- What Does it Mean to be Simple?
- Is UX the Key to a Long-lasting Business?
- The Ghost of Decisions Past
- How to Identify the Best Design Problems
- Why "Clean" Isn't Such a Dirty Word For Designers
- Is Facebook Temporary?
- Knowing Your Audience: Lessons from the Gaming Industry
- Building a Shared Understanding
- Usability Testing: Getting Design Teams Onboard
- Words are the soul of UX
- UX: The Enemy Within
- The Long & Short of Writing for the Web
- Keeping Safe Those Things We Hold Precious; Our Memories
- Kill Your Darlings
- Keep On Learning
- Groupon and the Value of Copywriting
- Designers Lie. That's OK.
- What makes a good UX Designer?
- Design Systems Need To Be Challenged
- Match the Tool to the Problem
All designers say simplicity is important, but what does it really mean to make something simple? Most of the time we think it means less, that by removing stuff we achieve simplicity. We think by keeping content above the fold we're helping people focus, or by using bullets instead of paragraphs more people will read it, or by cutting text in half it becomes more clear. But simple doesn't mean "less". A better definition would be "just enough". Oops, I may have oversimplified there… In some cases designs actually need more of something to become simple. So a better definition of simple is "just enough for comprehension and the ability to pursue and complete our goals". Instead of hiding or cutting stuff away, here is how we can achieve more meaningful simplicity in our designs: * HAVE A SINGLE CORE IDEA (not several ideas, or a partial idea) * IMPROVE CLARITY OVER TIME (don't overwhelm with inappropriate details) * USE CONSISTENCY (avoid using unnecessarily unique interfaces and messages) HAVE A SINGLE CORE IDEA Attention and interest are the first things you need to develop to get someone to take any kind of action. The best way to grab attention and build interest is to present a single core idea, fully fledged. This allows the user to make a binary decision about it: "Am I interested or not?". Introducing a feature in a way that people can instantly map it to a desired outcome will help them prioritize and be confident about their next step. The need to present a single core idea is true from the big picture all the way down to each of the smallest features.
"Nothing says Send Message, like the words 'Send Message'." - Des Traynor @destraynorThis is an example of a small feature being extremely clear to an outcome. The copy here could have been "Go" or "Submit Now" or just "Send". None of these are as clear or binary as "Send Message", which in two words allows people to confidently agree or disagree with it. As you move into more complex features being binary gets exponentially harder, but the goal should remain the same: lead people with a core idea that properly sets their expectations. If we fail to do this, the perception of complexity will grow. A single core idea is: * Binary - simple enough that there are only two sides to it…allowing people to assess their agreement or not. * Stated in plain language - be as clear and obvious about the problem or opportunity as possible. * Repeated constantly - every interface should reiterate the appropriate problem or opportunity where appropriate. * Tied to an outcome - the end goal of each problem or opportunity should always be visible. IMPROVE CLARITY OVER TIME After gaining people's interest, getting them to invest their time and mental energy is the next big step. Even when your audience finds your application interesting, there can still be lots of friction. If they're intimidated by it, the adoption rate will be slow. You have to show them that they can accomplish their goals without frustration.
"Web copy: Write too little and the meaning doesn't come through. Write too much and the block is skipped because it was too thick to scan." - Ryan Singer @rjsMuch like a conversation that is refined over time, the right details in the right moments will give momentum to the process and increase the chances of it reaching a positive end. Removing relevant, but inappropriate details, will keep people moving forward and reduce the chances of being distracted. Remember, every investment of time or mental effort without a meaningful result will add to the perception of complexity. Improve clarity over time with: * Clear starting and ending points - make sure it's obvious how to do something valuable within an interface. * Progressive disclosure - be appropriate: put focus only those details that help with comprehension of the current task. * Obvious paths - always provide a clear transition to the next step or level of detail. USE CONSISTENCY A new user and a long-time user are very different animals. If you want to keep people around, you need to help them feel like they're mastering each part of the application and have no reason to worry about the next one. Each feature needs to be approachable enough to seem enjoyable and feel like it's going to be the best use of their time and energy.
"Whether it is flags waving in the wind, the difference between empty or crowded train platforms, or the footprints in the fields that suggest paths to follow, we search for significant signs in the world that offer guidance." - Don Norman @jnd1erShowing people a friendly face will give them confidence and put a smile on their face. Help people see things they've seen before and draw conclusions based on things they already know. There's nothing wrong with a complex interface when you have a complex problem, but there's no excuse for dropping someone off in a foreign land without a guide or a map. That's just mean. Be consistent through: * Consolidating routines - identify similar processes and use similar approaches. * Building patterns - put similar things in similar places so people can act through intuition. * Occasionally breaking the rules - know when an interface is genuinely unique-it's probably not as often as you think. WHEN MORE IS LESS Prevailing wisdom suggests that simplicity is about less…removal and reductionism. But simplicity is really about comprehension and clarity of purpose…can we design such that people instantly understand what's going on and make a confident decision about what to do next? To practically achieve simplicity we can stick to a single core idea, improve clarity over time, and use consistency to help users achieve efficiency. In this way more can be less…by adding the appropriate details at the appropriate time the entire process comes to seem simple to the people using it. Simplicity has tricked us into thinking its about less. But it's really about having just enough.
"But what if the firm was driven, not by the goal of short-term profitability, but by the goal of continuous innovation in service of finding new ways of delighting customers? The new bottom line of this kind of organization becomes whether the customer is delighted. Conventional financial measures such as maximizing shareholder value are subordinated to the new bottom line. Profit is a result, not a goal."Writing for Forbes, Steve Denning elucidates the work of Clayton Christensen, whose book The Innovator's Dilemma (first chapter here) continues to redefine business success in the 21st century. After studying many industries over several decades, Christensen concludes that a relentless focus on the user experience, not profit, is what is driving today's best companies like Amazon, Apple, and Salesforce. Instead of squeezing every last drop out of the existing business (milking the cash cow), these companies are constantly searching for better ways to delight their customers, even if it cannibalizes their existing businesses. Consider that Apple's greatest competitor for the iPod was not a product from another company, but their own next product, the iPhone. The Innovator's Dilemma starts with a brilliant question: "How can great firms fail?" Instead of assuming that firms become incompetent, Christensen assumes they are acting rationally even as they get upended in the marketplace. Instead of asking "How did they get so dumb so quickly?" Christensen asks "Why do leading companies with extremely smart leaders still get disrupted?". Most armchair analysis generally assumes that leaders become incompetent…and of course incompetence can be used to explain _anything_. Christensen, a Harvard business professor, is not a designer and did not intend to get into the game of user experience…nor did he focus much on design when investigating why leading companies tended to be disrupted by smaller companies with seemingly different goals. The importance of user experience wasn't Christensen's initial focus…but it was the end result of listening to what the data had to say. And the data shows that user experience is a key differentiator. But why? Easy. Customer happiness is a leading indicator of the future health of any company. If you are making people happy, and continually invest and innovate to make people happy, then they will keep giving you their money for your product or service. It's such a simple equation that it goes without saying…and because it goes without saying it is often forgotten. When you're looking at spreadsheets with dollar signs on them all day it is very easy to lose sight of the happiness of your customers. In the same way that tweaking a design can lead one to get stuck in a local maximum for that screen, optimizing your existing business around the current product line can get your entire company stuck in a local maximum…so that by the time you realize it's not working anymore it's already too late. So what are the changes this leads to? Here are several: * CUSTOMER HAPPINESS BECOMES THE #1 METRIC.To continually innovate and produce designs that make people happy, profit cannot be the #1 metric of a company. Instead, it's an indirect play for customer happiness. To solve for customer happiness, now and going forward, is to continually innovate and look for opportunities to delight. One way to measure customer happiness is with Net Promoter Score, or NPS. NPS is a customer loyalty survey given out to customers that asks a simple question "How likely is it that you would recommend our company to a friend or colleague?". If people are likely to recommend you to a friend you can be confident that they're happy as a customer. Apple uses NPS to gather customer feedback…it is said their managers call unhappy customers within 24 hours based on this approach. (see my notes in Metrics Driven Design for more) * DESIGN IS NEVER DONE. You don't release and forget. You release and renew. If the goal is continuous innovation then product teams are responsible for the designs they release and continually improving those designs. Obviously after release a product won't be pushed on as hard, but its likely that it's not perfect. Look at Apple's iLife software…very small improvements every year but enough to keep the software at or near the top…and then a feature like Faces (one of my all-time favorite features of any software) keeps them there for several more years. If a product is successful then it moves the bar higher for everyone, including itself. * EXPERIMENTATION IS THE NEW NORMAL. In addition to continually improving what you have, experimenting with new stuff becomes critical. Experimentation in design is still relatively new for many people. But those companies who are known for experimenting…Amazon, Facebook, Google, Twitter, are finding that it is a key to long-term profitability. It took Twitter years of experimentation to find the right advertising play, but now they have a model that really works for their customers. And those experiments should be simple, following Gall's Law. Continually create simple things and launch them to figure out where the next big breakthrough will happen. The end result of this experimentation is that you compete with yourself. It's so much better to be your own competitor than to have it be someone else. Most designers and product people have known for a long time that a great user experience is important for long term success. But when business people start talking design it's a good indicator that the playing field has changed.
