With UX, the User Drives Design

Market changes are causing engineers to redefine what UX design means.

Market changes are causing engineers to redefine what UX design means.

Fig. 1: UX design teams tailor today’s mobile devices to achieve specific user goals through digital or ambient interaction. Micro-interactions—the moments where the user accomplishes a small, singular task—help designers create connections between larger tasks and can make or break the overall user experience. Image courtesy of Clay Global.

The concept of user experience (UX) has changed the rules of the game for product development, requiring design engineers to adopt a new set of perspectives. Not so long ago, the word “product” was associated with a physical offering.

Today, the same word often refers to digital experiences. This change has catapulted users into the center of the design process, causing engineers to rethink what product design entails. This has meant shifting their guiding principle from “designing the thing right” to “designing the right thing.” The move to a user-centered design process also has made features such as usability, simplicity, predictability and intuitiveness crown jewels of the creative process (Fig. 1).

But why are these changes taking place now? For one, the forces driving the markets have changed. “UX design’s rise in prominence stems from a fundamental shift from a “push” economy, based on advertisements, to a ‘pull’ economy, based on the rising importance of recommendations and reviews,” says Bill Horan, creative director of interaction design, at the Bresslergroup, a Philadelphia-based product-development consultancy. “Good experiences equal good reviews, which equal more business.”

What Exactly Is UX?

Coming up with a single, clear definition of UX design can be a challenge. “User experience design is a very broad and loosely defined term, but ultimately it’s about designing from the viewpoint of a user as they experience a product,” says Horan. “As a practice, it fundamentally focuses on the behavioral or functional aspects of the experience. Is the product easy, intuitive, usable? But it also focuses more broadly on the visceral and reflective aspects.”

Some proponents, however, take the definition even further. “User experience includes all aspects of the product, such as branding, usability, look and feel, ergonomics and function,” says Alexander Khmelevsky, UX director at Clay, a San Francisco-based UX design and development firm.

This highlights the fact that UX design requires a holistic approach to design, and encapsulates an expanded variety of disciplines. Related to this shift, UX requires close collaboration across all the specialties to achieve a successful outcome. Rather than handing off designs from one discipline to another, teams now focus on problem-solving and iteration as a multidisciplinary group.

Principles, Practices and Tips

Several key principles should guide developers as they work through the UX design process. First, they should always consider the people who are going to use the product (Fig. 2). What are their goals? What do they need? Why and how would they use the product?

Understanding the user also means figuring out how little thought they want to put into their interactions with a product. Often, users don’t want to think about how the product delivers its services. They just want it to do the job.

“People don’t want a ¼-inch drill bit. They want a ¼-inch hole—or they want to hang a picture,” says Horan.

Considering these factors, the design team should begin by formulating a clear design strategy. A good place to begin involves prioritizing the most common or essential interactions and making them seamless.

In tailoring these interactions, designers should strive to achieve some critical qualities; consistency is a key element of the user’s experience. “If the interaction with the product and its behavior is inconsistent, people won’t know what to expect from it, and each time, they will have to worry about what will happen next,” says Khmelevsky. “Products with consistent experience are easy to use and in general tend to be more intuitive.”

Another important element is simplicity. The simpler the product experience, the easier it is for people to learn to use it and interact with it on a regular basis. If a product is too complex, people will probably abandon it or will be frustrated with their experience.

Juggling all these elements makes it almost impossible to get things right the first time. That is why UX design builds on an iterative process. Engineers never know all the design requirements upfront, so they must build in cycles of development that enable testing, failing and rebuilding to meet the overall objectives of the UX.

“When you design a product or experience, it’s always a work in progress,” says Emily Seifert, a UX designer at Codal, a UX design agency in Chicago. “You’re always refining it to the best solution it can possibly be.”

Research Informs Design

Comprehensive research is one of the fundamental concepts of UX design. A firm understanding of the intended users of a product is the bedrock of good UX design. If designers don’t know what people are trying to do and how they want to do it, the engineers will struggle to create design requirements that align with user needs.

