UX Design: Perspective of an Engineering Student (Part 1)

Stepping into UX Design

When I first heard of the term “UX (User Experience) Design”, I decided to read up more about it and delved further into what it’s all about. Being a third-year undergraduate in Nanyang Technological University’s Information Engineering and Media (IEM) — a course which aims to merge art, design and engineering, we have been exposed to additional courses like visual arts, media and product design to enhance our artistic sensitivity. Amongst the common staple engineering subjects like Coding, Engineering Maths, Physics and Electronics, I have found that UX Design and Engineering Design have similarities in so many ways, at times playing a complementary role to each other.

As a student, we have been often been tasked with projects that require us to do more than just designing functional solutions for complex problems, but also solutions that would appeal to users — all these while facing several design and specification constraints, as well as understanding human interactions and perceptions. It is crucial that we understand that no matter how functional or effective a product is at solving a problem, if the product lacks user research and appeal, it will ultimately lead to a product that is deemed user-unfriendly or even unusable

Engineering Design vs. UX Design

Do not misunderstand; It’s not a competition between the two. However, it is very often the case with engineering design where we get consumed by the obsession to solve functional issues to the point that we often neglect the need for user research and appeal — following the notion of “If it solves the problem, it works”. On the other hand, on top of achieving functional goals, UX Design places an equal emphasis on user research and appeal because “people ignore design that ignores people.” In many ways, elements of UX Design enhances the engineering design process which we will delve deeper into next.

Identifying the issues

What is the problem? Who has the problem? Why is it important that we solve this problem? When must this problem be solved? Defining the problems form the bedrock of any engineering project. A misjudgment in defining the quintessential issues may consequentially set us off in the wrong direction. During the initial phase of any project, be it UX Design or Engineering, it is crucial that members clarify any doubts they have regarding the project requirements and details, so that we are able to clearly outline the content that we should be focusing on for the next step of the process — Brainstorming.

From an engineering perspective, our main goal in the project is often to achieve full functionality with a clear focus on the technical requirements, sometimes at the expense of usability. UX Design introduces a different perspective to the engineering design process with a complementary focus on user appeal. UX workshops are often conducted for ideation, prioritisation of ideas, as well as discussion of context with the participants — are part of the development process to clearly identify the core problems they face, produce insights and move the project forward. Also, the practice of creating user personas in UX Design is to reflect user types and their behaviour when using the product is not a common practice within an engineering environment. However, if used in a complementary manner with Engineering Design, it could help to identify any issues early in the process by allowing engineers to predict possible problems that users might face.

Talk it and Chalk it

Brainstorming is my favourite part of any given project. It is where we get to sound out ideas that are interesting and sometimes peculiar. Members of the team are encouraged to openly express themselves and get creative with their ideas with no boundaries. In fact, disagreements and criticism are embraced as well to form a healthy debate over the subject matter. We cultivated a habit of writing down ALL ideas that were generated during the brainstorming sessions as very often, these ideas, as far-fetched as it may seem, may be of help in future. No matter how good an idea we think we have, it is absolutely crucial that we do not stop there. Being fixated on a single idea may render the entire brainstorming session unproductive as it stops your creative thinking process and we become less receptive to new suggestions or ideas.

Like a coach to any team, a brainstorming session requires an individual to play the role of a coach. Always watching over and giving perspective to the team. He serves as the guiding hand, ensuring the team stays on track and focused during the entire discussion, raising questions and insights to help steer the conversation in the right direction. This individual should be actively involved in the construction of mind maps or any relevant forms of pictorial guides to help improve the flow of ideas.

The coach also plays the role of being an impartial observer, actively monitoring everyone’s responses and building upon their responses. It is often easy to be caught up with our emotions when presenting ideas that we feel so passionate about, to the point where we adopt a defensive stance when presented with any form of negative feedback. This could sometimes lead to conflict, which is why the coach is there to observe the mood of the discussion, mediating and diffusing conflicts if required, to create an environment of engagement and understanding each others’ perspectives.

Brainstorming processes can be applied in a similar manner to both UX and Engineering projects as the core fundamentals remain the same. However, processes from UX Design have the need to map out user flows to better see how a user would interact with the product. This is something that could possibly be incorporated to enhance the process for engineering projects.

In the next post, we’ll be touching on Prototyping and Testing, which focuses on how ideas are taken and made into reality and how Engineering and UX Design stack up to each other during these phases.