Ghosts: invisible specters often thought to be trapped between worlds, left to torment the living or act as a messenger from the beyond. They invoke fear because we can't touch them, can't see them, and we don't fully understand their existence—much like the mysterious design decisions that often haunt your product. Constraints drive and shape the design of any product. They are the foundation of a good decision-making framework, allowing multiple people to work in unison with a shared understanding. Constraints enable teams to rapidly iterate and create multiple scenarios or designs to solve the problems at hand. Eventually, constraints can give birth to a set of design patterns, components, interactions, and even shared vocabularies that become the building blocks of your design system. Sometimes constraints are codified in some internal document on the company intranet (or maybe Google Docs). Sometimes they are printed out and hung on walls. More often than not, constraints are shared like most history: _word of mouth_. And while you can see them in various comps or wireframes, their reason for being is often not documented or clearly articulated. What you end up with instead is the classic _"we've always done it like that"_ explanation. This doesn't seem like a terrible problem on the surface. However, as a project goes on and more people get involved, decisions continue to informed by constraints that existed at one point in the process but either no longer exist or have changed in such a way to be virtually unrecognizable. Fortunately, there are a few things that can be done to avoid these ghosts from haunting the development of your product. The first, is to hold regular design reviews that include a quick refresher of the design principles and constraints. This will get everyone on the same page and any confusion or misunderstanding can be addressed at this point. Throughout the review, the single best question we can ask is "WHY?" "Why are the labels verbs?" "Why are we using a :hover state for this information?" "Why is our grid laid out this way?" "Why are we using that color?" "Why is this flow six steps?" "Why don't we display information about ______ here?" Everyone of these and a thousand more are absolutely valid and important questions to continue to ask—even if you have answered them before. Asking "Why?" forces us to think through how we arrived at this current solution and why it continues to be the most appropriate solution. A designer may be using components that have been developed throughout the design process, but if they cannot articulate why they are using them and why the pattern exists, there is a good chance the design will eventually topple like a house of cards. The second solution involves augmenting your existing design process with something I like to call "decision notes." Decision notes are simply an annotation of why certain decisions were made and how they were implemented visually and interaction-wise. Many teams use some sort of wireframe/early-design process and do indeed annotate these with precise specs for layout, padding, behaviors, etc. Rarely do you see any documentation of _why_. Admittedly, doing something like this in Photoshop or Fireworks seems very tedious. Not to mention that there is a huge barrier to entry and the updating process is rather laborious. The great news is that more and more design and user experience teams are beginning to adopt a "prototype-first" approach and build wireframes with HTML and CSS. The practice of commenting your code is a fairly common and is an easy way to help others quickly understand how things work and relate to each other. This seems like the perfect vehicle for Decision Notes. For example, you could annotate your HTML and CSS with something like this:
One of the core principles of UX is to solve existing problems, or problems that people are already struggling with. While this might not be as glamorous as inventing a brand new thing it is more practical: it makes identifying problems easier and people are much more receptive to your design. If you're solving a known problem you don't have to convince anybody that your design is valuable…they already know exactly why they want to use it. Unfortunately, there are far more problems than there are designers to solve them. So how do you know you're solving a problem that's worth solving? How do you know that the problem you're trying to solve is a real pain point that people will pay money for? How can you be sure that you're prioritizing problems such that the one you're focused on is the most important one? Here is a simple framework that does just that: 1. ARE PEOPLE FRUSTRATED? If you ask people what their problems are, you're likely to get a laundry list of issues as an answer. Saying we have a problem is easy, but the real problems are the ones we get emotional about. Frustration is the first clue that people have a real problem on their hands. They might not know how to articulate the problem they have but if they are frustrated then a problem exists somewhere. Frustration comes in several forms: * They complain about it. (our favorite way to express frustration) * They reluctantly accept something as "the way it is" * It's on a list of things to do * They're asking others for opinions & recommendations If people aren't frustrated, it means the issue at hand is not a real problem yet or they don't recognize it's a problem. Don't try to convince people they have a problem…look for existing frustration instead of creating it anew. Sometimes people are frustrated and don't know exactly why. If people could articulate the root problem they might have solved it by now. So do user research by interviewing them, employing the Five W's technique, or otherwise finding out what the real problem is. Once you know the real problem, often the solution presents itself. 2. ARE PEOPLE ACTIVELY TRYING TO SOLVE IT? Frustration is a major clue that a problem is important, but people get frustrated by a lot of things, some of which they'll never do anything about. And, amazingly, some things stay problems forever! So try to wait until people take action against their problem in some way. This means they've prioritized the problem to one they really care about and are ready to take on. Look for behavior that shows people are taking action. Are they cobbling together a solution from existing parts? Have they started a project with the express intent of taking on this problem? Are they amassing a library of information about this problem? Are they trialing software that is focused on this problem area? People pay lots of lip service to problems they're having but we have many more problems than time to solve them. So look for action, however small, to guide your design efforts. 3. ARE PEOPLE ALREADY SPENDING MONEY? Taking action is a necessary step, but it isn't the best signal that we're onto a great problem. People spending money is the strongest signal we have that they value the problem and would value a design that solved it for them. Here are some ways that people might spend money: * PURCHASED SOFTWARE - If they have purchased existing software then it's a good sign this is a real problem to them. Note that this doesn't mean they are happy…if they're frustrated with existing software that they paid for then you can be further sure it's a core problem. * HIRED CONSULTANTS - they don't know how to solve the problem…they want to get another brain on the job. When I was consulting this was key…many people were trying to solve a problem for so long that they couldn't think objectively about it. What they needed was someone familiar with the problem space who didn't have their head in the weeds. Being close to a problem for too long can actually make it much harder to solve! * BUILDING IT THEMSELVES - this means that existing tools are yet good enough to solve the problem yet its worth the investment to get it solved. Building yourself is a crucial indicator that you've prioritized this problem to the top of your list. PRIORITIZING THE MOST IMPORTANT PROBLEMS Prioritization is a core competency of UX designers. We have to prioritize the people we design for, the features we choose to build, the elements on a page, as well as the overall problems we choose to solve. But choosing problems isn't always easy…people have no end to the improvements they want made in their lives. This simple framework helps you prioritize problems based on people's actual behavior, not just what they say or think. By focusing on whether people are frustrated, already taking action, or most importantly already spending money, UX designers can be sure they're tackling the most important problems for their clients and customers.
