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UX vs Design: What's the big deal?

UX versus design

The above picture recently landed in my inbox, and it's worth reflecting upon.

As with many other buzzwords, 'UX' has earned its place in business strategy. It promises better user-retention, conversion, sales and increased brand equity.

Indeed, many innovative startups have capitalised greatly upon the effective implementation and consideration of user experience design: AirBnB, Uber, Kickstarter and more.

Granted, great UX isn't their only defining factors, but it has definitely been one of their strongest aspects, not only with regard to their customer touch-points, but it's engrained in their very business models.

What is UX?

A quick google search provides the following definition of User Experience Design:

“The overall experience of a person using a product such as a website or computer application, especially in terms of how easy or pleasing it is to use.”

What is good UX?

With the proliferation of UX, companies have started greater investment in design departments. Large companies have started headhunting designers from across the world, spending exorbitant amounts to find this illusive talent. The fact of the matter is that there are no true UX experts, only good designers. Good designers keep the audience in mind. They are detail-oriented, and are willing to fight for the experience of the user, often to the frustration of technical and financial departments.

The birth of UX

User experience is nothing new. Humans have been creating useful products for millennia, but its only in recent years that UX has been consciously considered and documented.

Various designers have been forerunners in this field:

Paul Fitts: Originally a psychologist, but considered by many to be the father of ergonomics, which, (excuse the pun), is a perfect fit for his surname. Fitts designed airplane cockpits and thus had a significant impact on avionics safety.

Dieter Rams: Product designer best known for his work at Braun. His ten principles of good design can be summarised as: "Less is better."

Walt Disney: Although best known for animation, his design of Disneyland has provided one of the most immersive experiences ever.

Don Norman: The father of digital UX design. He championed the idea of user centered design and was possibly the first proponent of the use of personas in the design workflow and also coined the term 'user experience design'.

Jakob Nielson: the father of user testing and research. He stated that visual design is not that important. Indeed, good aesthetics is a byproduct of good design, and not the primary goal.

Steve Jobs: More of an entrepreneur, he championed the utilisation of detail-oriented, user centered design in all his products and built an empire on design.

How do we measure UX?

Thanks to the proliferation of online tracking and analytics tools, we finally have a toolbox to investigate user experience on a mass scale. Design has been treated as a subjective discipline for many years: a kind of dark art which is somewhere between engineering and art. Today we have the methods to quantify and qualify the impact of design accurately with a range of methods.

Digital user experience can be measured in two main ways:

User research and interviews:

This requires active observation and interview of users. Sample size is limited, as each and every user is investigated in detail. This method allows us to investigate not only the users actions, but also physiological reactions.

This form of research can include eye tracking, interviews, physiological response measurement and more.

The problem with this kind of research is that it happens within a controlled environment and may influence user behaviour.

Big Data analytics:

This form of measurement does not consider individual users, but rather interaction data as a whole. Analytics allows the designer to have insight into all users within real world environments. It also enables the designer to create testing scenarios and serve different solutions to different users, allowing them to measure the effectiveness of different solutions, and refine the end product based on these conclusions.

Data analytics require large amounts of traffic, and depending on the product, may require weeks of measurement. This is best applied to existing products which already have a sizable user base.

Pitfalls:

Due to UX becoming a buzzword, some companies have thrown out good design principles and gathered teams upon teams of designers: Each team handles their own section, whether it be a widget, or certain sections of the site. This leads to competing aspects instead of a harmonious whole. All attention needs to happen in a background of inattention, which is not possible when every part screams for attention.

Design, as with development, is more effective with smaller teams. It leads to focus and a more holistic design.

Consider the following two user interfaces:

On the left we have a relatively recent startup with a limited amount of designers. On the right we have a large conglomerate with a design team measuring into the hundreds, each team with their own section. This leads to every section on the interface competing with the others, causing the most important section to be garishly overemphasized. The competing section cause user confusion and stress. This is not due to bad designers: This company has spent a lot on their design teams, and they have some seriously amazing talent.

The left side on the other hand provides the user with a serene search interface, which is truly the only reason users come to use the site in the first place. This site has considered the user, their needs as well as their emotional state.

Both sites are very successful, but the one did it on a much smaller budget with smaller teams and has a more successful solution.

Considerations:

Design can make or break a company. Careful, thorough consideration of the user and their needs will allow for greater fulfillment of business goals. We no longer stand on a pulpit and preach, design has become a dialogue between business and users.

Some considerations are needed:

  • What is the primary goal for the product?
  • Which context will it be used in?
  • Who is the target market?
  • How will we engage the users and keep them engaged?
  • What are the routes we want the users to follow to ensure conversion?
  • What is the message we wish to communicate?
  • What are our key performance indicators we need to measure?
  • How will we measure these?

Once these questions have been answered, we are a step ahead in creating great user experiences and fulfilling business requirements.

Conclusion:

UX is a powerful tool, but it's but a single tool in the designer’s arsenal. The principles of good design remain the same: less is more and form must follow function. Today we have tools to measure the effectiveness of our design decisions, but getting lost in the wealth of data and the hype around UX may lead to the marginalisation of common design sense.

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