Want to sink your users like Titanic? You’re saying yes without noticing

October 10, 2023

Think of a cake. Would you enjoy eating a beautiful cake on the outside, but when you bite into it, you realize that instead of sweet, it is salty?! Probably not.

A friendly UI can be deceiving, by hiding flaws, such as buttons or broken links that lead to nowhere. To avoid shipwrecking our users and our projects, UX foundations should be built and be solid, before we begin thinking about the looks.

Like a real iceberg, the UX components that give structure and support to our products lie beneath the surface — research, planning, interactions, objectives, functional requirements, UX strategy, etc.

Neglecting most of the UX process to focus only on the UI component can sink your users and, consequently, your product.


An iceberg does “iceberg” things thanks mainly to its underwater mass: those unseen 90% help with flotation, provide structure and determine whether ships pass by easily or are surprised by a submerged underwater ice formation.

We can use the iceberg analogy when creating a product. When we look at a product, we see what’s on the outside — the UI. Unfortunately, we don’t commonly notice what’s happening underneath the surface — UX strategy, user research, interaction, planning. It’s what lies underneath the surface that supports the entire product.

It’s this support system that determines the success or failure of the product. So, it doesn’t matter how pretty the UI of a product is if it doesn’t have a proper structure to support it.

Neglecting part of the UX to focus only on what’s visible - above the surface - can sink your product and your users.

UX and UI

Putting UX and UI against each other implies they can exist independently, which should not be the case. UI is a subset of UX.

UI solely doesn’t reflect the entirety of UX; it’s one of the elements that composes UX.

At the beginning of a UX process, it’s all about building the foundations and making sure they’re solid. It’s about building the logical flow of actions and putting all fundamental parts in place. Then, we can start thinking about the visual details.

UX Iceberg Definition

The iceberg has been used as a metaphor in many disciplines.

The illustration of the UX Iceberg was coined by Trevor van Gorp, inspired by the book The Elements of User Experience by Jesse James.

In this illustration, van Gorp presents the five levels of UX: strategy, scope, structure, skeleton and surface.

UX Iceberg Elements

There’s one element above water — i.e. what the user sees -, and four elements below water — the user doesn’t see them but they shape the user’s interaction with the product.

1. Strategy

The foundation of any successful product is a clear and well-designed strategy.

Strategy focuses on fostering a shared understanding of direction towards achieving goals before designing and implementing solutions.

Only after knowing who our users are and understanding their needs can one move on to the following levels.

2. Scope

During this phase, all resources needed to build the specifications and requirements are listed and aligned with both user and business objectives.3. Structure

This step defines how the user will interact with the product, how the system will behave when the user interacts with it, how it is organized and how the information is prioritized to facilitate understanding.

4. Skeleton

This level determines the visual form and arrangement of all the elements necessary for the interaction to occur with existing functionalities in the interface — it is essential to think about how the information will be presented to make it practical and easy to understand.

5. Surface

The top-level. The one above the surface. This level is built on the work and decisions taken at previous levels. That’s when we determine the final layout, colours, and typography. It is the visual design when we think about the visual appearance of the content which shows how the users interact.

Each of these levels of the UX Design process depends on the level below to be able to materialize.

UX Iceberg in product development and business success

Too many companies spend 90% of their time thinking about the surface-level UI, and 10% on the structure that supports the whole product — designing the UI based on assumptions and hypotheses. When doing this, companies skip the necessary steps to guide users properly throughout their products.

Although this has been changing (for the best), still, most companies spend <10% of their time building an experience that supports both customer needs and business goals.

Most important tasks take place beneath the surface. Failing will impact the project — and the users — negatively.

Without intentional UX planning and appropriate strategy, your digital product’s structure won’t be able to support its interface. This will drown your users as soon as they interact with your product.

Catalina (CJ) Almeida
Co-Founder & Product Designer
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