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MA Web Design and Content Planning

10 pieces of advice for budding UX professionals

How many times have you bought a new product, opened the box, and begun attempting to use the product before ever looking at the manual? If you’re a typical user, chances are you almost always refer to the manual as a last resort, when your innate ability to divine the workings of something just by look and feel lets you down. Whether you’ve already started or are hoping to train as a designer, you’ve spent your life using and relying on products and services designed by other people. If you are anything like me, then no doubt you have at least occasionally screamed out in frustration: “Who the hell designed this damned thing?”

I am, of course, talking about interface design: the critical bridge between man and machine; the boundary layer between the human and the system. A subject that has become an important field of study and a career path, such that many universities are now teaching whole degrees on the subject: Human-Computer Interaction, or HCI, and organisations hire professionals specialising in it [1]. “But wait, I thought this article was about UX?” I hear you ask, which is a good segue into our first piece of advice!

1. Know what you’re signing up for

The world of information technology has a love affair with acronyms and jargon like no other; it probably grows at the same rate as Moore’s Law predicts processor transistors should increase! Professional nomenclature in the industry can be just as confusing and frequently misused. So why are there so many names for what sounds like the same thing? HCI, User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX) share many of the same areas of interest, but they are actually distinct.

HCI is a multi-disciplinary academic field of study that came about around the advent of consumer computing and concerned itself only with interactions between humans and burgeoning computer technology. Since then, it has grown to accommodate all forms of information technology and so naturally incorporates UI and UX design [2].

So you can consider that UI and UX are its practical applications in industry, and they have become popularised by the rise of the Web, and the increasing sophistication of content delivered on it. So what’s the difference between a UI designer and a UX designer? Put simply, they are like two sides of the same coin.

A UI designer’s role is focused on the aesthetic aspects of creating a visually appealing interface components: making use of graphic design techniques like typography, colour and styling. A UX designer’s role is more scientific and analytical: focussed on gathering, processing and drawing insights from user research to inform and refine initial design prototypes.

They work in tandem, where the UI designer will begin working from the prototypes of the UX designer’s efforts. That’s often the case in large organisations where roles can be specialised to dedicated individuals; but more often in smaller concerns, one individual can find themselves wearing both hats. Whatever the case, while it can only benefit all parties to know how the other half lives, we are focussed on just the UX designer here.

2. Be clear about what you want to achieve

From the start, it is important to establish the real motivation and expectations of the research that will govern your design decisions. Get this wrong, and you will be half way up the garden path before being fired for wasting the company’s time and money. To avoid that fate, accurate and productive research depends on several things, more of which I’ll discuss later, but let’s start with deliverables and assumptions.

When tasked with carrying out research, you must devise a research strategy that dictates what methodologies you will prescribe. Knowing exactly what the research is intended to discover at its conclusion, and how it will assist in developing the eventual product is where you must begin. For instance, should it arrive at actionable insights that make your product or service more profitable than a competitor’s? Or prove the viability of building your competing product or service in the first place?

It’s seldom the case these days that you will find yourself planning a completely original or unique product or service. More likely it’s at least a variation on something that’s already out there, and your managers believe they can go one better. So it’s vital you uncover existing assumptions about how the product or service you are tasked to design will function. If these are not addressed, they could arise later as a costly Achilles’ heal, or prevent your from innovating further with a truly original idea.

So, clarity regarding what you already know, what you expect to learn, and how it will impact your design will stand you in good stead to begin framing your research strategy and formulating objectives.

3. Take the trouble to get to know your users

End users are your primary stakeholders in any project, and as such, they should be considered at all stages of your research and design process. After all, they have the knowledge of how your product or service should ideally be formed, and you need to know what their wants, needs, goals and tasks are to be able to cater to them. For instance:

  • What motives drive them to it?
  • What triggers them into action?
  • What barriers hold them back?

Essentially, you want to ascertain their attitudes, behaviours and limitations. You also cannot take them for granted. The people that use your product won’t necessarily be anything like you! A mistake that technically-minded individuals often make is that we presume a level of competence on others, or even a lack of it!

So you need a measure of their competence, comprehension and disabilities because the accessibility of your product or service will be critical to achieving the widest appeal. You also need to know what proportions of these differing users will occupy your target audience. Should you design for everyone and never finish your project? Or draw the line somewhere and lose part of your market share to a competitor?