You have probably heard someone say, "That design is so clean!" Or perhaps you've scanned your RSS feed and seen titles like "1000 Clean and Minimalist Designs", "Super-clean, Simple, Minimal Website Designs", or "How to Design Clean, Typographic, Minimalist Sites." I normally throw up in my mouth a little when I encounter such phrases. But I have to admit that I catch myself using these words unintentionally (on rare occasion, of course) when I am struck by a design that doesn't rely heavily on design trends of the moment, but rather takes an approach that puts the content first, without much ornamentation. It's strange that so many people default to the term "clean". A friend and co-worker wrote about this recently saying that using the term "clean" is "quite possibly the worst feedback anyone can ever give… It’s piss poor feedback." While I agree with the larger point in principle, it got me thinking about the unspoken volumes of communication provided to us when someone uses a word such as "clean" to describe design. The sum of our lives is sometimes conveyed as much in what we don't say as what we do say. How we were raised, the things we were exposed to—the type of home we lived in, the style of clothing we wore, the company we kept—all left indelible marks on us as a person. So I spent some time thinking about what "clean" means to me. My first thought was of my childhood home and chores. My mother taught us all how to help keep our home "clean." Neat. Orderly. Not dirty, grungy or disregarded. And then I thought of my beautiful wife, whose ability to create the right atmosphere in any space comes from her desire to make any room into a clean, inviting, uncluttered space that draws you in and makes a place for you. Balanced. Harmonious. Peaceful and inspiring. Suddenly, using the term "clean" to describe a design no longer made me want to retch. In fact, this word actually carries with it part of my formative years, things that shaped and informed my own personal aesthetic. Through this little exercise I realized that when people are describing a design, the words they use may actually be freighted with much more meaning and experience than we perceive. That said, I do not support the egregious overuse of simple terms to categorize a style of design that can be subtle and varied. But the next time someone uses a word you consider generic or uninformed, take a moment to think about all the different things that one word could actually be communicating. And then ask them to tell you more. Start a conversation around the design and give them other opportunities and other ways to describe the experience of seeing and interacting with your design. In the end, we are all human and our experiences shape the way we communicate. Don't be too quick to dismiss someone's feedback just because of the language they use. Odds are, there just might be more to it than you realize. P.S. If you are a designer working with other designers, you are responsible to expand your vocabulary and offer critical feedback that is concise and actionable. Do your homework and be honest. And don't point to this article to try get you off the hook.
Last week, the most prestigious investment bank in the world, Goldman Sachs, decided to invest almost 2 billion dollars in the social network Facebook (a mix of its own and its clients capital), which on paper made the six year old startup worth $50,000,000,000. Yes, a social networking site is now worth $50 Billion Dollars. With a B. The recent frenzy around the Goldman Sachs investment as well as the selling of private shares has been a sight to see: everyone wants in on the action. To the casual observer Facebook can do no wrong, they are still growing strong and everyone seems to want in on it. But, if you've ever been a part of an online social network, you might be wondering…what happens when all the cool kids leave and nobody goes there anymore? It has happened with all of them so far, from the online BBSes of the 80s right up to Facebook's predecessor MySpace, which while still having millions of users is doing poorly financially and has lost its cool edge. Douglas Rushkoff, who has witnessed and chronicled the rise of the Web as well as anybody, thinks that the recent investment is actually a signal that Facebook has reached its zenith, and will soon join the ranks of all the other "been there, done that" social networks. In Facebook Hype will Fade, he lays out his argument: Rushkoff writes:
_This week’s guest author is Matt Ventre, a user experience designer at MessageFirst in Philadelphia, PA._ Now that we’re settling in to play our new, more-amazing-than-ever video games procured over the holidays, it makes sense to ask: “What can the UX folks learn from the wildly successful gaming world?" In a word: _audience_. The video gaming marketplace’s vibrant success over the past five years is marked by leaders who focus on very different, specific audiences. Nintendo has won a following of people who prefer local, group-oriented, and physical experiences. Microsoft’s XBox platform has focused on hard-core, online gamers. Apple’s mobile devices are focused on quick, entertaining games that you can play on the go. These companies succeed in great part by understanding their target audiences and designing both hardware and software to support their anticipated behaviors, just like UX designers do. WII - LOCAL, PHYSICAL, AND EASY With the Wii, Nintendo designed a play experience that focuses on the thrill of interacting with a game by simply waving one’s arms. The Wiimote controller operates on the idea that just about anyone can point a familiar-feeling remote at a screen and have a good time doing it. They capitalized on the segment of people who prefer local, group-oriented multiplayer experiences with low barriers of entry, a group which includes seniors, moms, and young children who are often ignored by the other platforms. Successful titles on the Wii are largely Nintendo-developed games that take full advantage of these two audience behaviors: Wii Sports and Wii Sports Resort, Wii Fit, and New Super Mario Bros. Wii. XBOX - ONLINE AND SOPHISTICATED Microsoft, on the other end of the spectrum, knew their core audience was comprised of dedicated gamers with a focus on dramatic and intense online multiplayer experiences. Successful Xbox titles are those that embrace the competitive nature of the audience by tapping into the rich online multiplayer service of Xbox Live: the Call of Duty franchise, the Halo franchise, and the Madden football franchise. These titles are often the complete opposite of the Wii experience. IPHONE/IPAD - ON THE GO MOBILE FUN While Apple doesn’t sell a dedicated gaming platform, their touch-screen devices with an accelerometer are proving to have a gaming appeal all their own. The best iPhone and iPad game developers know there is huge potential in devices that people carry with them at all times. The iPhone is a device that’s used in transit—while waiting in line, on the train ride to work, on the bus to school. Its strength is its ability to offer gamers little slices of entertainment throughout their day. These small slices of gameplay don’t demand the kind of dedication a play-session on the Xbox or Wii might. Instead, the most celebrated games for mobile devices harness the power of immediacy. Successful titles like Angry Birds and Tap Tap Revenge have excellent single-player modes that you can pick up easily where you left off. As UX designers, we have much to learn from the gaming industry. Delivering a top-notch design requires effort on a multitude of fronts, but we’ll find consistent success with an approach that begins with knowing our audience as deeply and confidently as Nintendo, Microsoft, and Apple.
