Do you really know what your end-users say about you, or more importantly your product or service? It can be hard to comply with end-user standards, and many organizations struggle to provide a digital experience their users find functional and enjoyable. That’s where user experience comes in.
So what is User Experience?
User experience (UX) is the field where digital products are optimized to suit the needs of end-users. To put this in concrete terms, imagine you’ve purchasing headphones online at Best Buy. Was finding the headphones you wanted simple, with language that you recognized? If you searched for them, did the search respond to intuitive keywords? If something did go wrong, was it easy to recover and get back on track? When you reached the check-out, was it clear what you had to do, and was all the information that you wanted (like shipping costs and tax) easily accessible? UX is about making all those pieces fit together to create an experience that is painless, quick, and effortless for the target users.
Where UX came from
Today, user experience usually refers exclusively to the digital world. However, it actually has a rich history. The forerunners of modern UX emerged in the 1900s. Henry Ford was one of the pioneers, trying to maximize human efficiency in his factories. These early efforts of user experience were accelerated by WWII, where scientists first started optimizing experiences for people. These efforts are referred to human factors and ergonomics, and were in part driven by the complexity of aircraft dashboards, the first time people had to display complex information quickly and efficiently. Today, these fields are alive and well, although human factors tend to refer more to academia than the private sector.
Fast forward to the 1970s and 80s and UX as we know it started to emerge at Xerox PARC (like everything else digital). Donald Norman, either while at PARC or later at Apple (depending on who you consult) coined the term ‘user experience’, and UX really hit its stride.
What User Experience Designers Do
In general, user experience design can be divided into two categories: research and design.
Research is when user experience designers actually talk to end-users to inform how a digital product is going to take shape. Design is when they take all that research and create an experience. This includes:
- Information Architecture: what information goes where
- Nomenclature: what everything is labelled
- Error Recovery: what happens when things go wrong
- User Flows: how the end-user progresses through a series of tasks, like buying a pair of headphones
Design deliverables have traditionally taken the form of wireframes as the end product. These are essentially blueprints of what the actual website or app will look like, and are built in programmes like OmniGraffle and MS Visio. Recently though, there’s been a major push towards interactive prototypes: an actual working ‘first draft’ of your final product, that lets users as well as stakeholders interact with and get a clearer idea of what the final product will be. Historically, organizations have shied away from interactive prototypes because of the cost of building them. However, improvements in coding mean there are now programmes like Twitter’s Bootstrap and InVision that produce prototypes with working code. That is, code that can be used later in development. It seems like interactive prototypes with usable, working code are the next step for user experience designers.
There are a huge range of research techniques available to UX designers, with new ones evolving all the time. But the classic user experience research techniques are generally qualitative research methods based on observing the behaviour of end-users.
Card sorting is the quickest form of user testing. It’s used to test information architecture and nomenclature early on and inform later iterations.
The process: UX designers give a pile of cards with terms and keywords written on them to users. The users are asked to sort them into categories that seem most logical to them. These can be pre-determined or completely self-made. In our headphone example, the piles might be something like ‘electronics’, ‘appliances’ and ‘home entertainment’ with participants sorting terms like ‘headphones’ and ‘KitchenAid Mixer’. Based on the results, designers can tweak what goes where before they build a site or app.
Usability Testing is the hallmark research of user experience designers. It can be done at the start of a redesign project, to find out what needs to be changed, at the end of a project, validating design decisions or highlighting any last-minute tweaks, or during a project, on a working interactive prototype. There are two major kinds of usability testing – in person, and remote, and they both have the same process. In-person testing is done in a formal, market-research setting, often with stakeholders on the other side of a one-way mirror observing. Remote, on the other hand, is done online. It can be moderated or unmoderated: either UX designers will join over web conferencing software and facilitate the users live, or user testing software automatically prompts users through a series of tasks and records it, for review and analysis later on.
The Process: The user is given a series of tasks to work through, either through a UX designer facilitating or through automatic prompts. A UX designer records any points of friction or where the user struggled. In our headphone example, a user might be asked to locate headphones, and then asked to proceed to check-out, with the UX designer recording and pain-points throughout, like ‘user struggled to find search bar.’ This form of testing can reveal deep-rooted structural problems, but can also quick fixes that can turn a mediocre experience into a great one.
This is only a sample of the potential research techniques. Other standard ones include paper prototype testing, contextual inquiry, and focus groups, as well as more technical ones like eye tracking and click maps.
It’s absolutely possible to create a positive user experience without a UX designer. But the benefit of testing actual people and designing based on that research is a far more effective approach to building digital products that are simple, functional, and a joy to use.