Solutions for tomorrow

How to be an up-to-date ux designer.


Note: This is what I presented at the MOBX Conf in Berlin. Feedback is welcome ;)

You already know that the Internet is great source of ux information, but did you know that:

  • There are around 120 tweets using the hashtag UX per hour, at least half of them have links to ux related news
  • You’d need at least 8 hours to read all this news which has been published or shared in only an hour

Do you really need to know all of this to do a good job? But before jumping into that, I’d like to tell you 2 stories…

Story 1

8 years ago, I started to work as designer, and at that time “flash intros” were the hot topic, at least in Argentina. A flash intro was a useless piece of design that clients used to ask you to create. And I had done some. Don’t you remember the “skip intro”? A very useful link.

In this case, like others in my beginnings, I had no direct contact with the client. I was working with a developer that used to tell me what he needed and I would do it. This intro was for the website of a Safety Footwear company. You know, those steel toed shoes, very ugly, but necessary for those who work in factories.

Remember, this was 8 years ago, at that time nobody talked about flat or skeuomorphic design. Actually, you’ll see that my proposal was more of the latter. The design trend of that time was called Grunge. Does it ring a bell? It was extremely realistic, with layered textures of paper or asphalt, scotch tape, coffee stains… very decorative.

I had the idea to simulate a factory environment where different shoe models fell and, to give more realism, I added a cracking effect when they touched the ground. It was the very first idea, a very bad one but I had no further information. “I did what I could”, but finally I was kind of convinced that it should be that way to communicate “protection”, a concept that I made up. I showed it to my colleagues and they definitely liked it.

Flash intro proposal, 2006.

Once I had it ready, I sent the proposal and waited. A few days after I had a message from the client and it said:

Dear Jose, When the shoes fall it looks like they break, shake and will “crack” the floor. Unfortunately, our shoes are lightweight, so we should take that affect out.

It turn out that these kind of shoes are badly known for being heavy, and these were lightweight.

FAIL! And at the end of the email they added:

PS: What about a watermark logo on the floor?

From then on, I always try to understand every detail of the product or service that I’ll be working on. Why is it like it is? Could it be different? What led it to be that way? It’s difficult to know how much you have to know in order to design a product right. At the time, I blamed the developer when in fact the problem was also a bit of mine.

I will return to this story later.

Story 2

A month ago a worldwide brand asked me to “review the menu” of its Android and iOS apps. Ok, let’s see… they were using a hamburger menu on both platforms, apart from that there were obvious information architecture problems, many subsections leading to the same places, in short, there was room for improvement. What was surprising was the reason why they wanted to change it, and when I asked them, what was the goal, they said: “To improve the UX”, and clarified in brackets “(director thinks the current navigation system is outdated)” .

Both these stories share something in common. In the first, I was making rookie mistakes, following trends without thinking very much. In the second, more recent story, I found myself facing decisions that were affected by what was “fashionable” at the time. In that situation, the lack of knowledge wasn’t mine, but it still affected my bringing the project to light. In both anecdotes, design decisions were taken by following trends on a superficial level.

The surface

The current situation

Standards

Today, it is a great time to be a designer, and even more if you’re already working on mobile design. The truth is that today, all standards on which we base work are increasingly flexible but also are changing / updating more frequently than ever before. The complexity is increasing. Now the basis on which we design moves infinitely faster.

This leads us to be constantly learning what’s coming: the next iPhone, the next Android OS, the new smart watches, etc. And we’ve seen that some manufacturers try to simplify, for example with Google Material Design, but it seems that this is not going to stop in the near future. And this means to us, designers: different device sizes, shapes, levels of performance, screen sizes and also different versions of operating systems. For the companies we work for, this represents a better penetration in various markets.

News

Moreover, social media help us to keep abreast of these changes. To help spread the interesting material. I don’t know about you, but to me this amount of information overwhelms me a bit. Do I have to read every single article on the web to be up-to-date?

And you also may heard about “UX Trends”, which could be summarized as some very cool concepts from a Palo Alto startup, which have never been tested with users, but they are sooo cool.

Here are some examples I’ve found on the Internet, where they predict that:

  • “2014 is the year of the phablets” but does not say anything specific. Perhaps they were thinking about the recently presented iPhone 6 Plus with its 5.5 inches.
  • “Swipe: The screen is not only a touch target but also a gesture target”. Really? OS guidelines indicate that from its version number 1.
  • And I love this one “Interfaces will become more layered and taking full advantage of the z-axis”, this is also in the iOS UI guideline but, what does “more layered” means?
  • And of course, they foresee that this is the year of transparent smartphones.

