Creating an experience that is both practical and intuitive for the user is the ultimate goal of every UX professional, but where does that process begin exactly? As obvious as it may seem, it starts with the end-users of any product – they belong at the center of it all, with all other integral pieces branching off from that crucial hub. In our industry, users can be students, teachers, scientists, librarians, researchers of all stripes, general consumers, developers themselves, QA teams and even salespeople: those who not only use but also create, sell, and support published content.

The issue of usability is about as apparent as any; there’s no hiding poor usability when it’s poor.  Customers might call because they can’t figure out how to complete a task, salespeople may discover an application is behaving erratically, or engineers might be forced to constantly tweak the same layout elements again and again across websites built on the same platform. Some of these examples may seem small, others large, but what it adds up to is thousands of working hours lost that could otherwise be spent being more productive, inventing new things, and finding new ways to push forward.

So how can you change the way you go about creating the best experience for your users? Take a look at these four steps, starting with easiest one of all – gaining perspective.

Step 1: Walk a mile in your users’ shoes
Supporting users of your software or web application on a daily basis allows for a certain familiarity with the product­­ – you know the sticking points, why they call you for help, the typical problems they have, where the disappointments lie every time they log-in or navigate to your site. Take the time on occasion to follow the same click-paths. Stumble where they stumble, look at the experience with a critical eye and take note of it. Empathize. Feel the frustration, and then do something about it.

Step 2: Document and report
Keep a spreadsheet of all end-user problems that come to your desk – after awhile you’ll start to notice some patterns. Take screenshots and notes about these stumbling points; the forms that don’t submit, the error messages (or lack thereof), or the redirects that lead to dead-ends. This is what bad UX is made of.

Step 3: Find out who’s in charge of fixing stuff and get them on-board
Sometimes making things simply “work” and creating a good user experience are not necessarily the same thing. An engineer can make a “Submit” button and a “Cancel” button do what they’re supposed to, but he or she might not know that the “Submit” button should be more visually prominent than the “Cancel” button, or might better serve the user if placed elsewhere in relation to each other.

From a UX perspective, one small tweak to the size or location of both buttons could make a huge difference in whether prospects become satisfied clients, or whether they leave your site in utter frustration. Communicating with your engineer about what you think needs to be altered here and there is exactly the type of follow-through necessary to make lasting improvements on your user’s experience.

Step 4: Always be thinking about the next great iteration
Shake things up. This means keeping your eye on the bigger picture, seeing the forest for the trees. While error messages and form issues are important, it is also good to think about the larger user experience and how it might be improved. A six-year-old application to a new potential user is, well, going to look six years old, which is actually quite old in the web world. Simply revisiting the color, typography and other graphical aspects of a website can go a long way to selling more people on your product, and it doesn't involve completely re-inventing the wheel.

Look at your site traffic – do you notice an increase in visitors coming from devices other than desktop or laptop PCs? Does the application or website work on these devices? Don’t lose potential customers who access your site from alternative devices because the kinks just haven’t been quite worked out yet. Contact your engineer and make it work from top to bottom.

Improving user experience is by no means a cut-and-dried, prescriptive undertaking, nor is it one that any UX practitioner can do in a vacuum: it’s about standards, strategy, education, data collection and analysis, documentation, testing, and constantly striving to make every online and offline touch-point with a client as glitch- and stress-free as possible. It’s an undertaking that begins and ends not with some fancy UX professional, but with all of us.

Marc Ardizzone is the Director of User Experience at Ingenta.