_This week’s guest author is Bill Scott, Director of E-commerce UI Engineering at Netflix and co-author of the fantastic book Designing Web Interfaces: Principles & Patterns for Rich Interactions._ Years ago I was in an off-site with the design team for a well known, successful web site. During the course of the day I heard designers complain that what went live was often embarrassingly different from what they had handed over to engineering, even though they handed over static HTML/CSS for the page. So I asked if anyone knew what the disconnect was…what happened between the time they handed the code over and when the user visited the page? Their answer: "We don't really know. We just know that they cut up the pages into JSP files". I found out that none of the designers knew what that fully meant so I suggested a stunningly simple solution: "Let's get the engineering team to train you in their job. Pretend you are a new hire and let them teach you how to cut up the page." The result was enlightening. In JSP there were tags that defined reusable components and common HTML idioms. The result was the HTML had to be mapped into JSP syntax and often the components did not map with the variations that design called for or things were lost in the process. Understanding the whole process led to changes in the way the design team created the code and the way they communicated changes to the engineering team. This was a moment of _shared understanding_. Building a shared understanding between team members can bridge the gap between different ways team members think and work. Being fortunate to have observed both design and engineering worlds I see the maxim that designers are from Venus and engineers are from Mars holds true more often than not. While a generalization, the personalities attracted to these roles tend to force different world views and thus can lead to communication breakdown. While at Yahoo! I was privileged to work with Karon Weber, who had previously worked with two engineering-heavy teams: the Pixar animation tools team and Xerox PARC. Karon taught me valuable lessons on getting stuff live quickly by creating a shared understanding in the scrappy teams she formed. At Pixar, it's all about the story. For this reason Karon is a firm believer in something she calls getting “design into the wild”. Instead of locking design up as bits in Photoshop, the real power is getting design in front of others: on posters, on foam board, and out in the hallways where the commerce of ideas mix. A lot of the hack culture that imbibed Yahoo! at the time flowed from the merry little band that worked with Karon. Her story telling is just another form of shared understanding. One of the things I was most proud of at Netflix (the first time I worked there) was building a strong user interface engineering organization. But the success of that engineering organization was dependent on the design team having a shared understanding with the engineering team. It was not the case to begin with! The design team had a fuzzy view of the engineering teams challenges and concerns. And the engineers had little idea what the design team truly valued over what was just a nice to have. To help fix this one of the guys on my team, Brian Cox, did a simple thing: he started a Friday round table. Bring your ideas, complaints, kudos, and suggestions to a round table. No manager agenda. Just talk. It did wonders to create a shared understanding. Vocabulary came together. We decided rounded corners weren’t critical. Designers found out what was really hard and what was really easy. Asset delivery streamlined. And we streamlined the interface technology to deliver more features faster. All because of a shared understanding. Just last week I met with another very savvy design team. Inspired by the work that Erin Malone, Matt Leacock, myself and others did by launching the Yahoo! Design Pattern Library, they have their own pattern library. As we talked about documenting patterns we really settled on the core concept that made the pattern library successful. More than anything the patterns created a vocabulary. Engineers, designers, and product people could use the patterns as a way to gain a shared understanding. Building a shared understanding is not really about a specific process or tool or whether everyone can code or design. Having a shared understanding is about getting everyone to walk in the other person's shoes a little. It’s about building respect, building vocabulary, and gaining enough insight to build solutions together that in the end make a better experience for our users. It’s how we build an experience right? We seek to understand our users. We observe them. We study them. How about doing the same with your co-workers?
_This week's guest author is Christine Perfetti, CEO of Perfetti Media, a Boston-based user research consulting and training firm._ Many designers come to me for usability testing consulting services. One of the reasons they reach out is because they assume usability testing must be a complex, scientific process. As a result, they'd prefer to have an outside company conduct their usability tests. Then I tell them I rarely run usability tests anymore! Why? Well, in my experience the best way to do usability studies is to do it yourself. So I spend a lot of time helping teams do learn how to do it themselves, not doing it for them. By conducting their own quick and dirty usability studies, design teams can get feedback faster, easier, and more affordably than hiring an outside professional. USABILITY TESTING IS NOT A COMPLICATED PROCESS The first thing I tell designers is that it’s a mistake to think that usability testing has to be complicated. It’s a technique anyone can learn with a little training and a lot of practice. Usability testing isn't rocket science, but it does need to be integrated into a design team’s overall process in order to work. I’ve found that the most successful teams learn to conduct their own informal testing whenever they can without waiting for the usability team’s availability. In the most successful projects, the team has a design idea, they quickly sketch it and create a prototype, and then test it as quickly as possible. When I work with design teams who have never conducted a study, I teach them the basics of usability testing, have them observe me facilitate one or two sessions, and then they try it on their own with my guidance. After a few of these sessions, these usability “newbies” are usually ready to run their own testing sessions. USABILITY PROFESSIONALS ACT AS THE COACHES So what’s the role of the usability professional? In most mid-to-large-sized corporations, there are too many design projects for one person—sometimes even an entire usability team—to run all of the usability studies the design teams need. As a result, the usability professional is most successful as a Coach who educates and advises the organization on which projects to focus on, how to plan and run their studies, and how to analyze the results. They can better serve design teams by sharing best practices for conducting usability tests, interviews, field studies, diary studies, and other research techniques. HOW CAN DESIGN TEAMS START TESTING ON THEIR OWN? If you’ve never conducted a test, start right away. Try a test next week; it’s not as complicated as it may seem. At its core, a usability test involves putting a person in front of your product and watching what they do. Your goal is not to implement the scientific method as you elaborately lay out a treatise on the usability of your product - just to observe how well users can accomplish their desired tasks with it. Time and time again I’ve seen immediate results from such an approach. Learning how to run internal usability tests will not only save a company money, but will instill a “design for usability” mentality into your design team and, hopefully, the organization as a whole. So instead of hiring an outside professional to do usability testing for you, try to find one who will act as your coach and guide instead. In no time you'll be up and running with a regular testing plan that will benefit you far longer than the immediate project. Your design team will be more self-sufficient as a result. _If you're interested in learning how to conduct your own usability studies, check out Christine's two-day Usability Bootcamp in Boston this January and use promotion code 52WEEKS before December 29th to save $100 off the regular price of $895._
_This week's guest author is Relly Annett-Baker, who writes some of the best, most interesting web copy around for clients of all sizes. She resides in Wokingham, UK._ Words are the soul of user experience. More than any other design element, words communicate the bulk of the messages we communicate to others. Whether they are spoken or written, there's a fine line between lazily sending generic, expected messages and taking a few minutes to say something truly special. Consider the following: Take holiday greeting cards. There is nothing nicer than a pretty card with some well-chosen handwritten words of greeting, a line or two of news and a personal inquiry with a suggestion to meet up soon. They are also pretty rare. People find it easier to scribble a generic festive greeting or insert a round robin letter, knowing that one of the recipients will find the information interesting. I understand why. As a mother of two small kids I know that the month up to Christmas can be a blur of Santa visits, school parties, present wrapping and food shopping. I rarely manage to write the meaningful messages I wish to on cards; my gift tags simply say ‘To: you, From: me’. It’s only one day a year. They will know how we feel about them really. Take gift wrapping. There is nothing nicer than an inexpensive in-store service to help you wrap those odd-shaped presents you just bought for family and friends, with a selection of wrapping materials, paper and ribbons and where the wrapping staff greet you personally when you come back and show you the neat work they have put in and the labels they have attached to remind you which gift is which. They are also pretty rare. The stores find it easier to use a generic paper design, generic greetings, and employ teenagers for minimum wage who have targets to meet per hour. I understand why. I’m just the customer. Why would I care about the quality of the materials or the standard of the wrapping or the message this is sending? This isn’t the gift proper. This is just the exchange of money for a service. I’ve already had the shopping experience. This won’t affect the way I feel about them really. Take web forms. There is nothing nicer than a form that greets you personally and recognises your efforts to complete it and move on, and that cuts out any of the unnecessary extraneous information that no-one but the marketing team find useful. They are also pretty rare. The web team find it easier to simply use a cookie-cutter form or not push back on the marketing and communications people (or their clients) as to why each of these field entries are necessary. I understand why. After all, the rush up to launch can be a blur of client visits, design testing, wrangling content from providers, testing databases. Web teams rarely allocate time and effort to add useful snippets to make the form easy to use, to verify each entry, to write compelling copy and make something as mundane as the checkout part of an enjoyable experience. This isn’t the website proper. It’s just one interaction. This is just the exchange of money and information. It’s the boring bit. Users will know how we feel about them really. Or will they? Probably not. So the next time you're crafting messages you truly care about (or ought to), think about taking an extra 10 minutes to push through and say something special. Don't take the easy way out. The right words make the difference between just another occurrence and having a great experience.
