Great user experience is no longer a competitive advantage but a necessity; something that we and users alike expect and demand in the 2020s.
This article will introduce you to User Centred Design and User Experience as strategic assets in your business, regardless of your industry. Although the field is still fairly young, the best practices have been established. Implementing UX in your organisation, or taking it to the next level, isn’t a competitive advantage anymore but something that people expect from you, both online and offline. Throughout the article, you will learn why UX matters and what it exactly is, and get an idea of how to start implementing it in your company.
First, let’s define some key terms that often get mixed up.
Interaction is everywhere.
We, humans, constantly interact — with each other and ourselves, but also with the whole reality around us. Be it pedestrian crossing buttons, cars, fridges, cash machines, our mobile devices, or even food. We experience a constant ongoing interaction with various systems designed by various people ruled by individual rules. Sometimes they are appropriate for the context, sometimes, they may feature obsolete solutions.
Human-Computer Interaction – therefore, users interacting with a mobile app, website, or entire brand’s online presence – is only a small fraction of that interaction. This tiny piece of reality is what first designers were relentlessly looking at. However, users’ experience often goes beyond digital, so modern designers should look at designing holistic and comprehensive solutions in both worlds.
User experience design
User experience design is widely encountered in IT, particularly in software development, despite being more of a psychological field.
User experience, by definition, includes all users’ emotions, perceptions, beliefs, preferences, responses (both physical and psychological), and attitudes towards interacting with a particular system, product or service. These occur before, during and after each use. What matters for users then is the product’s efficiency, friendliness, and ease of use, making UX a subjective matter because every interaction is about individual perception.
What user experience design (UXD) is trying to achieve is to improve the satisfaction of that interaction by enhancing products’ usability, accessibility, and even users’ pleasure. That’s how it became a problem-solving field, full of researching and measuring how users respond to and interact with systems.
UCD, on the other hand, is an iterative design process which supports and enhances user experience. Here designers focus on users and their needs, gaining a really deep understanding of who and how will be using the product. This, by all means, should overlap with a product life-cycle design and development.
In each phase, the user-centred design offers a variety of research and design techniques to create highly usable and accessible products and systems. Understanding end users’ needs are invaluable and can be implemented with even better results if the process itself is iterative.
Jakob Nielsen, the father of usability, came up with 10 usability heuristics for designing user interfaces. Let’s have a look at some of them:
Visibility of system status
Any digital product we design should keep users informed about what is going on by providing timely feedback.
For example, in early versions of web browsers, there were no, or very few, hints to make users aware that a webpage they were interested in was loading. A loading circle icon was soon invented, but it had its limitations too – the circle was often rotating indefinitely without giving any information to the user when a webpage will actually load.
Progress bars have been, so far, the best solution as the speed of the animated loading bar can give users an idea of when the process will reach the end and the webpage will load.
Consistency and standards
In design, it’s important to follow conventions and patterns that serve users well, so that they don’t have to think twice when performing a common action.
In a non-digital world, this rule operates well while shopping. Customers may visit a particular shop for the first time but trained by past experiences, they will often know how to pick their desired items, find a cashier and pay for them.
Similarly, in a digital world, users have a certain set of expectations – if a website features four very different buttons, each is expected to offer something new with a click. Imagine my surprise in the most recent usability audit of a website where all four home page buttons led to exactly the same outcome – automatically scrolling the page down to stop on a contact form. As a user, I tried to avoid having to fill out the form, and so I pressed every other button, hoping for a different action...
User control and freedom
A non-digital world is ruled by laws we became familiar with at school, but certainly, we experienced their outcomes much earlier in life. In a virtual world, however, the experience is somewhat abstract – there’s no gravity, no real past and future, nor up and down (only agreed on in a particular context). Therefore, to help users orientate themselves around digital products, designers have to introduce handrails more intentionally.
For example, for the past two decades, we have observed a very wide implementation of breadcrumbs telling users where they are in their journey. In an online shop, a line of breadcrumbs could go like this: Shop → Products → Books → Fiction → Classics → 1984 Nineteen Eighty-Four, immediately telling users where they are and how they can come back to where they once were.
Web and mobile apps often offer another interesting feature which gives users an extra sense of control – the Undo (and Redo) button showing as soon as users perform actions they may regret.
