top of page

Undercover User Experience Design - Book Review

1 February 2012

Dr. Moria Levy

The book "Undercover User Experience Design: Learn How to do great UX Work with Tiny Budgets, No Time, and Limited Support" was authored by Cennydd Bowles and James Box in 2011. It falls within the professional realm of user experience rather than a management book. It can be described briefly as a practical guide outlining cost-effective approaches to creating a positive user experience on internal and external websites.

Similar to the term "non-conference," which denotes an unconventional conference format, the book introduces the concept of "non-design activity" for shaping user experiences. It emphasizes practical methods without unnecessary embellishments, distinguishing it from traditional UX approaches involving elaborate presentations and graphic design elements across numerous projects.

Moreover, the book delves into the multifaceted dimensions of a user experience solution, encompassing information architecture, content, graphic design, accessibility, and user interaction design. Beyond these technical aspects, it also addresses the challenges of defining solutions with limited resources and navigating diverse organizational perspectives.

The book imparts valuable insights into user experience and guides in managing processes within a dynamic organizational context rather than functioning in isolation.

Covering a range of topics, the book addresses:

  1. Perception of work

  2. Existing situation analysis

  3. Developing ideas

  4. Realization

  5. Refinement and improvement

  6. Collaboration with partners within the organization

It is recommended for individuals in user experience and professionals in knowledge management, business intelligence, and organizational support roles. Especially in the concluding chapter, the summary highlights the main chapters and encourages reading the entire book for a comprehensive understanding.

Happy reading.

Perception of work

UX professionals are frequently perceived as artists who enter an organization, propose primarily graphic designs, leave a lasting impression, and then exit the stage. The book introduces an alternative perspective. Often, organizations need to pay more attention to the significance of user experience, especially when an existing internal or external website falls short of delivering an optimal user experience.

The organization needs to pay more attention to the necessity for user experience, resulting in a reluctance to invest time and resources in its design. What is required is a gradual educational approach, a shift in perceptions that must be undertaken, often without any budget or with a limited one, and certainly without unnecessary fanfare.

In this context, the book was crafted to guide how to accomplish tasks and, in the process, enlighten individuals within the organization about the importance of user experience.

Existing situation analysis

Analyzing an existing situation begins with identifying a problem. Even when a problem is evident, such as reduced utilization of other materials or decreased purchases on the site, the organization may need to recognize that the root cause lies in user experience. These elements are interconnected, and while a positive user experience generally fosters sharing and usage, it is not always the exclusive factor. Hence, pinpointing the problem can be challenging.

Identifying the problem involves a research process comprising several stages:

Internal Organizational Analysis:

  1. Background - Understanding how the organization wishes to be perceived.

  2. Website Evaluation - Assessing both successful and unsuccessful aspects of the existing site.

  3. User Profile - Determining if the incoming audience aligns with the company's primary target.

  4. Stakeholders and Their Roles - Identifying key individuals for interviews.

  5. Project Impact on User Experience - Investigating the issues the project aims to address.

Cultural analysis within the project context involves being vigilant about certain warning signs in new projects:

  1. Lack of interest in design as a luxury.

  2. Reluctance to improve essential aspects due to existing traffic.

  3. Unrealistically high expectations.

  4. Organizational power and decision-making challenges.

  5. Slow processes and conservatism hinder flexibility.

  6. Abundance of content requiring attention before design.

External Analysis - User Research:

Decisions to be made regarding the research nature:

  1. Strategy - Obtain permission or work discreetly (undercover).

  2. Target Audience - Identifying research participants, such as existing customers, family, friends, volunteers, or paid individuals.

  3. Research Method - Choosing between observation, interviews, focus groups, surveys, feedback, or third-party studies. The book introduces contextual questioning, combining observation with interviews.

The study results raise whether to present them to project stakeholders immediately. The authors propose considering discreet work, using study results for improvement, and offering solutions to stakeholders after demonstrating the proposed changes.

Tips for a research report (if written) include:

  • Executive Summary

  • A chapter on Typical Users and Their Behavior

  • Scenarios Chapter - Troubleshooting and Conduct on the Site

  • Quantitative Information (although the report is predominantly qualitative)

  • Visual Information and Stories

Developing ideas

Here are some tips for developing ideas effectively:

The first and perhaps most crucial rule for developing ideas is cultivating various ideas; only then should you filter, reduce, and select.

  • Sketch on paper. This helps clarify thoughts and communicate ideas to others. Enhance impressions by shading objects in scribbles or adding a 3D dimension (as amateurs, not painters). Invest time and effort, specifically in the letters shown in the sketches.

  • Embrace collaborative thinking. While experts tend to brainstorm alone and generate preconceived ideas, listening to stakeholders and considering their input is worthwhile. There is a collective mind at work. A recommended approach is to conduct a workshop dedicated to the subject. The book provides a detailed list of exercises and tools for facilitating such seminars.