_This week's guest author is Karen McGrane, an accomplished user experience and interaction design consultant, with 15 years of professional experience in customer research, information architecture, and content strategy._ I remember the first time I heard the phrase "information architecture." It was in the technical communication program at RPI, in a conversation with the department chair about my enthusiasm for combining my love of clear writing, making outlines, and labeling my file folders with what I was then just discovering: a whole new world of spatial design, how people translate cognitive information into physical tasks, how visual and tactile cues help make verbal communication more clear. She smiled and said: "You should look into this new field called information architecture." UNITING THE PHYSICAL AND MENTAL Information architecture! Could there be a better metaphor to capture the intersection between the linguistic and the physical, the cognitive and the tactile, how people think and what people do? (If you disagree, I'll point out that this conversation took place in 1996.) I, for one, was hooked on the potential of bringing these two spheres together. This convergence, of course, is the continuing promise of UX: to meld cognitive tasks and physical tasks into one seamless experience. Douglas Englebart, working in the 60’s, knew that to “augment human intellect” would require improvements to both hardware and software interfaces. Donald Norman has called it "cognitive engineering." Even William Gibson's vision of "cyberspace" melded information systems with physical actions. BUT THE CENTER CANNOT HOLD I know lots of people who are good at communicating with words and labels and expressing things verbally. I know lots of other people who are good at design and motion and making things tactile. I know it's rare to find people who are great—truly great—at both. It's only natural that as the user experience field has evolved, we’ve developed depth and specialization. From a business standpoint, narrow focus is often the key to success. If you’re seen as an expert in a particular area, you’ll get more work than if you present yourself as a jack-of-all-trades. Unfortunately, this natural movement toward more specialization results in fault-lines within the UX disciplines. Not a day goes by without seeing different factions fighting it out over who has the better approach to designing for humans. I do not understand what some people within the interaction design community hope to achieve by treating information architecture like it's the enemy. And I do not understand why some people insist that content strategy must destroy or overtake other disciplines. And then there are people who dismiss the user experience field altogether, suggesting that our roles are unnecessary overhead on projects. The in-fighting has to stop. We must kill the enemy within. The real enemy is out there, in the vast realm of people who still don't get user experience. YOU DON'T HAVE TO DECLARE A MAJOR We need to embrace the idea that UX is necessarily multi-disciplinary—not just within different communities of practice, but within individual skill sets. People are surprised to hear that I speak at conferences about content strategy and yet still do interaction design work for clients. Why can't I love them both? I loved them both when I called them information architecture. So that's why I hope that everyone working in this space feels like they have the potential to develop skills in multiple areas. You can be an interaction designer _and_ a content strategist. You can be a user researcher and a visual designer too! You can even _still_ be an information architect. I'm not saying that everyone will be great at all of these things. Getting good at even a couple of them is a life's work. But we need to embrace the tension and contradictions that make our field unique. We need more people who are truly great at communicating using both verbal and physical models. The user experience field should work to unite these practices, not divide them.
Recently I was reading a list of copywriting guidelines on how to make web pages attract and keep a reader's attention. The list contained familiar items you've probably seen before: write a catchy headline, talk benefits vs features, and focus on a single message instead of many. One recommendation, however, rang false to me: _keep your text short_. The author recommends this because "People don't read on the Web". Instead, the author claimed, they "scan" text instead. There are several problems with this assumption, however. First, people do actually read on the Web…scanning is simply the _first step_ in the process. Second, short text can be just as poorly written as long text (and often is). Third, people actually seek out and enjoy reading longer texts. PEOPLE SCAN FIRST, THEN READ The fact that people scan when on the Web has little to do with length of text. The act of scanning, or glancing through and quickly examining headlines, subheadlines and other emphasized text, is not a substitute for reading: it's merely the first step of reading. People scan quickly to find the good stuff…it's the most efficient way to find it. Despite feeling overwhelmed, we are incredibly efficient at finding information on the Web. Once the scanning bears fruit and we find a headline delivering the promise we're looking for, we slow down and begin reading word for word for more detail. We dive in. We might not read long…only long enough to find an answer…but we are "reading" at this point. And if the piece is longer, such as a piece from a newspaper or magazine, we might read all of it. It's not so much that people don't read, it's that we start by scanning large amounts of information for the good stuff. Then, and only then, do we dive in and read. TEXT LENGTH DOESN'T EQUAL QUALITY For a bad writer short copy is easier to write than long copy. They simply stop writing sooner. All things being equal short text is preferable to long text, but since when are all things equal? It is important how short text gets short. If text is kept short merely to stay within the guideline, chances are it doesn't do all that it needs to do. But if text is short as the result of careful writing and revision, with a strict adherence to saying all that is necessary as briefly as possible, then your text won't just be short, it will also be good. (and thus read) Short copy shouldn't be a goal, it should be an ideal. Like Einstein's famous quip "make it as simple as possible, but not simpler", in writing we want to "write as concisely as possible, but don't leave anything out". PEOPLE ENJOY LONGER TEXTS Finally, people often enjoy longer texts. Given the choice between a well-written short piece of text and a well-written longer piece of text, many would choose the longer version because it naturally has more of what the reader wants to know. It answers more questions. It goes in depth and provides context and detail. People who are _truly_ interested in a topic will read everything they can about it. How often do you hear people say things like Sunday is my time to sit down with the paper (or an iPad) and read what I didn't have time to read before? Additionally, e-readers like the Kindle, the Nook, and the iPad are exploding in use, while services like Instapaper also suggest that people desire to read longer texts with less distraction. In this way longer text can become a powerful differentiator…if you are telling an interesting story and your competitor isn't then you've got an upper hand. Take, for example, the power of writing in Groupon. In conclusion, explaining people's behavior on the web as simply "scanning" is too simplistic. Short text can be as poorly written as long text, and in some cases short text is less desirable than longer, well-written text. Writing well often means writing short text. But writing short text doesn't mean you're writing well.
