Has anyone had experience with visual design as the first step in the UX process? The idea being, interaction design happens after visual design, as more of a documentation phase. In effect, reverse engineering the IA, interaction and wireframes.

I do IxD for desktop web applications, and am seeing that as an emerging trend in some workplaces. Is there a good process for working within a "visuals first" or aesthetics-focused UX environment?

5 Answers 5


The UX process needs lots of variables working in parallel for the best outcomes. The visual design can influence the interaction design, and the interaction design can influence the visual design. So as long as everyone is staying flexible and willing to go with the flow, it doesn't really matter where you start as long as everyone is willing to accept change.

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    This is my experience as well. Having a strong visual design early on is hugely beneficial to the interaction design work. All disciplines involved in the process should however be willing to accept the other's input, and stay involved throughout the project. Having someone make the wireframes pretty is as terrible as trying to make a static PDF interactive. Sep 4, 2013 at 14:19
  • Thanks for your reply, Koen and DA01. Totally agree on the collaborative aspect & willingness to change. Koen, how would you define "strong" in the visuals that you get early on? I get very aesthetically polished visuals at an early stage, but they also define the layout and priority of objects on the page. That is what I find most challenging to work with and difficult to change during the IxD rounds.
    – Joanna K
    Sep 11, 2013 at 17:21

Depends on what you put under the heading of visual design. If that is all about colors and branding: fine. Otherwise the visual design should always follow (take its lead from) the interaction design. Layout of controls and information and the way the user will interact with those should not be dictated by a visual design.

I certainly would not relegate interaction design to being a "documentation" phase of visual design. Interaction is all about what the user can do and how (s)he interacts with a site. Its the primary part of the user experience. Get that wrong and no amount of visual design is going to cure it. Get it right and a bad visual design will "merely" be considered "too bad it looks ugly", while good visual design will augment the already good interaction design.

  • Exactly. Moreover: if you are doing user evaluations, the beautiful visual design may introduce strong positive bias to your results (when things look good, it's easier to forgive; when things look really really good, visual excitement takes over).
    – Liang
    Sep 3, 2013 at 15:15
  • Thanks for this answer, Marjan and Liang. This has been my perspective as well. I'm working within a large-ish group of visual designers. They will capture an implied interaction within their visual designs or prototypes. Unfortunately, those leave out the deeper interaction work, and require a lot of rethinking from an IA standpoint. This means my specs deviate from the visuals, making developers and QE scratch their heads. You'd think wireframes would be faster, but I am unable to keep up with visuals when thinking through the IxD.
    – Joanna K
    Sep 11, 2013 at 17:13
  • @JoannaK Sounds like you have some advocacy to do. Focus on the benefits of doing (most of) the interaction work first. Like that the developers don't have to scratch their heads; that nobody has to redo stuff already done and that UX and visual design do not seem to contradict each other. Stress iterations: mock up, feedback, rinse and repeat; to counter the "we don't want to wait that long". Sep 11, 2013 at 19:49

Setting up some styles is fine. Just as exploring interface ideas is fine before you've done the research and strategy work. There is a worrying trend of people confusing Interaction Design with User Experience Design - one being a sub set of the other. Likewise visual design is part of the process and one that can happen in parallel providing it does not attempt to solve problems through guesswork and following peer created trends.

It's vital that any Interaction or Visual design is fed by good quality research and an understanding of the user, otherwise it's much the same as an engineer creating a system based upon specification handed down by the marketing department.

For more on this see my post about Evidence based Design and the Engineering Mindset.


More than decade ago I have used the similar process: visual design first, than interaction design. The reasons were:
- Icons and image creation were more understandable and easy tasks, i.e. low-hanging fruits
- I had to do something while waiting for a client answering my questions on some interaction moments

Then Garrett's book helped to systemize my knowledges and to make process more organized.

Now I can imagine visual design first or parallel in branding designing, where designer should not be fully awared of interaction details.

It would be interesting for me to look at such process flow now.

  • Doing either the interaction design or visual design first is not really user experience but a subset. It's hoped that other people do the other part of the UX process prior to either the interface or visual design being done. Aug 31, 2013 at 12:58

Most of the clients I have worked with already have something visual in mind at the onset of the project. If they don't then the first thing they look for is to get a picture of what something looks like in their head. Therefore, regardless of what steps and methods I go through, generally the first interaction/discussion with the client will be about the visual design. From this they can derive some mental model for what the interaction design will be like. In other projects where I am dealing with the business analysts or the development team, they are looking to convert the specifications into the user interface, so they are more interested in the interaction design meeting the business requirements, and probably not so much about how things look.

I would say that unless you work with a client on several different projects, it is hard to work out exactly what the best approach is since this will vary between clients and projects. If there was a platform to provide hi and low fidelity interactive mockups without having to do much coding (Axure is the closest I can think of) then you can probably get the best of both worlds in terms of visual and interaction design on the fly.

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