It’s always a good practice to inform users about a problem within their user journey. However, an even better practice is to prevent these errors from occurring. Whenever it’s possible, users shouldn’t see an error message at all. Why, you ask?
Let’s imagine users have a list of options on a website or in a mobile app. They choose the first one and... bum! – an error message suddenly spreads onto the entire screen saying ‘Option unavailable’. If the option isn’t available users shouldn’t see it at all. And if they really have to see it, it’s better to grey it out, make it unclickable and perhaps even explain why it’s not available at that particular moment.
Another good example is web pages being under construction. We don’t really see much of these any more and there is a good reason for that – good designers know they shouldn’t promise content (for example, in the menu) which isn’t really there.
Recognition rather than recall
It’s very important to reduce users’ cognitive load. We all live busy lives and tend to have less and less tolerance for extra and unnecessary usage of our operational memory. In a world where attention is the new currency, designers should ask their users to think only when it’s absolutely necessary.
For example, if a product requires users to make a decision, all information supporting users to make that decision should be visible on one screen. If an online shopping process asks on step 4 about something relating to step 1, perhaps as designers, we should lay out the information in the current step instead of asking users to recall it from their memory? Also, instructions should be clear and in the place users are in. The rule is the same for the interface itself – it should be consistent to the point that users become more fluent in using it the more they interact with it.
To summarise, how to then quickly recognise a usable interface? It has to meet the following conditions:
- User becomes familiar with and competent in using the user interface on the first contact.
- User finds it easy to achieve their desired objective by using that product.
- User finds it easy to recall the interface and knows how to use it on their next visits.
For example, a user arriving at a hotel booking website should intuitively know how to move through all steps of the process to successful completion of booking without having to learn about that particular website or app, and without looking for any help or support. The interface should speak for itself. Every element should communicate its purpose through its appearance and placement (form follows function).
Design Thinking, a super trending methodology in recent years, is a slightly different concept yet still very much connected to others.
Basically, Design Thinking is a creative problem-solving approach. Its main focus is to help teams develop creative and innovative solutions, and as a side effect, it facilitates the creation of common ground. It happens through emphasising the shared vocabulary – teams can only move as quickly as they can successfully communicate. Therefore, instead of spending too much time defining what they are building (because this gets sorted out quickly), the focus is on how they will build it and what users of that product will do in specific scenarios.
In this process, tangible artefacts are being produced, such as empathy maps, storyboards and wireframes, prioritisation matrices, journey maps, prototypes, low-fidelity mockups and many other diagrams. They often become new project documentation because they are more likely to successfully convey an idea than just a word-based document. They are also easy to get back to and amend if necessary.
Lastly, Design Thinking helps develop a trust-based team culture. In traditional organisations omnipresent were and still are hierarchies which play a key role in decision-making. As a result, often, it might be the highest-paid person’s opinion or the loudest voice in the team that wins. But then entire teams may end up having not well-researched ideas, unambiguous goals and wasted time on endless disagreements.
An alternative to this problem is equality. In Design Thinking, ideas are shared silently on post-it notes so that everyone can express theirs. As a result, everyone has an input in the project – which means that teams’ strength increases because people tend to believe more in something they were involved in from the beginning. This collaborative approach motivates employees and improves job satisfaction and retention of employees. It changes the company on the whole, from the inside, by producing high-performing teams committed to collaboration in the long term.
Design Thinking certainly isn’t new at all. It’s an approach to projects that have been used for many years in other industries. However, it’s still not that common in software development. But, as it enhances innovation and creativity in a real sense, and often helps build strong teams, we will see much more of it in upcoming years. You, as a designer, or someone overseeing them, can certainly accelerate the movement by starting with your environment and reaping the benefits early.
WhyHow UX matters
We all know that user experience matters; that’s why, I believe, you came across this article in the first place, so instead of explaining why I will quickly jump to how much it actually matters and how big a difference it can actually make to an organisation, also financially.
First of all, let’s have a look at the market.
Whether we talk about web or mobile apps, the market is growing, it’s really competitive, and in many areas, I would say, saturated. The completely new ecosystem of mobile apps, formed in the past few years, is now one of the biggest industries on this planet. New mobile apps are coming out every day, probably even every hour. But people don’t suddenly use more apps.