_This weeks guest author is Alan Colville, a ux designer and founding member of Analog Coop. Learn more about him at http://alancolville.org._ Brooklyn Beta was a most memorable web conference. It can be relived through peoples’ stories, anecdotes, images and more, which are strewn far and wide across the web. Although not altogether typical, the quantity of data created around this event demonstrates the ruthless efficiency with which we record moments that matter to us. We’ve never recorded so much in so many ways. In theory, the delight in rediscovery should be richer than ever before. However, given the complexity involved in these recordings, not least of which are the multiple sites, devices, formats we use, will our online recordings still be there in years to come? Decisions users make and actions designers take now could decide how easy it will be to relive memories with the richness we recorded them. LIVING IN THE HERE AND NOW We’ve become intensely focused on the here and now. The single point in time or update in a our ‘lifestream’. So fastidious are we at updating, checking-in and tweeting, that our recordings become instantly submerged in a sea of updates. With this focus on the here and now, there’s an acceptance that in leaving a site, the rich recordings we’ve spent time building there are lost. Without these recordings, we rely on our own memory. I was recently reminded, proving the point, that our memories don't serve us well. In fact they're often wrong as Susan Weinschenk’s highlights in ‘100 Things you should know about memory - Your most vivid memories are wrong’. The human mind is good at piecing together memories to form a picture of an event. The web is still learning how to collate in this way. The mind is poor at remembering detail. So, what we can’t remember, our mind sometimes make up and fills in the gaps. The web can support this human frailty by being the place to hold the detail to accurately remind us later. For this to happen, we need to be able to find the detail in years to come as memories fade. This wonderful story from This American Life beautifully demonstrates the creative license our mind can take. THE DELIGHT IN REDISCOVERY We’ve always compensated for the inefficiency of our memory. From the first cave paintings or stories to photo's, we record to help us remember and share. What has changed in this digital age is the sheer quantity of data being recorded. Whereas before, only the important events were recorded, such was the overhead in recording. Take for example portrait paintings, which was time consuming and a luxury of the rich. Now we record even the most mundane with infinite ease. Recordings of an event happen in multiple places, formats and ways across the web, whereas before there was a single recording of an event held in one place. We're industrious like never before. Blogging and publishing on our own and others people’s sites. An intricate and intelligent web of data is quickly created around a place, opinion, moment or event. As with any recording, there’s delight in rediscovery. As our memory falters overtime, the value of the recording grows. So focused are we on the here and now, that we seldom think that far ahead. An additional benefits of all this recording is that it compensates for yet another human frailty. We’re poor at knowing how important moments are when they happen! Retrospectively, it’s clear that some events that seemed minor at the time prove to be very important. Scott Berkun calls this ‘The Impact Ratio’. He defines it as the relationship between your perception of the importance of something, and how it turns out to be a year or ten years later. Because we capture more moments, chances are, even as our priority changes, the ones we considered minor are recorded nevertheless. REMOVING BARRIERS In his 2004 book 'Emotional Design' Donald Norman put forward the design challenge facing photography in a digital age, which remains today: "The design challenge is to keep the virtues while removing the barriers; make it easier to store, send and share. Make it easy to find just the desired pictures years after they have been taken and put into storage". Technological changes herald new behaviors and possibilities. Storing, sending and sharing has never been easier. With these changes have come further challenges. There is an increasing time overhead in managing our recordings. Norman highlights that ‘although we like to look at photographs, we don’t have or take the time to maintain them and keep them accessible’. How do we reconcile managing our recordings with this lack of time. A conflict exacerbated by the increasing complexity of our recordings; multiple sites, devices, formats to name but a few. BETTER DESIGN As web designers and developers, there’s a lot we can do to increase the likelihood of peoples data being useful in the future. We can start by allowing people to control and reuse their data. There’s also the person’s data on other sites and how easy we make importing it. The web industry is still finding the right balance between open and closed data. Moving objects or recordings from one site to another is becoming more common. There are good examples, like moving bookmarks from Delicious to Pinboard. However, there are even more examples, where it’s either done badly or not at all. There’s been a continued focus on privacy on the web, reflecting people’s concerns. Although still complicated, the issue of privacy is becoming better understood. People’s trusted is increasing. Portability of people’s data is next on the agenda. While there’s a focus on recording the here and now, people are rightly asking what will happen with all the stuff their creating? Some sites take with them the artifacts of people’s memories, when they go. Other sites make data portable ensuring people can take their memories with them. Sites like Facebook, make it difficult to leave with your belongings. Others like Delicious adopt an ‘open’ approach by make it easier to leave with what’s yours. Companies using this open approach recognize that allowing people to easily leave a site is actually good for business. Their confidence allows them to put what matters to users above worries over competition and they’re prospering. As web folk, we must not overlook the opportunity to make people’s data easy to find and use in the future. It’s the right thing to do and here are some suggestions to help: * Support authentication using people’s existing online identities rather than having them create yet another. * Think about data portability form the start. * Make people’s data available to export. * Be smart about how data is reused, for example, provide full geolocation meta data with items like photos. * Let people import data from other sites that are open. * Allow people to back up their stuff. * Remind people using the site of what they can do with their data. Data portability isn’t an expectation yet. Finally, let people easily close their accounts and take their stuff. You never know when they’ll be back. Making it difficult to leave a site just makes it unlikely that people will return. For more of making data portable, check out the Data Portability BETTER BUSINESS There are old school business strategies, which in the absence of new ones, the web has adopted. As the web hits 2 billion users, concepts like 'walled garden' sites and protectionist strategies need replacing with more web appropriate ones. Business decisions, which can be invisible to users, are fundamental to what happens to the data we entrust with sites. Thankfully, these old school strategies are changing. More sites are letting people know what they can do with their stuff when they leave. All sites used to ignored this important part of the customer lifecycle, focusing instead on acquisition and retention only. The web needs more web specific business strategies and ideas. For example, am I the only one who’d pay a premium to have the most important memories protected? MEMORIES LIVE ON I can't imaging how my young daughters will use the web when they grow up. I’d like to relive events in my life with them, which I’ve been recording online. I hope these memories will be there to find and share in the future. For this to happen, we need to consider people’s data during the design and development of sites. The web needs to rid itself of the old and embrace the new business strategies. Most of all, we need what the web has in abundance, lots of creative thinking. It’s already started and will continue in the spirit it has begun - with openness and honesty. In this spirit, the things we hold precious - our memories - will live one. Here are some links to help: Online backup Ways to archive your online accounts. Facebook - https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/13993/ Tumblr - http://www.downloadsquad.com/2010/03/28/backup-tool-for-tumblr-blogs-available-in-beta-for-mac-users/ Lifehacker: Free tools to backup your online accounts. http://lifehacker.com/5335553/free-tools-to-back-up-your-online-accounts Data portability The data Portability Project works to advance data portability. http://dataportability.org/ Passwords Never forget a password again with 1Password. http://agilewebsolutions.com/onepassword Local backup Automatically save everything that’s important on your computer. http://www.apple.com/timecapsule/backup.html iPhone back up If you want to manually create an iPhone backup. http://osxdaily.com/2010/06/22/how-to-backup-your-iphone/ Online backup guides Online backup resource with reviews for online backup. http://www.onlinebackupreviews.com/Article-mainpage.html Screenshot a page Take an image of a webpage. http://skitch.com/ Save an entire site Coming soon. A novel way to grab the entire contents of a site and saves it in one place. https://gimmebar.com/
