A user friendly dictionary of UX terms, phrases and abbreviations

In the week that Samuel Johnson, the 18th century lexicographer who wrote the English language’s most comprehensive dictionary, celebrates his 308th birthday, it’s only right that he is bestowed with two of the greatest honours known in the modern world…

To be given his very own Google Doodle, and to be mentioned off-handedly in the introduction for an online dictionary of UX terms that he could barely fathom in his Georgian-era brain.

Samuel Johnson painting by Joshua Reynolds

“HE SAID WHAT ABOUT ME???”

What would he make of such complex, futuristic ideas as ‘multivariate testing’, ‘wireflows’, ‘conversion rate optimisation’ or ‘actor’. Well okay, that last one he’d technically get right, but he’d be wildly off the mark with ‘quick and dirty’.

So it’s a good job that I’m here to present this comprehensive dictionary of UX terms and phrases, and not the ‘father of the modern dictionary’ because it turns out he’d be rubbish at it.

A super accessible guide to UX terms

The following descriptions are taken from articles found around our site, which I’ve linked to individually below. Where I’ve needed help with definitions, the sources are fully credited and to them I offer my humblest gratitude.

5 second test

A simple usability test in which a participant is shown a webpage for five seconds and is then asked some simple questions around what they can remember – such as, “Who is this site for?” or “What can I do here?” It’s basically to gauge a user’s first impressions and helps to test the focus and clarity of the webpage.

A/B test

A/B testing requires you to use a third-party piece of software that helps you set up two different webpages, where one page has an element that’s slightly altered from the other. For instance, if you can’t decide on the text for a ‘buy’ button, you could use an A/B test to present one version of the button that says ‘add to cart’ to half your traffic, and the other version that says ’buy now’ to the other half of your traffic.

Then you can then see whether or not changing the text of this button has made any difference to the number of people clicking on it.

Actor

When customer journey mapping (see further down the page), the actor is the person who is experiencing the journey. It’s the person you’re focusing on – either they represent your customer base, or it’s someone else you’re interested in researching.

Also there’s the cast, who are the people influencing the actor’s journey – i.e. if the actor is a B2B purchaser, these people could be clients, colleagues or stakeholders.

Card sorting

Card sorting is a test you can run to improve the navigation of your website. Participants are presented with a list of items (for example, all the products featured in an online supermarket) and asked to group them in a way that makes the most logical sense to them.

Depending on the type of card sort, participants can also choose names for the groups they’ve put together, forming the potential categories and subcategories of a website.

card sort

Example of an online card sort from Optimal Workshop. You can also use physical cards.

All of this will hopefully create an easier, more logical way of navigating your site. You can validate your card sorting results by using tree testing (see further down the page).

There are three types of card sort:

  • Open card sort: participants are asked to group cards into categories that makes sense to them, and then they label each category in a way that they feel accurately describes the content.
  • Closed card sort: participants sort cards into category groups that you’ve already labelled and defined. For example, this is handy if you’re launching a new page for ‘watches’ and you’re not sure whether to put it under a parent category ‘Accessories’ or ‘Jewellery’.
  • Hybrid card sort: this is a mixture of open and closed. Participants can sort cards into categories you’ve already defined and then create their own categories if they think your categories are inaccurate.

Conversion rate optimisation (CRO)

Conversion rate optimisation (CRO) is the process of tweaking your website in order to increase the number of visitors who will complete a specific action on the page. More often than not, a conversion tends to mean a purchase, but it can also mean a newsletter sign-up, or a whitepaper download, or an account creation.

Although easy to get confused with UX, CRO is more directly focused on business goals rather than improving the user experience.

samuel johnson annoyed

“I’m still pissed at the ‘Georgian-era brain’ thing”

Customer journey map

A customer journey map tells the story of your customer’s experience. From initial contact, through the various points of engagement, to the eventual long term relationship.

The customer journey map can focus on one particular part of the story or it can give an overview of the entire experience. Either way, it should always identify the key interactions a customer has with your organisation.