According to TechCrunch, an average mobile user interacts with only 9 mobile apps a day, and apparently only 30 a month. So having your app installed on users’ devices suddenly becomes a noble place to be in. It’s no longer enough just to create a product that solves a problem and place it in the app store. Instead, companies have to fight for their users, often by competing for the best user experience.
To be worthwhile players, apps must be relevant to users and address and solve a real problem, a pain point, in the most smooth way possible without extra hassle. Such apps will manage to trigger even more interest and trust if the brand speaks in the tone of voice of its very users.
Nowadays, all of this is user experience design. A couple of years ago, UXD focused on how the app looks and how users get from one screen to the next. Today, it’s about taking care of the entire experience users have with that product and brand, as well as everything that has happened to them before using it in that particular context of their lives. Let me clarify – if your software solves a problem people are having, then the pain point has already been there for a while, and people have lived with it. They either solved it in a certain way familiar only to them and people alike or came up with a workaround of some sort. If your business is targeting this particular problem and you desire that people move towards your solution, then we’re talking about designing a behaviour change where users take extra steps to move from one solution to another, hopefully, a better one. How do you motivate them?
We are all humans, and our patience has its limits. According to the stats, we uninstall apps that send us annoying notifications or expect us to go through complex and troublesome sign-ups. This issue takes us back to users’ capacity and their tolerance for the extra cognitive load I mentioned earlier – if users can’t move from screen to screen intuitively without having to think much, why would they bother? They will often drop out from such a process, for example, of registration and will never create an account. By the time your designers fix the experience, those users will already be advocating for your competitor.
It’s not an understatement to say that dissatisfying user experiences cause more harm than just a momentary annoyance and affect the brand’s future. Users with bad experiences are 45% less likely to return, and many of them will maintain a negative perception of that particular brand. They will also be less likely to recommend it. A high risk of having a bad word spread produces users who are not willing to use a product without even having any direct contact with it. And tolerance for that is, on average, even lower the younger the user is.
In October 2018, McKinsey published the results of extensive research measuring how design actions unlock business value. They studied 300 companies from different sectors over 5 years. Out of thousands of design actions, they identified, that those companies were performing, and 12 of them had a heavy correlation with the company's improved financial performance. They outperformed the industry benchmark’s financial growth by 2:1…
McKinsey organised those actions, significant to companies’ performance, into four categories:
User Experience – More than a product
Companies inclined to succeed have implemented user experience design fully, integrating all experiences.
This is only possible if designers truly understand the customer and the customer journey, making space for all user pain points. They could only start thinking outside of their current ecosystem and create holistic user experiences. A good example of looking wholistically and therefore removing boundaries between digital and non-digital are mobile payment services such as Google Pay and Apple Pay. They created easier ways to access cash. This could only be a result of out-of-the-box thinking and analysing the underlying needs of potential users.
Continuous Iteration – More than a phase
Design flourishes best in environments that encourage learning, testing, and user experimentation. With such an iterative approach, there are simply no irreversible design phases in product development, so users' voices don’t get lost.
In McKinsey’s research, companies that didn’t cut spending on research, prototyping, or concept generation outperformed other ones.
Cross-Functional Talent – More than a department
Another key finding is that user-centric design should be everyone’s responsibility.
Meaning, no tolerance for guarding access to ideas, no unproductive complaining about other departments, and no not admitting other colleagues’ great visions. Design touches many parts of a business, and designers can only make an impact if they have the right tools, capabilities and infrastructures. In an ideal environment, everyone advocates for UCD and further enable it.
Analytical Leadership – More than a feeling
Companies that tracked design performance as rigorously as they tracked revenues and costs, again, as expected, did better overall. I believe it’s important that senior executives embrace design metrics and do not act on a feeling telling them which design they like more. There’s also a misconception that design decisions aren’t relevant enough to be brought up to C-level. But it’s down to designers too to actively show management how their designs tie to meeting business goals.
User-centred design process
As we are done with the basics, I would like to present you with the UCD process I’ve been successfully relying on at Duesday. It took us all the way from defining first requirements to iterating design artefacts and usability testing to, luckily for us, even winning awards. However, I will broaden the scope to show you the full power of UX because no company needs all the design assets on offer. Every case is different.