There is nothing like the moment when you suddenly come upon the answer to a design problem. Whether it is a particular interaction or the perfect design element, it is a moment of pure elation. However, in that moment, there is a always a risk of an emotional attachment being formed. Essentially, we have the potential to surrender our ability to see beyond the "perfect solution" we have just created. Arthur Quiller-Couch, a British journalist, critic, and novelist once said,_"Murder your darlings." _While this quote was aimed at aspiring writers, I believe that it is equally relevant to designers. Essentially, the elements of your design that you really love cause you to have what I call "design blindness." You lose the ability to be objective about your work. You lose the ability to critique honestly and without bias. This often means they may not be quite as "perfect" as you think they are. So should we automatically abandon any design that we become personally attached to? Yes. And no. Yes, because of the lack of objectivity and the potential for that to erode your better judgement for the remainder of the project. Yes, because you will begin to design things that may have no place other than to support your "darling." Yes, because there is almost always a better solution waiting for you once you get rid of your "darling." No, because the process of creating this "darling" of a design is extremely important to the over all process. No, because it might actually be really good. No, because we are humans and we are irrational and emotional and sometimes that is exactly what is needed to find the right solution. No, because maybe, just maybe, others will love it too. Being able to break your emotional ties with the things you create is the sign of a mature designer. It is essential in any collaborative design process and can open the door to discover answers you wouldn't or couldn't have seen otherwise. Ultimately, it all comes down to this bit of advice I read in a recent tweet from Naz Hamid (attributed to Scott Robbin): "Kill your darlings. _After you back them up._"
One of the greatest qualities in most creative problem solvers is a thirst for learning. Most designers and user experience professionals I know have some level of post-graduate education. But if you were to dig a little deeper, you would likely find that many have degrees in either partially or completely unrelated fields. The truth is the greatest thing you learn while getting a college education is that YOU alone are responsible for what and how you learn. Andy Rutledge recently leveled a very stern, yet honest, criticism of the state of UX Design Education in the college system: "_Today the appropriate path for UX design education goes around, not through, nearly all universities and colleges." _ While there is undoubtedly a gap is this area of design education, thankfully people like Liz Danzico (MFA in Interaction Design program at SVA) and Christopher Murphy and Nicklas Persson—aka the Web Standardistas—are leading the way by creating cutting edge interaction design curriculum that will hopefully serve as a model for education in our field in the years to come. But what if you don't live in New York or Belfast? How can you gain the knowledge and experience needed to be a trustworthy user experience design practitioner? Find a mentor. Search out the best user experience design team in your area and apply for a job. Intern if necessary, but do what ever it takes to work along side someone with experience in the field. Try to expose yourself to as many of the various facets of UX Design as you can and immerse yourself in the work. Your true passion and aptitudes will reveal themselves, allowing you to focus your skills and cultivate a career as a UX Designer. In addition, I would encourage you to read. Read everything and anything you can that relates to designing the user experience. Art, science, psychology, all types of design—all of it will help you form a solid foundation, gain an understanding of the language of design, and provide you with practical tools and methodologies which can be applied immediately in your work. In order to give you something to read through this long cold winter season, I have compiled my list of "essential UX reading" to help get your UX education off to a good start. This list is in no way exhaustive, but rather a selection of various titles that will help continue the growth of any user experience designer. * Everything from Rosenfeld Media - no joke. * Mental Models: Aligning Design Strategy with Human Behavior * Web Form Design: Filling in the Blanks * Don't Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, 2nd Edition * The Design of Everyday Things * Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things * About Face 3: The Essentials of Interaction Design * Universal Principles of Design * Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art * The Elements of Typographic Style * Sketching User Experiences * Envisioning Information * Information Architecture: Blueprints for the Web (2nd Edition) * Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, & Students * 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School * Graphic Design: The New Basics * Designing with Web Standards (3rd Edition) * Beautiful Evidence * Designing the Obvious: A Common Sense Approach to Web Application Design * The Elements of User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web * An Eye for Color * The Inmates Are Running the Asylum * A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction * How Designers Think, Fourth Edition: The Design Process Demystified * Grid Systems: Principles of Organizing Type * Neuro Web Design: What Makes Them Click? * Handcrafted CSS: More Bulletproof Web Design * Geometry of Design: Studies in Proportion and Composition * The Humane Interface: New Directions for Designing Interactive Systems Whether you side with Andy Rutledge in boycotting the collegiate system or you just want to become a more well-rounded and educated designer, I implore you: never stop learning because the moment you stop learning is the moment you become obsolete.
Speak to any seasoned designer long enough and the topic of copywriting comes up. Any designer worth their salt knows the value of great copywriting and how it can transform a dull, routine web experience into a delightful one. But what exactly does it mean to write great copy? How do we know when we've achieved it? Is this something that we can learn as part of the design process, or should we have a dedicated copywriter (if we don't already)? A good case study for the power of copy comes from the white-hot startup Groupon. Groupon is a collective buying service that offer daily deal coupons in most major cities around the world. By some estimates Groupon is the fastest growing company ever. If you've ever read a Groupon deal (and chances are you have) you may have been struck with how friendly and informal the writing is. They take great pains to make even the most mundane services sound exciting. Here's an excerpt from a recent Groupon I received for a deal on a dentist:
The Tooth Fairy is a burglarizing fetishist specializing in black-market ivory trade, and she must be stopped. Today’s Groupon helps keep teeth in mouths and out of the hands of maniacal, winged phantasms: for $49, you get a cleaning, an exam, and x-rays at Longwood Dental Group in Brookline (a $356 value). The office is easily reachable from the C Line's Englewood Avenue stop on Beacon Street.Now, anybody who can make a visit to the dentist at least interesting is writing some impressive copy. And the thing is, Groupon makes this look easy. You barely realize they're sucking you into another daily deal for an everyday service when you're already clicking through to take advantage of it. That's the power of great copy…when it's really good you barely notice it's there. It turns out that Groupon has lots of writers on staff. (as of September 2010 they had 70) And they also have an entire style guide that helps writers adhere to the friendly Groupon voice: Public Groupon Editorial Manual Reading through this manual is a wonderful exercise in decoding what makes Groupon's writing work. I highly recommend it. Here's an example of how Groupon uses counter-intuitive imagery to draw readers in:
USE ABSURD IMAGES. SWEEPING, DRAMATIC NONSENSE. THE ABSURD NARRATOR. e.g. Humankind has been playing with fire for years; now we can harness the bronzing essence of the fiery sun in a gentle mist, proving once and for all our dominance over the weak, inanimate solar system.There is lots of talk of whether Groupon can keep their advantage over new competitors. But the competitors I have seen don't have the copywriting chops that Groupon does, at least right now. As long as Groupon continues to write such great copy, they'll have a big advantage over their competitors. That's the value of copywriting…an integral part of the user's experience.
_Our guest author this week is Cennydd Bowles, UX designer at Clearleft. His new book Undercover User Experience Design is out now and worth your time and attention._ And then, of course, you ask us how we work. We respond with confidence, bold Helvetica outlining our design process: research, ideas, prototyping, testing, iteration. We hope you approve of our rigor, and perhaps even believe it ourselves. But the project is always more fluid. We splash between the phases, unable to separate ideas from output, problem from solution. We explore promising avenues that, days later, become dead ends. Sometimes, we solve a month’s problem in an hour. It seems unfair to charge you the same regardless, but it avoids those difficult conversations. Try as we may, we can’t justify every decision. The birth of an idea is ineffable. Although we hope it came from our research and analysis, we can never know for sure. Intuition and experience influence our every thought. We try to predict the effect of our work, but the truth is that design is always a gamble. We can tip the odds in your favor, but never guarantee a jackpot. Sometimes we proclaim design to be art, sometimes science. This upsets both the artists and the scientists. Fortunately, it’s neither. We claim to understand human behavior, but are surprised by it daily. Despite what we say, there are wrong answers. The fold is a myth only when it suits us. And yes, criticism still stings. Don’t misunderstand—we aren’t bullshitting you. People who’ve taken our advice have profited from it. But design resists minute analysis—break it into its constituent parts and it crumbles into dust. So, reluctantly, we lie. We lie because otherwise nothing would happen. We lie because we don’t have the words. We lie because we’re human. And being human is what it’s all about.