From a market share perspective, you want to reach a maximum; from an engineering perspective, you don’t have the resources to do that. It’s also practically impossible to include every one of them in a continuous dialogue. Fortunately, there are specific methods and techniques to access, interpret and classify the requirements of different types of users [3]. These can model accurate profiles of them into a number of ‘personas’ to base your designs on, because UX design is a user-centred design (UCD) process at its heart [4].

4. Be honest with users about their rights

When conducting your research, you are collecting data about other people, often very personal. Part of your professional responsibility includes a duty of care to your research subjects. When they participate, obtaining their consent is mandatory; but in order to consent, they must know what they are consenting to. You cannot take for granted that they know what their rights in the digital world are [5][6].

So your ethical mandate extends to enumerating their rights as part of the consent procedure, including their right to withdraw from the research at any stage without penalty. Further, you should be transparent about the purpose of the research, and what exactly will be done with the results at all times, during their involvement and beyond. For instance, they have the right to know how it will be stored, how long it will be retained, have the right to see it, and request total or partial deletion.

Handling their data once you have consent also brings further responsibilities, such as anonymising exposed data to avoid it being associated personally with a particular individual, even among members of your team. There are also other ethical considerations such as not attributing unintended meanings onto their responses. You should always reproduce them authentically and representatively of their opinions, attitudes and behaviours .

These principles are drawn from scientific disciplines involving field research, such as psychology and sociology, where teaching or training on research methods and ethics is compulsory. As a UX designer, you may not receive as rigorous a grounding, but you are also obliged to adhere, so it’s worth your time to become acquainted [7][8].

5. Your own mind can be your worst enemy

We all stereotype the world around us whether we are conscious of it or not; it’s how our minds reduce the burden of complexity, and allow us to make decisions instantly. While cognitive bias is useful for situations where information is limited or not available, in the nuances of an advanced society, quite often it deceives us in spite of the facts: we ascribe qualities and characteristics on people, things and events that are not actual [9].

During your UX research activities you are executing the role of a scientist; and science is a rigorous, disciplined, and methodical approach to determining the objective reality. It’s not meant to secure your comfort zone or nurse your delusions [10]. You have to be prepared to accept the results you get, not dismiss them because they are not the results you hoped for.

As a designer, you may not like criticism and be reluctant to change something you have striven for and that you believe is ideal; or the most resistance to your research findings may come from others within your organisation. It’s a natural result of assuredness from past success, but also detrimental to progress. If you follow the old adage that says the customer is always right, you won’t go far wrong.

6. Let the content lead the way at all times

I mentioned previously about end users being the most important of all stakeholders; you should regard the content you wish to present to them as the second. The best interface design is probably the one they won’t notice: it gets out of their way and puts the content first. Bringing your target audience the content in a fashion that is superior to rivals and possibly novel in the industry is most likely the raison d’être for the business case of your enterprise, not to mention your job role!

Find out what your content is as soon as possible in the research and design process. It doesn’t have to be a comprehensive catalogue, but there should be enough there to get to know its character, with plenty of diverse examples, similar to how you will map and model the personalities of your users. They are, after all, intrinsically linked:

  • What content is the user looking for, or are the actions they want to carry out?
  • What content does the business want them to see, or the actions to carry out?

Don’t be surprised if these are not necessarily the same while you are conducting your initial research! Many businesses treat content as an afterthought because there is a competitive pressure to believe that impressive graphic design is the driver of garnering user attention. SEO experts would disagree, and they’d be right. Creating sample content early prevents you designing with too many placeholders, which will exclude design constraints you need to take into account, or risk delaying your ultimate solution [11][12].

7. Realise from mighty oaks fall little acorns

A recurring theme in all approaches to research and strategies for design is to begin from a large scale, and then progress naturally towards an ending on a smaller scale. For instance, when you:

  • conduct research, you will start with broad ambiguity and finish with narrow certainty,
  • model systems, you will start with the high-level system and finish with low-level components,
  • prototype ideas, you will start with big rough strokes and finish down at small details,
  • create designs, you will start with grand ideas and finish by realising modest ones.

It’s the same pattern, and is integral to all robust problem solving methods, and even appears as a successful marketing strategy. For some people though, this is not the way they are comfortable working. Many people like to think about the little things first, or try to take in the whole picture all at once, but it is essential you make this funnelled thinking habitual in every aspect of your work flow. It helps you ensure that you can take all or most of your wrong turns early in the journey, but still arrive at your destination at the first time of trying.

