. And that if you think first, you’ll find that the foundations of good UX will be evident in all you do. It’s the most critical part of everything we do as UXers, designers, developers, business analysts, product owners, and so forth. Because if you skip that part, or if you guess at what matters most, you’re likely designing and building something that people either don’t want or can’t use.

So the answer to the problems we’re discussing here is this: Think first. Design next.

Everyone, every member of any team, can and should contribute to great UX.

How? By changing the way they think about what they do during the day. By making sure everyone understands the strategy behind what’s being built. By getting everyone on the team in the habit of questioning what they’re about to do, of asking themselves questions like:

The answers build the foundation of the user experience. And when everyone filters their decisions and activities through that foundation, those daily decisions and activities change. For the better. And when you can’t do anything about unreasonable time and budget constraints, you’ll at least make better use of the time over the target you do have. You’ll be focusing on the important instead of the urgent.

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Joe Natoli is the author of Think First, a no-nonsense approach to creating successful products, memorable user experiences and happy customers. His online UX courses serve over 30,000 students, and he has consulted with and trained Fortune 500 and 100 organizations for nearly three decades. His articles, tips and advice can be found at

This was published on Sep 17, 2015


Corey Malone Sep 18 2015

It’s the thought that counts. UX is not a set of cookie cutter to slice a problem. Good advice for people who are just getting into UX or may have been doing UX without thinking first. Great read!

Kehinde Alabi Sep 18 2015

Joe believe me i used to think UX is a function of how good the interface looks until i read this in your article “Great UX isn’t a product of the tools you use, and it isn’t what you build or design on screen. It’s how you think about those things.” Thank you for this great enlightenment. Also before now i usually face the challenge of how to start UI from scratch but with the wisdom you’ve shared i’ve made up my mind to change my process in order to get a better result. Joe i cannot thank you enough. God bless you real good, amen!

Diana Fanelli-Brennan Sep 18 2015

Great post, Joe! I agree 1000% with “Think First.” My team is constantly prodding me on “what’s taking so long, it’s just a few wireframes.” I have to remind them that part of title includes the word “Analyst,” and I take it very seriously. The “thinking” is the most important component in UX.

Gelis Lara Sep 18 2015

I believe that the design depends on the kind of user. Some people think that flat design is confused, but this is because some designs don’t have a good UX.

Raguram Sep 18 2015

I really enjoyed reading the article. The author has hit the nail on the head by highlighting the most challenging aspects of incorporating UX design into the software development process. I couldn’t agree more. I really look forward to his book “Think First”.

Alice Casari Sep 18 2015

I completely agree with what is written. Many times I have started a project quickly because we was out of time and it’s not good.
This book will help me to improve the quality of my work.
Thanks Joe Natoli!

Suzanne Ankerbrand Sep 19 2015

Joe has hit the nail in the head … again. I can relate to his scenarios on how UX design typically happens and why. I’ve lived it. I’ve seen teams force a web design into a template. The result? A site that no one likes to use! I like the point that you can at least be thinking about UX when budget and time does not allow for proper research and user testing.

You can’t build a house without proper planning and a good, solid, foundation. That’s what thinking first will get you with design and development. A good, solid product.

Duri P. Sep 20 2015

Very inspirational article, give yourself time to read it.

Joe Natoli Sep 20 2015

Just a quick thanks to everyone above for the kind words and thoughtful comments. I’m thrilled to hear this resonated with you, and I hope you found some useful, actionable advice here as well. GIVE GOOD UX!

Adail Retamal Sep 21 2015

Have you been spying on us, Joe? :) That’s exactly what happens most of the time! I’m glad the UX movement is gaining momentum and having experts like Joe to shed some light at the end of the tunnel is really relieving! I can go back to the stakeholders and show them why we face some problems, and what we can do to fix and even prevent them in the future.

This article is an absolute gem – spot on! Will be sharing it with my team and making sure we sit down together and do some more ‘thinking’ before we get started with projects.

Jessica H Oct 04 2015

I enjoyed this thoughtful, fun-to-read post! As a copywriter, my area of expertise is storytelling, and I read Joe’s article with enthusiasm because, like great UX, great copy begins with careful thought and planning. Can’t wait to read “Think First” and have added it to my reading list!

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