It’s within these interactions where you will find out what the user is feeling, what their motivations are during each phase of the journey and surface any questions they might ask when interacting with each of the touchpoints.

The goal of a customer journey map is simple: to teach organisations more about their customers.

example of a customer journey map template

Diary study

Diary studies gather information about a user experience over an extended period of time. Participants write about their experiences with a particular product or service in a diary. They may also take photos or perform other activities to record their experiences. Once the study period is over, the researcher analyses the findings.

Courtesy of Jim Ross, via ‘User research methods: has beens and all-stars’

Ethnographic study

Ethnography is a qualitative study of social interactions, behaviours, and perceptions that occur within groups, teams, organisations, and communities. The aim of ethnography is to provide insight into people’s views and actions, as well as the nature of their location, through the collection of detailed observations and interviews.

Source: BMJ

According to UX Matters, ethnography is the social equivalent of usability testing. Where usability is about how people directly interact with a technology in the more traditional sense, ethnography is about how people interact with each other.

Expert review

In an expert review, a UX professional examines your product to identify usability, design and accessibility problems. Unlike other more traditional usability inspection methods, such as heuristic review (see further down the page), an expert review doesn’t follow a strict process. Instead it relies on the reviewer’s own expert knowledge of usability and design best practices.

This usability test should be seen as an early activity that occurs before using a research method that involves actual users.

Courtesy of Jim Ross, via ‘User research methods: has beens and all-stars

Guerrilla testing

Guerrilla testing is a way to gather cheap and fast feedback from the average person, by going out and asking people what they think of your idea or getting them to use your wireframes (see further down the page).

A popular way of carrying out guerrilla testing is by setting yourself up in a coffee shop (or other public place where your potential audience might hang out) with your website or other digital product open on a laptop, then ask people to test in exchange for a coffee and a muffin.

Courtesy of Elizabeth Chesters, UX researcher and contributor to the WhatUsersDo blog

Heuristic review

Heuristics are basically ‘educated guesses’ – a quick, but well-informed way of solving a problem. In UX, a heuristic review comprises a team of usability experts who evaluate your website and compare it against a set of established usability principles, the most widely used being the ’10 heuristics’ as developed by Jakob Nielsen.

It’s largely outmoded now, as gathering three to five usability professionals together in a room is a luxury few can afford. It also lacks actual user feedback.

Information Architecture (IA)

Information Architecture refers to the way content is presented and accessed from any given page on your website – whether through menus, breadcrumbs, categories, links – whatever takes you from one page to another.

This is how our UX researcher Hazel Ho refers to IA in her post on navigation UX best practice, “Information architecture is the practice of arranging parts of something to make it understandable.”

A good IA can help people on your site understand where they are, what’s around, and what to expect.

Information Architecture typically focuses on…

  • Structure: the way information is laid out i.e. people should be able to predict where to find what they’re looking for
  • Organisation: grouping information in a way that makes sense to people
  • Labels: ensuring elements are appropriately titled so people can find information

Interaction Design (IxD)

Interaction design is a very broad term that relates to the design of how a user interacts with a product. According to the Interaction Design Foundation, the goal of interaction design is to create products that enable the user to achieve their objective in the best way possible.

There are ‘four dimensions’ of interaction design, as developed by Gillian Crampton Smith, an interaction design academic, with a fifth added by Kevin Silver, a senior interaction designer.

  1. Words: the text on clickable buttons should be meaningful and simple to understand. They should communicate information to users, but not too much information to overwhelm the user.
  2. Visual representations: graphical elements like images, typography and icons that users interact with. These usually supplement the words used to communicate information to users.
  3. Physical objects or space: through what physical objects do users interact with the product? A laptop, with a mouse or touchpad? Or a smartphone, with the user’s fingers? And within what kind of physical space does the user do so? For instance, is the user standing in a crowded train while using the app on a smartphone, or sitting on a desk in the office surfing the website? These all affect the interaction between the user and the product.
  4. Time: this mostly refers to media that changes with time – animation, videos, sounds. Motion and sound play a crucial role in giving visual and audio feedback to users’ interactions. It also refers to the amount of time a user spends interacting with the product.
  5. Behaviour: this includes the mechanism of a product. How do users perform actions on the website? How do users operate the product? It also includes the reactions, emotional responses or feedback of people using the product.