Research → Insight → Concept → Design (→ Implementation & QA) → Monitoring
Research – Observe, ask, listen
Research is a common start for many projects in many industries. However, it’s worth emphasising that researching is not a phase that happens just once. It’s required for any new product, service, or feature, but also for any bigger change in that product or market behaviour.
At Duesday, I divided the research process into three categories. I separately researched the business, market and target audience, however, each category informed the other.
I started by gathering requirements in a classic form, for example, by defining success metrics together with stakeholders (or clients, if you are an agency). I also ran business and design workshops to reveal hidden knowledge.
Simultaneously, we identified who are the key players on the market – direct and indirect competitors – and who is on the rise to keep an eye on, focusing on their strengths and weaknesses and learning about their audience too. I even looked into who really inspires us and who we look up to (I find that for many companies, it’s Apple).
Lastly and most certainly not least, we researched our target audience, our future users. We reached out to publicly available research and insights, ran surveys and tests, and talked to people to learn about their problems and how they solve them but also to seek individual stories to develop a good feel for their situation (if the product already existed I would also intend to understand how it performed so far).
This phase can’t miss the tech research to understand opportunities and any potential limitations imposed by the technology.
Insight – Process, extract, prioritise
We can’t run research and collect data without generating insights on the spot. But obviously, we had to put extra effort into producing quality judgements.
We started with affinity maps and diagrams to sort the information, and used our favourite MoSCoW method to prioritise features: those that are the bare minimum (if you ask the question “What happens if this requirement is not met?” and the answer is “Cancel the project, because it doesn’t make sense otherwise.” then you know this is a must-have), those that are important and should be delivered but are not vital (it might be painful to leave them out but the solution is still viable without them), the ones that could be delivered if there is enough time / budget / resources (but are less important with less impact if left out), and finally features that only make sense if time and resources are unlimited (these are the requirements that team agrees will not be delivered but can revisit them in the next phase).
We couldn’t ignore user personas (data-based fictional characters representing user types to know and remember who we are designing for), nor user stories (a software requirement from an end-user perspective written in a particular format “As a (persona) I want (need), so that (purpose)”, for example, “As Paula, I want to organize my work, so I can feel more in control”), and so these became essential design artefacts too.
Other may include user journeys, empathy maps, storyboards…
Concept – Sketch, test, validate, iterate
At this point in our journey, I started designing our complex system in a way that allowed me to simulate the user flow for testing. We did early usability tests with users by relying on interactive wireframes built carefully with Axure (we even used global variables for users’ input so that the prototype could respond accordingly). Another method, a bit cheaper one, could be testing an idea with a paper prototype. Both result in plenty of feedback, feeding further iterations of the concept and giving it more and more refined detail.
Design – Prototype, test, package
When we proved (and improved) the concept, we could start refining the finest detail and truly simulate the final experience and product’s look and behaviour. High-fidelity prototypes find their place in this phase because their creation triggers extra questions, and sometimes extra sub-iterations of the process. The output, a finished detailed prototype, can be used for anything from detailed usability testing to investor pitches to documenting product specifications for developers – especially if they are assisted by style guides and other pieces of information required for the handover.
It’s not the first time developers have heard about the product they are about to build. They often started building it already by being involved in the process from early beginnings, improving and strengthening the final shape of the product. But this doesn’t end the designers’ job. They still have to assist developers with testing and making sure the final product meets the requirements. I assure you there will be lots of mini user-centred design processes happening here to look more into certain features, for example, on a monthly or even weekly basis.
Monitoring – Measure, analyse, plan
Once the product is ready, the real fun starts – even more detailed usability tests become an option, as well as continuous tracking of data on a huge scale. Observing how users in their real lives click and move around a product identifies future areas for improvement and design evolution. It’s important at this point to be open-minded and abandon the fear of being wrong. Designers can never know it all when making decisions. The best they can do is to make the most informed decisions, but real validation awaits outside.
I hope this article has given you a good insight into UX's relevance. I’ve touched on how we implemented it in our organisation, Duesday, and showcased some of the design artefacts we produced in an additional video format.
If you don’t have a UX designer at the moment, this is a good starting point, and I encourage you to look up many of the design artefacts I mentioned to see how they could be relevant to your business and your current challenges. And if you do have a UX designer on board, you have found out what it is that they are trying to achieve and what support they may require from you. All in all, there is no excuse not to treat your business opportunity as a design problem.
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