Fig. 2: When tailoring an experience, one of the first challenges confronting UX designers is accommodating the interactions of users with different levels of expertise. The challenge is to balance the needs of different user types and present appropriate experiences for each set. Image courtesy of the Bresslergroup.

To glean the necessary insight, design teams can tap a comprehensive toolbox that includes everything from observations and user interviews to backend logs and e-commerce data sources. Two of the most powerful tools, however, are quantitative and qualitative research.

“Quantitative (research) is great for observing actual behavior and trends and identifying how many edge cases exist in your user population,” says Jordan DeVries, director of UX at Brave UX, a UX design agency based in Washington, D.C. “Qualitative research is critical for understanding the emotional component of users (Fig. 3).”

By combining all of the data sources, development teams can get a richer picture of the user experience, which prepares them for a number of the stages of the design process.

“Designers can distill user insights both from qualitative observations and interactions with end users, as well as from larger-scale data sources and trend-mapping efforts,” says Conall Dempsey, director of user research and human factors at the Bresslergroup. “Both approaches produce valuable insights, but neither is a complete view of the user. The best UX design process considers both qualitative and quantitative insights as inputs to user needs, which then drive the conceptual design.”

UX Design Phases

Survey the UX community regarding the steps in the design process, and varying degrees of granularity emerge. Reducing the various approaches down to their fundamental elements highlights three phases.

In the first phase—discovery and research—the designer observes and seeks to understand the user, operating environment and product goals. This phase may include things like site visits, user and stakeholder interviews, competitive analysis, field studies and prototyping—anything that will help the designer make more informed design decisions.

Next comes the conceptual design phase, when the design team boils the problems down to their essence and comes up with product concepts. “This is less about what your product does or how your product works, and more about why you think your product will be successful,” says DeVries.

At this stage, the designer uses everything they have learned during the discovery/research phase and creates initial sketches and prototypes, then tests them with users and stakeholders. Depending on the testing results, the designers may revise some of the concepts or move forward with the product idea to the next stage, which is detailed design.

During the third phase, the designers flesh out the product’s design. This involves creating a tangible representation of the final product.

Throughout the entire design process, it’s important for designers to test their hypothesis and ideas with stakeholders to ensure that the design is moving in the right direction.

A Rich Toolset

A review of these three phases of UX design shows just how varied the tasks and specialties are. To gain insight into the tools that come into play, divide the overall design process into two stages: research and design. Each of these areas has its own unique toolset.

The tools available to help designers connect with users are vast. Whether the engineer is designing digital or physical products, or products that integrate both, the most important tool in the initial phases of UX design is user recruitment tools.

Being able to quickly and effectively screen and identify representative users adds rigor to the design process and builds confidence in the design itself.

Most tools and resources available for gathering user data also provide panels for research. Getting specific populations, however, can be difficult, so design teams must leverage every tool in their toolbox.

“We work with UserInterviews to get at general population users quickly and efficiently, and with Qualtrics to create a survey and recruit,” says Jes Koepfler, director of UX research and strategy at the Bresslergroup. “We also partner with our clients to use their internal connections.”

For design tools, the past few years have seen an infusion of new, specialized software that provides enhanced vector design, wireframing, interactive prototyping and collaboration tools. Among these, software packages like Sketch, Adobe XD and Figma enable designers to better capture the fluidity and interconnectedness of UX projects.

For analysis, tools like Full Story, Hotjar and Google Tag provide robust data on the elements users interact with, how they move from feature to feature and in some cases where they express frustration—repeatedly clicking a button in anger.

Understanding what features are being used and ignored is vital to improving any design, and these tools allow UX designers to get a significant enough sample size to understand actual trends.

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Tom Kevan

Tom Kevan is a freelance writer/editor specializing in engineering and communications technology. Contact him via .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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