At the recent Warm Gun conference in San Francisco I heard a similar refrain: we're looking for a good UX designer and can't find one. I heard this from both startups and huge companies. Representatives from both Google and Facebook complained they could not find enough good UX designers. That's actually amazing. The two most successful software companies on the planet are having a hard time finding good UX professionals! The next obvious question: What makes a good UX designer? I'm sure there are people all over the spectrum on this question, from those who think the term "UX Designer" is itself redundant to those who can list out the exact job responsibilities that a good UX designer would need to have. For me, the practical answer is that a good UX designer is _responsible_ for the user experience of those using their software. They don't just design it, they follow up and make sure that it works. They both create and then confirm that the interface is providing a positive user experience. In this way UX designers sit at the crux of Art and Science. They design a screen, just like an interface designer, but they also measure how well that screen works. They might do this by usability testing, looking at conversion metrics, measuring user satisfaction, A/B testing, or some other method. Then, they iterate and improve the screen over time to make it work even better. Dave McClure, the founder of Warm Gun, recommends that designers spend 80% of their time redesigning existing features while only 20% of their time on new features. That's not what usually happens, of course, the vast majority of energy is spent on creating something new. Measuring the effectiveness of design is new for many designers. And indeed, we are still very early on in being able to do it well. There are several reasons why design isn't measured, including not having agreement on success metrics, not knowing how to measure a positive user experience with your product/service, and not being able to put measurement methods in place. None of this stuff is easy: it takes a culture dedicated to gathering feedback and improving by it, the ability to access customers and web site analytics data, as well as the scheduling ability to iterate and get things done when metrics aren't going in the right direction. The big difference between someone who is a UX professional and someone who isn't comes back to that word: _responsibility_. When your job is to provide a positive user experience, you have to do whatever it takes to get it done, from imagining new designs to measuring current ones to make sure they work. You have to advocate for your users when their voices aren't heard, and align the business objectives with user objectives at every step. In the future I think all designers will be held accountable for their designs. When that day comes, we can dispense with the "UX" part of the job title. Until then, however, responsibility for providing a positive user experience will be the key differentiator for UX professionals, and as Google and Facebook can attest it's currently not easy to find someone who does it well.
As designers, we all have processes, systems and tools that we use day in and day out. Each one employed to solve a specific problem in a specific way. As we attempt to automate our design process and optimize our methods we invariably realize that our answers are becoming more and more generic—formulaic, if you will. As we utilize frameworks and design patterns to help us move faster, we are accepting that a certain level of our design decisions have already been made for us. And in the process, we begin to bypass the moments that, while often frustrating, lead to incredible discovery or innovation. We tend to try and automate everything in our lives so that we can achieve more, faster. However, the power of design is its ability to make the inanimate more human. This is not something that happens when design becomes a checklist, a process or a formula. Inevitably, as the designer yields to the design system, we find ourselves faced with products that don't emotionally resonate with us as human beings. One way to break out of this rut is to challenge yourself to solve the problem in a different way than you normally would. If you regularly build functional wireframes in order to test your design solutions, try paper prototyping and sitting with real users as they interact with a paper version of the design. If you normally jump into Photoshop/Fireworks, it may be worthwhile to bust out some pens and markers and see what results you get from approaching the problem from a different angle. Regardless of the level of success, no one should assume that their design process "just works." We must understand that no design system is or should be perfect. No one gets it right 100% of the time. What we can do is diligently apply the appropriate process to the appropriate need and not allow ourselves to become overly dependent on the tools and systems we have put in place for ourselves. After all, it is not the tools or the process, but a usable product that we care about.
_Our guest author this week is Daniel Ritzenthaler. Dan is a web design consultant based in Boston. He makes videos about common questions he hears from clients on Design Thoughts, and can always be reached on Twitter @danritz. Learn more about him at http://wurkit.com/._ How long has it been since you've heard designers argue about which method is better: sketches, wireframes, mock-ups, or HTML prototypes? Probably not long enough… One designer will claim that you shouldn't do anything without sketching it out while another claims that doing anything less than full-on HTML prototypes is a waste of time. All of these tools have a special purpose so there's no point in discussing which one is better. That would be a lot like an electrician saying his wire-cutters are better than the plumber's pipe-cutters. Within the context of cutting wires it makes sense, but everywhere else it's just silly. There is one thing all these tools have in common: they help remove layers of ambiguity within a project. Think of them more as communication tools that help you clarify and demonstrate your intentions to other designers and to your clients. Occasionally they become deliverables, but it's important to remember they can never provide the final answer. This piece is about bringing clarity to this discussion. It will help you decide which tool to use without worrying what other designers are arguing about. MATCH THE TOOL TO THE PROBLEM SKETCHES are usually hand-drawn graphics that contain screen ideas or explanatory graphics outlining the high-level problem or solution. They are the most valuable when the idea hasn't been fully formed, explored, or realized in any way. Sketches will help you understand what general pieces are needed to accomplish your goals. WIRE-FRAMES tend to be computer generated graphics illustrating the organization of content, features and functionality. Prioritizing the elements of a design and determining general page layout can be a very messy part of any project. A well built wire-frame will help you pull apart the individual pieces and make sure they are appropriate to the goal of the page. MOCK-UPS are rich graphics intended to simulate the look and feel of a project so you can understand the impact visual elements have on the brand. A mock-up can set the right impression and communicate emotions and personality. Without actually building the website (which a lot of people do), there really isn't any other way to concretely define what a website should look like. HTML PROTOTYPES are partially-complete versions of a website used to understand how pages interact with each other and flow from one area to another. More complicated interactions between sophisticated components might require a fully functional prototype to actually understand. When there are a lot of moving parts and goals have multiple steps involved, HTML prototypes can really help you find the gaps in your plans. LET'S PLAY WITH A FEW EXAMPLES You're building a BASIC MARKETING WEBSITE and you already know the website's goal, are confident in the assumed layout, and understand how the pages interact. Jumping directly into the mock-ups will be the best use of your time. That way you can get as close to the final result as possible in the least amount of time. It's the ninth time you've built a WELL UNDERSTOOD APPLICATION and you deeply understand the goal and know how all the pages interact, but want to make it fit perfectly with your client's team. This is where wireframes really make a difference. They can help you communicate how the application is organized and identify potential ways to make the interface more intuitive. You're starting a BRAND NEW IDEA, and the hardest parts are grasping the concept and determining how the pages will work together. For this to happen, you'll probably need to jump back and forth between sketching and HTML prototypes until you're confident the core purpose is captured. These initial HTML prototypes can also become great tools to illicit feedback from your team or potential customers (alpha/beta testers). NOW WHAT? Every project may need one or all of these tools in various order depending on the challenges you're confronted with. So the discussion shouldn't be about which tool is better or how to align them into a formal and rigid process. It should be about which one, at any given time, can give the most clarity and boost productivity.