Hooray for User Experience Design

November 14th, 2012

Who do YOU design for?

There’s a lot of talk these days about user experience design, also known as UED, UEX and UX, typically applied to Web sites, apps and other so-called human-computer interaction (HCI).

Simply defined, it’s design decisions based on the needs and wants of users. In other words, UX designers had better know: who do you think you’re talking to? (my beloved slogan).

So, there’s a lesson here about communications. I asked my favorite UX designer/graphic designer/videographer*/ex-journalist/urban hipster/all-around strategic genius, Steven Neuman, for some insights.

Author and interviewee at corporate event, 2011

DA: So how would you define UED/UEX/UX (and do you have a preferred term)?

SN: I personally stick to UX – it’s become the industry standard and it’s really the most recognized way to talk about paying attention to how real people use computer-like devices, interfaces or even real-world interactions where technology in any form plays a role. I like to say that UX is invisible if it’s done properly. Most people only notice when someone hasn’t been paying attention to UX: Think of that crummy ATM where you just spend 20 seconds staring, just trying to get your bearings, or my favorite bad-UX strawman, those terrible digital cable box menus.

Those interfaces are really products of UX design work, so if I need to define the role of a user experience professional I would say she is tasked with balancing user needs, business requirements and technical limitations. It’s like trying to keep three plates spinning at once. Some will always be spinning faster, but you don’t want any to fall down entirely.

DA: As a former journalist, what do you see as the links between UED and communications?

SN: There’s really a tremendous amount of interviewing, narrative and storytelling in UX so I find there’s a lot of overlap. Most of the time we start with User Research – we’re doing interviews trying to understand what people need – and then we’ll create personas based on that empirical research. You then put those personas into fictional scenarios and tell stories to see what the product needs in order to fill the users’ needs. You start to create a real picture of someone and that really lets you get away from marketing-style concepts and really build things that people love and are highly usable. Also, in UX you can keep going back to the well and do testing and data mining of analytics to improve your products after a first pass, and that really draws on some the investigative techniques you develop as a journalist.

I’ll go back to that first ATM example. Maybe 10 years ago someone did some user research and using data from existing ATM machines figured out that a lot of people use the ATM to do a small number of key functions and one of them was probably withdrawing $40 of cash from checking.  In creating a “fast cash” button that just spits out $40 bucks and closes the transaction they saved people from having to do tons of unnecessary navigating just by rearranging the information architecture and applying some content strategy. That is a feature I know I use all the time and although it’s seeming small it makes my experience a little smoother and makes ATMs a more usable product.

Most people would not have been able to ask for that feature explicitly. There’s an old Henry Ford quote, and it’s probably apocryphal, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” You have to know how to get beyond what people say they want and read between the lines, so in some ways I’m still searching for the bigger truth.

DA: What do you find most compelling about your work as a UX designer?

SN: UX design really requires me to use all my skills. I have to be creative enough to solve a problem and have empathy and understanding for the user. I have to advocate for an otherwise silent stakeholder and that means paying attention to many different components like the information architecture, the visual design asthetic and the interaction design – and they all have to work together seamlessly. When you pick up a product you might not be conscious of all the work on those areas individually but collectively they make for a better experience and consciously people DO actually chose that over a bad or mediocre experience.

I firmly believe that’s also really why UX has become important and even somewhat buzz-worthy in the last few years. We’re becoming highly sophisticated as users and technology has become ubiquitous so quality has become a major differentiator in a very crowded market.

Thanks, Steven!

So who do you design for, and how do you take their needs into account? Please let me know or comment below.



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