8. Always carry paper, envelopes or napkins

Most of the greatest inspirational ideas were conceived as a hurried sketch or note on a scrap piece of paper. With all the modern devices and software to record our ideas now available, you will still find the most effective way to get ideas out of your head and into the real world is some old fashioned pen and paper; or onto a whiteboard and take pictures of anything useful with your smartphone!

For a creator, inspiration often comes in surges; an avalanche of ideas can occur when you are ‘in the zone’, so you want to get them down as quickly as possible; even experiment immediately to see if they are actually as good as you thought. You never know when the next dry spell will happen, or you’ll be hit with a case of writer’s block!

A picture paints a thousand words, so using an illustration to convey ideas to, or test them out on, users and colleagues is much more efficient and accurate. It can also save valuable time by churning out a lot of ideas early; or making the results of complex research easily digestible. You can then spend the time saved elaborating on the few candidates that survive the process using higher fidelity tools.

The imprecision and imperfection is expected: it’s not supposed to be the final product; it’s part of a process that will lead to it. There are many areas where you can benefit from this haphazard and ad lib approach. For instance, prototyping is a general term for a variety of techniques to develop ideas, such as wireframing, UX writing or proto-content creation.

9. Get into the habit of recycling your ideas

There are a number of well established methodologies in the realm of problem solving. No matter the particular field, they all follow the same basic sequence of research, design, engineering, construction and validation. Mathematicians, scientists, technicians, engineers all use it, and designers as well. Each alters the terminology somewhat to suit its particular context, with some variations on what happens within stages.

Software developers use the Unified Software Development Process (USDP) [13]; or rather derivatives of it, such as the Agile family of methodologies. Common ones include the management focussed Dynamic Systems Development Method (DSDM Atern) [14]; or the popular streamlined Extreme Programming (XP) and Scrum [15].

All of those varieties modify the practical application and prescribe additional management techniques depending on their culture. Most importantly, they all retain the core principles, which evolved after the rigid and linear philosophies of old gave way to modern cyclic approaches [16].

The main characteristics relevant to UX design are that researched use cases are fundamental to developing solutions; they are refined by iterating over the cycle of research, development and validation; and augmented with additional features in increments after a period of refinement is deemed sufficient. Then the whole process is repeated for the new incremented version.

UX designers do not follow on to engineering and construction of the final product, so their remit stops at producing prototypes. Instead, they use an approach called the Double-Diamond which is tailored just to the research and design phases. It embodies starting from a general exploration of possibilities, and honing down to isolate potential solutions; also referred to as the divergence-convergence model [17].

10. Don’t be shy about asking for feedback

Once you arrive at a solution, you will feed it back to stakeholders for validation, so the cycle repeats just like the software development methodologies. This can apply to any artefacts resulting from the design process, such as concepts, models, and prototypes. There is enormous benefit to involving your users from an early stage to test out even the most raw and basic forms. For instance, the wording of a value proposition, examples of UX writing, mockups of UI wireframes, and storyboards of a UI flow, can speed up progress towards effective prototypes.

At that stage, many more advanced tests, such as A/B and Multi-Variate Testing (MVT) can be applied to determine if a prototype is effective. This can be followed up by Rapid Iterative Testing and Evaluation (RITE), where prototypes are alterable to adapt instantly to criticism and be retested on the spot. This also prevents wasting resources on subsequent research gathering if you can identify and fix problems with your approach as soon as you become aware of them.

References

[1] UCL – Human-Computer Interaction MSc

[2] Interaction Design Foundation – Human-Computer Interaction (HCI)

[3] Smashing Magazine – A Comprehensive Guide To UX Research

[4] Interaction Design Foundation – User Centered Design

[5] The British Psychological Society – Data Protection Regulation: Guidance for Researchers

[6] Econsultancy – GDPR: 10 examples of best practice UX for obtaining marketing consent

[7] CityU – Research Methods

[8] American Psychological Association – Five principles for research ethics

[9] Mental Floss – 20 Cognitive Biases That Affect Your Decisions

[10] Psychology Spot – What is the Comfort Zone – and what’s not?

[11] Balsamiq – Content-First Design: Let the Content Determine the Design

[12] GatherContent – Content-first: the what, why and how

[13] BrainKart – Unified Software Development Process or Unified Process

[14] Methods & Tools – Introduction to DSDM Atern

[15] SeaLights – The Agile Process: Scrum, Kanban and XP

[16] ScienceDirect – Waterfall Model

[17] The Fountain Institute – What is the Double Diamond Design Process?