An Unlikely Journey Into User Experience Design
When I was five-years-old I was hard-set that I was going to be in law enforcement. The crayon-drawn pictures of stick figures with badges was my effort to confirm that it was only a matter of time until adulthood. Sometimes I think about that when I’m at a party and someone asks me, “so what do you do for a living?” Damn it, here we go, “I’m a user experience designer.” Which is usually followed up by, “you’re a what?”
I can’t really blame them, many of us in the field of experience design often disagree on a formal definition. Typically, one’s definition depends on how you entered the field of study. Were you a designer? A developer? A psychologist? A marketer? As for me the study of it came surprisingly.
I was always pretty eclectic in the things I liked to learn about: design, engineering, programming, business, leadership studies, marketing, psychology… if it had a curriculum I probably spent at least a semester investigating it. I even studied mixing many of the concepts together. In one case it was called “organizational innovation.” Basically mixing design concepts with business theory, something today that is commonly called design thinking, coined by Stanford’s D School and endorsed by design firms like IDEO. Call it a low attention span or my general curiosity for the human condition, but after mixing enough concepts together I just kind of fell in love with experience design without warning.
So What is It?
More than anything good experience design, hell, good design is about empathy. That’s the single most important point in building great experiences. As a designer, you have to have a lot of empathy for your users. Put yourself in their shoes, their contexts, their backgrounds. If you don’t do that, you’ll find that you’re really designing something the way you think it’ll work best. Rarely are designers lucky enough to be the actual target audience for the interfaces they’re designing so listening to users is essential to a successful design.
As I see it this type of design isn’t new. There have been fields studying user interaction with information systems since the 1960s. Some of them were called Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) Engineers, a field of research that still strongly exists today. Another area of practice in technical experience design would be something like haptics, the study of kinesthetic communication or interacting with systems using touch and tactile feedback. Similarly, ergonomics (or human factors) involves the comfort and functional abilities of a user-friendly design.
Modern, digital, experience design however can be credited partially to Don Norman who in 2002 wrote a book called, The Design of Everyday Things, a book still studied today by designers working in the field of experience design. Norman outlined his practice of UCD or User-Centered Design. As a psychologist and cognitive scientist, he focused much more on how users were thinking and engaging with the world around them. It was less about systems and more about interaction, be it with physical devices like chairs, doors, and coffee pots or digital interfaces.
So what is user experience design? It’s the practice of delivering a product or service experience to a consumer that increases satisfaction by improving the ease of use and pleasure provided by using the product. It’s no small task and requires an understanding of various aspects of product development that exceed just considering how something is visually designed or the slogan used to market it.
A venn diagram by Information Architects, Inc. sums it up the best. It’s combining business, communication, design, interactive logic, and technology.
As the skill set continues to grow in popularity, it has become the norm in terms of developing anything for consumer interaction. The new practice of “Service Design” uses many of these same skills to align how a service meets the needs of those receiving it. Additionally, many software developers follow an Agile practice called “User Story Mapping” where they use storytelling and conceptual thinking to determine how users will interact with features of their products better to help developers build empathy and create the right features.
How Experience Design Fits into the Web
At GravityFree our clients get directly exposed to several user experience design techniques. Each project starts with a user walkthrough of features and goals, a process technically called a “Task Flow Analysis”. We use this to determine what a user is actually going to be doing on the website. From here we can make decisions on features and make sure we’re addressing our solutions in the simplest way possible. This process can happen through internal brainstorming or sometimes during a kickoff meeting with the client.
After task analysis and a good bit of user research we go through prototyping. Building out the interaction that happens between these features prior to visual design or formal programming. The prototyping framework that we use at GravityFree was internally developed specifically to meet the needs of our web clients in a way that accounts for issues in web applications and mobile solutions. During prototyping our team determines issues in information architecture and organization as well as issues in usability.
Even when our clients aren’t directly experiencing these processes we’re always working to take into account the importance of their users. Asking questions, doing research, and learning more about the users of the systems we’re creating are the essential aspects of creating great user experiences. So while the idea of User Experience Design can seem pretty abstract in many ways, it’s an important toolset in creating solutions that solve your customer’s problems and helps them enjoy their interactions with your company.
For those readers wanting to learn more about experience design and how it relates to web, information systems, or service design these books might help get you started on the right type of thinking.
- The Design of Everyday Things, by Don Normam
- Emotional Design, by Don Norman
- The Inmates are Running the Asylum, by Alan Cooper
- The Laws of Simplicity, by John Maeda