Lean UX

In Lean UX, non UX-trained people carry out UX activities involving all members of a development team. This method would be used when if your team has adopted the Agile method of development – where you work in rapid, iterative cycles. Lean UX is all about what you can achieve ‘here and now’ based on the team’s ‘assumptions’, which have been generated in a workshop.

Source: Interaction Design Foundation

Mental model

A mental model is a concept that allows you to understand and analyse any usability problems in your interactive design. They are developed from observation, perception, immersive experience and, most importantly, culture. Mental models are beliefs based on cognition and not facts.

The reason that people make mistakes when interacting with​ ​a system is often because their mental model is different to the developer’s mental model. Since all people perceive the word in an individualistic way, all users generate individual mental models. The​ ​challenge here is to ensure that developers develop a product with the users’ mental model in mind. Designers typically create systems based on their perceptions, assuming users will understand the process in the same way they do.

Courtesy of George Kalyvas, UX researcher at WhatUsersDo

Multivariate testing

Multivariate testing is the same as A/B testing (see further up the page), only you’re testing multiple versions of the same page rather than just two.

Samuel Johnson in colour illustration

“Bit of a half-arsed entry. Wouldn’t find that in MY dictionary”

Personas

Personas are a way to help organisations understand their potential and existing audience in a more personal way.

In essence, personas are detailed profiles of a particular audience member, who represents a distinct group of people – in that they share similar behaviour, attitudes, personalities and preferences of your product, but are the ‘figurehead’ for a larger demographic.

Personas are constructed by researching and interviewing real people to gain qualitative data (see below), and this information often shapes the development of a product.

Prototyping

A prototype is a simple version of your final product, which you use to test the design before launch. The earlier you test a prototype, the more user-centred the development and the less likely you’ll waste time and money launching a failure.

You may hear the term fidelity when it comes to prototyping…

  • High fidelity prototype: the model is as close to the finished, fully workable and realised product as possible.
  • Low fidelity prototype: the model is incomplete, simple and has the very broadest idea of what the finished product will look or feel like.

Qualitative research

Qualitative research is any kind of investigation, experiment or study where the results aren’t in numerical form. These will be the observations, comments, thoughts and feelings of the participants. You may also hear this referred to as empirical research.

Qualitative research can take the form of conversations, interviews, open-ended questionnaires or focus groups.

At WhatUsersDo we mainly deal with qualitative research. If you run a UX test on your website using our panel of testers, you’ll receive videos of those tests in which you can see the user interact with your site and, crucially, you’ll hear their thoughts and feelings spoken out loud as they navigate.

Quantitative research

Quantitative research is any kind of investigation, experiment or study where the results can be presented with numerical values. The data you’ll uncover in quantitative research is all to do with ‘how many, how often and/or how much, etc.’

For a complex example of quantitive data, just take a look inside the analytics of your website – pageviews, sessions, bounce-rate, frequency of visits over time – are all quantitative data.

For more detail, read our guide to the difference between qualitative and quantitative research.

Quick and dirty testing

As the name implies, this is a way to get fast user feedback on your product without any scientific rigour whatsoever. There’s no time or thought given to recruiting the ‘right’ participants, you just show it to the first person you find and see what they think. This can give you immediate insights into quick and simple fixes, can be done at any time, as often as you like, with anyone remotely suitable.

The arguments for quick and dirty testing are that doing some usability testing is better than none. The arguments against are that the results might be as good as doing no usability testing.

Remote user testing

Remote UX testing is the use of video recording software to capture the actions and spoken thoughts of users as they interact with your website, content or other marketing assets. It shows you what works, what doesn’t and how to improve the user experience.

Samuel Johnson portrait

“This dictionary is rubbish and boring, plus you missed out sausage”

Scenario

When customer journey mapping, the scenario is the specific journey that’s being mapped. You should have something specific in mind for this. For instance, imagine you’re a businessperson looking for a new phone and price isn’t a priority, but you want unlimited minutes and low overseas call rates plus good customer support. These details can all form your specific scenario.

