What is UX Design?

User experience design, or UX design for short, is about understanding how a user feels when interacting with a product. UX design is an umbrella term that encompasses many specialties such as visual design and production design. While all specialists in UX design have a unique role to play in the design process, this article focuses on UX design more generally and ways urban planners can benefit from adopting certain strategies.

Photo by Amélie Mourichon on Unsplash

As it becomes more common to merge traditional urban planning methods and solutions with technology, we think that this article may be useful to members of the urban planning community to understand how UX designers think about problem-solving.

Why is UX Design Important?

UX designers approach design thinking with empathy, and carry that through all of the phases of design thinking – namely the define, ideate, prototype, and test phase. UX designers work with a team to develop universal, equitable, inclusive, and accessible design solutions. Oftentimes, it is the UX designers on a team who take a step back and ask themselves, “Are we designing for users with different abilities? Is our product equitable?”

UX designers aim to understand the problems users face and provide inclusive design solutions that benefit all.

The strategies UX designers deploy to make products universal, equitable, inclusive, and accessible are especially important for urban planners to observe and possibly adopt, as cities set goals to make spaces and services equitable to their communities.

How Do UX Designers Fit Into A Bigger Team?

Much like designing a new building, designing a product is highly collaborative. UX designers work closely with project managers, product designers, UX engineers, and likely many others to understand the user context, user needs, user behaviors, and to set realistic project goals and a plan to tackle the goal.

A design is then handed to an engineer who builds the product and develops a more granular version of the design.

What Are Ways to Empathize With Users and Understand User Needs?

To design solutions with empathy, there are common strategies that UX designers turn to in order to better understand the user. Here are some examples of strategies that UX designers often utilize that urban planners may also benefit from.


Personas are fictional characters that help designers empathize with the problems of real users. They can help designers and urban planners design solutions that address user pain points, and can help everyone align on who you’re designing for throughout the course of the design process.

There is no one-size-fits-all template for a persona, but the most common elements of a persona include:

  • Name
  • Age
  • Hometown
  • Family
  • Occupation
  • Goals
  • Frustration
  • Other characteristics that make this person who they are.

This exercise can help build empathy and serves as a good reference as to who the user is.


Credit – Violeta Goldin, Design Thinking to Improve UX in Public Transportation — A UX case study

User Journey Map

A user journey map is an activity that builds on the persona. In a user journey map, the personas’ actions, tasks, and feelings are outlined, as well as opportunities to improve the experience at each step of the personas’ journey.

This exercise can help uncover new ideas and needs by helping you walk in the shoes of your users.


Credit – Simon Herd, How to Create Effective Customer Journey Maps

User Storyboard

Developing a storyboard is an activity that can build on the persona. Storyboards display scenarios in which the persona interacts with a product or service. These storyboards are frames that help capture big picture sentiments, challenges, and the value add of a well-designed product.

Storyboards are a quick and memorable way to show what the experience of using a product might be like before it’s been built. Because storyboards are easy for everyone to understand, they can be very useful in getting people on board with the product’s vision.


Credit – Luca Morovián, UX Storyboard Creation: A Complete Guide For Beginners

Low Fidelity Prototypes

Develop rough prototypes of a design solution and put it in the users’ hands as a low-cost way to get quick feedback and iterate the design solution faster.

For an urban planner, an example of a low fidelity prototype could be a sketch or model of proposed streetscape designs or having people react to designs they experience wearing a virtual reality headset.

This exercise can help build empathy and better understand pain points in a design.


Credit –  Valeria Pivovarova, Cacoo Blog

Basic Design Principles for an App

There are many possibilities when designing a web or mobile based application. However, adhering to a few basic design principles can help to create a more accessible and user friendly product. A few basic design principles are listed below:

  1. Use Contrasting Colors – Meeting minimum contrast requirements helps all users read the content and complete actions. Meet accessibility guidelines and compliance, and test your colors here!
  2. Select a Few Fonts – Maintain simplicity by including just one or two fonts in a design.
  3. Keep a low cognitive load on the user – You want to keep it simple, but each use case is very different. Provide viewing options that users can turn on and off.

Consider the Gestalt Principle – The Gestalt Principle is a theory “around how people perceive the world around them.”¹ Use colors, object similarity, common regions, proximity, continuity, and focal points to your design. Learn more about the Gestalt Principle here.

Examples of Urban Planning and Technology Merging

There are numerous examples of how web-based applications, mobile applications, and software are impacting the planning industry and process. These new technologies can be effective tools to help with scenario planning and to quickly capture metrics.

  • Bikelane Uprising – An app that depends on crowdsourced information to report bike lane obstructions.
  • Coord – Curb management software.
  • Spare – A software platform for operating microtransit, paratransit, and ride-hailing services.
  • StreetLight Data – A transportation analytics software that uses smartphone data.
  • Transit App – A mobile app that shows real-time transit information. Including public transit, transportation network companies, taxi services, and bikeshare.


A well-designed app can be designed for a great user experience, but it cannot make up for a poor service. For example, a mobile app can only highlight the capabilities of a bus service, but it does not automatically make a poor bus service better. However, if a good bus app is combined with good bus service, then it can really highlight the benefits of the bus system and bring choice riders to both the bus system and potentially other modes of shared mobility. Web-based applications, mobile applications, and software can elevate a product or service, but are not always the product or service.

We hope you enjoyed learning about the ways UX design and urban planning can cross over. Some additional resources have been provided below for further reading on this topic.


  1. 7 Gestalt Principles of Visual Perception: Cognitive Psychology for UX, UserTesting

Additional Resources

*Thank you to Jason Miller and Fenella O’Brien at Spare for sharing your expertise and discussing this topic with us.