Everyone is Different
One of the keys to creating successful products is understanding that most people are different than we are. Regardless who we are, most people don't have our same combination of motivations, skills, experiences and preferences. That's one of the main reasons why it's so hard to design products for other people, and why so many products get it wrong. So the first question we should ask ourselves is "How do we create products for people who are different from us?"
In a nutshell, the goal of User Experience Design is to solve that problem. "UX" provides a set of tools, methodologies and new ways of framing problems that help teams create products for people who have completely different preferences and skill sets from them. So we don't have to become doctors in order to design products that doctors will love.
Users Are Human Beings, and So Are You
When we understand other people better, we can predict their behavior more accurately. As human beings, we're actually pretty good at predicting the behavior of people that we know well. Most of us make pretty accurate guesses at how our mother would respond to a particular product or service.
But isn't that a lot to ask? We can never understand our users as well as people close to us. Thankfully we don't need to. Users are human beings with complex and interconnected goals, skills, tastes and preferences, but the number of those things that relate to our product is limited. Usually even the act of attempting to understand some of it goes a long way towards producing more usable and desirable products. The “80/20 Rule” applies.
Talking to Users
One of the most important of these tools is user research. To create a product that does exactly what people want, you need to start by asking people exactly what they want. When you put it that way, it seems like common sense, right?
But the default human condition is to assume that other people are just like us. It's not until we have information to the contrary that we begin to question that assumption. This is just how our brains work. We must rely on research-based methodologies to provide ourselves with that outside information that will cause us to question our assumptions and re-evaluate our approach before we've built it. It's easy to throw a mockup away and start over, but much more painful when you have a finished product. (More likely you'd just decide you didn't actually want to create exactly what they wanted anyway, leaving that opportunity open for someone else.)
Without user research it's very easy, human nature, to fall into the trap of "self-referential design", designing for ourselves instead of our users. Talking to users on a regular basis helps keep the team from falling into that trap.
The foundations of my design process grew initially from Alan Cooper's book About Face and the concepts behind goal-directed design, but with adjustments to practice these ideas in Agile and Lean development environments. And I'm always reading new books and trying to incorporate new ideas from books like Drive, Neuro Web Design, and Predictably Irrational.
User Goals ≠ Business Goals ≠ Technology Goals
One idea from goal-directed design is that there are typically 3 sets of somewhat opposing needs and goals at play in any interaction design challenge;
Each of these groups of related goals exist within hierarchies of other goals, and it's through investigation and understanding of these goals and their hierarchies that truly useful, innovative and appealing solutions are conceived.
The user's goals are perhaps the most important in this triad, but they are the only ones without a seat at the table during the product development process. This leads to products that are not useful, difficult to use, or don't do what people want. It's the designer's job to be the user's seat at the table, to advocate for them and their skills, goals, and preferences during the design and development process.
So one could say that "User Experience" is about all of the blue arrows below. Obviously this can't be the job of one person or one part of the company, the whole company needs to be part of the UX team.
Process is a Tool
Many methodologies exist for product design and development and I tend to pick and chose from them to fit the specific project and team. I like this illustration because they all begin with "D"s. I think it's important to have a process, but also to remember that process is a tool, not a goal.