  • It is advisable to share what has been learned after, and even during, the development of ideas. A compelling way to do this is through a billboard (preferably physical) displayed in the designer's room, featuring all the sketches and thought products. People enjoy taking a peek.

  • Formulate design principles based on the ideas generated, using concise phrases. It is better not to increase (seven principles are certainly sufficient).


When discussing realization, the focus is often on products. According to the authors, the term "product" can be misleading as it doesn't mark the end of the journey but rather a pause, primarily for documenting the design and sharing it with stakeholders. Although the writers' approach may seem somewhat extreme, the underlying message is clear that changes can be implemented (M.L.).

Various types of deliverables are possible, and the designer should contemplate the optimal combination of products to prepare:

  1. Site Map: Represents the site structure hierarchically, showcasing how information is organized and how users will navigate the site—a helpful tool for documentation (

  2. User Flow Flowchart: Illustrates a user's steps to complete a task. It is ideal for explaining complex logic and less necessary for simple tasks.

  3. Wireflow Flow: Graphically displays user steps and transitions between actions, which is handy for non-trivial interface behaviors. Examples can be found online.

  4. Storyboard: Chart each screen's main actions with an explanatory story. Useful for complex interfaces that cannot be communicated solely through a sitemap and flowchart. Templates available at

  5. Wireframe Flow Frame: A colorless and image-free graphical interface description, including scope structures, definitions, actions, controls, behavior, metadata, and callouts.

  6. Page Description Diagram (PDD): An inventory of each site element organized into groups based on importance.

  7. Prototype: An abstract model describing site functionality. Prototypes excel at presenting solutions, providing a clear understanding of the user experience and the site's solution perception.

It's not necessary to use all deliverables for each project. Consider the project's needs, elaborate and multiply where appropriate, and avoid unnecessary time and resource expenditure. The book references numerous URLs with tools for product preparation. Recommendations include using internet libraries with templates, understanding HTML and CSS, prioritizing key pages, deciding on additional elements on the go, and using accurate content for demos.

Refinement and improvement

Firstly, the significance of iteration must be acknowledged. The authors attribute the need for iteration to both users and stakeholders. Testing a site under laboratory conditions is not always feasible, making it natural that refinement and improvement will be necessary even after going live.

User tests were once expensive and conducted in elaborate laboratories, but today, even the most straightforward means can be employed to test and enhance a site. When planning tests for improvement, several decisions need to be made:

  • Assistance from paid users or random users (for better representation).

  • Determining the number of tests required.

  • Deciding on documentation during the tests.

Some testing tips include:

  • Considering time in inspections to allow for repairs.

  • Conducting a last-minute self-experience health check before testing sessions.

  • Using a dedicated laptop for testing.

  • Preparing a backup plan in case the site encounters issues during testing.

  • Being flexible to handle unplanned surprises.

If face-to-face meetings are not possible, remote tests can be performed using computer takeover software. Users can conduct personal tests and document their findings in cases without choice or large amounts are involved. Dedicated automated testing software is also an option.

Testing with stakeholders involves understanding their feedback and translating it into constructive actions. For instance, a comment suggesting a website looks basic or childish indicates a need for more detailed information on each page. If a stakeholder notes that the site doesn't feel "like us," it implies examining the stakeholder's perception against a set of values (traditionalism, luxury, feminism, etc.).

Several obstacles can hinder a careless designer, including personal note-taking, focusing on solutions rather than needs, and excessive feedback, among other things.

As emphasized, repairs must continue after going live, driven by feedback, statistical analysis of behavior, site changes, and more.

Collaboration with partners within the organization

Working with people is always challenging. This chapter, engaging not only in the context of design sensitively teaches how to perceive each partner differently and act accordingly. While these insights are generalizations, there is much to glean from the recommended perspectives and actions.


Developers operate in an environment that values efficiency and assesses others based on their alignment with this principle. They appreciate logic and expect clear explanations for suggestions.


  • Involve developers early in the process.

  • Be open to compromises on complex principles but know when to stand firm.

  • Anticipate and prepare for error cases, formulating design recommendations for them.

  • Learn HTML and CSS to understand limitations and facilitate communication with developers.

Graphic Designers:

Graphic designers, in contrast to developers, focus on the visual aspects of the experience.


  • Take time to understand the language and perception of graphic designers for effective communication.

  • Assume a mediating role, translating their sometimes less realistic solutions into practical passes.

Content Experts:

Content experts often face a challenge conveying that expertise extends beyond writing ability. They are inclined towards accuracy and detest duplication.


  • Collaborate on process improvement, learning about the content's nature, and planning accordingly.

  • By working with them, familiarize yourself with content management software, if any (CMS).

Senior Management:

Senior managers are primarily busy, and their time is a precious resource.


  • Focus on communicating the most essential information.

  • Speak in terms of business benefits, acknowledging the value of their time.

The book further elaborates on relationships with product managers, marketers, and search experts, making this chapter a critical component of a practical guide.

bottom of page