Tree testing

Although tree testing shares many similarities with card sorting, the method you use to arrive at your results is reversed.

In tree testing, the main categories and subcategories for a website are already established. Test participants are asked to explore these categories in order to find a particular item or piece of content. They click through the various links until they find the category where they expect the item to reside.

tree testing categories

During a tree test, you’ll set a task for your participant to complete. For instance: “You are on a camping supply website, where would you go to find a sleeping bag? Click through the main menu until you arrive at the location you’d expect to find it.”

Then you can look at the following measures in order to help make improvements:

  • Directness: the percentage of users completing the task without hesitation and getting the correct answer first time
  • Success: the percentage of users that completed the task vs. failed attempts
  • Time: the time it took users to complete a task

User centred design (UCD)

The central tenet of user-centred design is that the person using the product is the focus of every single stage of its design, development, production and iteration, rather than business goals or mere hunches from the design team.

User experience (UX)

User Experience (UX) is everything that happens to your users when they interact with your business or organisation via your website, application or online communications. It includes everything they see, hear and do as well as their emotional reactions.

User experience testing (also: UX testing, user testing, usability testing)

As you can see above, user experience testing has several names but they all refer to the process of understanding what users do and why they do it.

Traditional UX testing involves individual test participants who are recruited to sit at a computer and be observed carrying out tasks that they are given. The process of watching and listening to real people carry out these tasks provides insight into what works, what doesn’t work and, critically, why it doesn’t work.

User Interface (UI)

The means with which you interact with a product – be it physical or digital – is called the user interface. So to take this website as an example, the UI consists of its layout, the navigation, the search box, the links… basically all the visual components that you can use to interact with the site.

Much of what we call UI nowadays is really GUI (graphical user interface), i.e. the images and icons on your computer or mobile.

User research

In order to design a truly relevant, useful and successful product, you need to clearly understand your potential audience. And the only way you’re going to understand the people who might use your product is if you talk to them first.

There are many different types of user research. You can go out to observe and interview people in their own natural environment (which is documented in this collection of user research war stories), you could invite people in to your office to be part of a focus group or hold one-on-one interviews.

Alternatively you can run UX testing on your prototype, in order to get some early insight into how people will use your product. Bear in mind it’s much easier and cheaper to change a prototype than a finished product.

Samuel Pepys

“Hi, I’m actually Samuel Pepys. I am a different man”

Wireframe

Wireframes are used to show webpage layout ideas. It’s a quick and cost effective way (because you don’t necessarily need more than a pen and paper) to get early user insight. This is also known as paper prototyping.

Example of a standard wireframe

Example of a standard wireframe from NN/g

Workflow

Workflows map out a users’ movements across the wireframe or prototype. So this has more in common with a customer journey map (see further up the page), in that it highlights interactions – but doesn’t go into the details a user would see on the screen.

Example of a workflow

Example of a workflow from NN/g

Wireflow

A wireflow presents a combination of wireframes and workflows. Wireflows document the process of a user working through a task on the product or website, but with each step you can see wireframe mock-up of the relevant page.

wireflow mockup for mobile

Example of wireflow mockup for mobile by NN/g

I have undoubtedly missed out many other terms in this dictionary, so please let me know of any more that should be included. Likewise, if you’d like to challenge or add to one of the descriptions, then I will see you at dawn with duelling spears please leave a comment below.

Join our UX Community on Slack

Ask and answer questions, take part in exclusive AMAs, share your own experiences... Discuss all things UX with the best and brightest in the industry!

(It’s like a constantly evolving networking event, and even though you have to provide your own refreshments, nobody will know that you’re wearing pyjamas.) ☕️ 💻 🛏

Christopher Ratcliff
Christopher is the Content Marketing Manager of WhatUsersDo. He’s also the editor of wayward pop culture site Methods Unsound. He used to be the deputy editor of Econsultancy and editor Search Engine Watch.

Leave a Reply