And last, but not least, my friends send me news via email, twitter, whatsapp… “Hey, have you seen what Google has presented? You gotta see it!” Or “Help! Which phone should I buy? You know about this stuff.” Even my own mother saves news articles (printed, of course) for me to read when I visit her.


Sometimes I feel the obligation to do so. I tend to think that if I want to be a good professional I have no choice. Although my organization of this content is “interesting”, it’s kind of difficult.

I’ve tried with Instapaper, Flipboard, …sometimes I leave tabs open in the browser as if they were a reminder. But I always lose them, and then I get angry and relieved all at once. To be honest, the only thing that works for me is sending emails to myself. I don’t recommend you do that.

When I finally read some of these writings I feel I haven’t lost much. There is so much written about the same stuff. There are tweets pointing to interesting news, interesting news and tweets pointing to interesting people and so on. It is a loop. It is difficult to extract information from this news. Their catchy titles always work.

But it seems that I’m not the only one, Brad Frost tweeted this:

“I’ve been finding myself reading too much nonsense lately, and need to remind myself there are more important things to do.”

Which is kind of a note to himself to remind that there are more important things to do. How much time should we dedicate to this? What are we missing? There is much interesting material to read and watch. But there’s also too much noise.


Tools

As if something was missing, the tools we use to work are also changing. There are more software options for prototyping, for visual design,for testing… But which one best suits our needs?

I attempt to try them all, but I do the same thing I do with news, they enter in “pending” mode. For instance, on my to-do list, I have “Learning Quartz Composer + Origami”, but it’s still waiting. I haven’t found the time to take a course with 40 video lessons and unknown hours of practice.

All this learning is extremely costly. Especially in time. It’s about looking at something in detail, but you miss out on other trends. If you focus on native apps, when you turn around responsive web design will be outdated.

And things gets complicated if you are part of a team, which is probable…

  • How does a designer sync with the team when everyone has different learning styles?
  • What about if you are an expert with a tool and it changes or becomes obsolete?

Strategies

It turns out that all this kind of information is volatile. Keeping up helps us to design better experiences, or at least take something new that we can use as we design.

My first advice would be:

Do you get paid for being up-to-date? No? So, do not panic.

You can choose. You can ignore everything that is happening in the “scene” or you can accept that it is necessary and in fact it won’t stop. Just like web developers are happy with every update, we should understand that we cannot stop learning.

It is information that you need to know to get a design that works for the technology of today, but you have to know that it will expire. And you have to do it yourself, you have to learn to learn. I created a strategy with at least 5 points:

  1. Choose your leaders (carefully)
  2. Take time to process
  3. Focus and experiment
  4. Find your tools
  5. Question everything

1. Choose your leaders (carefully)

Please do not follow any fool. Take a moment to check who you follow and why. Who are your sources? Think what you’ve learned from them in recent months or how much time they have made you lose with useless info.

Sometimes we are blocked and need a little inspiration to unlock a design problem. In this case, take a look at the best, real companies with real solutions (not just cool mockups, please), or even better, check out the design proposals of people who have created the platform itself. I mean, who would know better than Apple, Google, Microsoft or Mozilla how to design according to a set of rules they created. They know their systems from the inside. You can find details or tricks that don’t appear on its guidelines.

2. Take time to process

or “Give it five minutes” as Jason Fried said.

I remember the moment when Jony Ive presented iOS7, I thought “this is such disappointment, it has to be a joke,” I was so angry that I tweeted a few minutes after:

What about contrast, hierarchies, discoverability, legibility…? Really? Are this concepts “not cool”? #wtf #ios7

I think I was more angry because we were about to launch our book and that represented a delay and extra work from our side. In the end I think it has been a positive change, I just needed to see it again to realize.

So my advice: contrast opinions, discuss it with colleagues, take your time. Think about it. Twice.

3. Focus and experiment

Ask yourself: What I should stop, start and continue doing?— Scott Belsky from Behance.

You can’t be everywhere. When everything is important, nothing it is. Find something that interests you more and research about that. Go in depth. Invest some of your spare time on something that interests you. Your own project is an opportunity to try new things, for the pleasure of learning.

Sometimes it’s hard to start your own project, it sounds titanic. It may be easier with a colleague, at least it worked for me. With my friend Simon we were able to write and self-publish a book (with all that that implies) using spare time. And I can confess that I have learned more in that process than in my previous experience when designing apps.

It’s so much more to learn from the subtleties of getting down to work than reading about it. Especially since you don’t have the commitment to make it work commercially.

4. Find your tools

Please, raise your hand if you’ve done this search before:

Best wireframing tools

Come on, don’t be shy…

Lately there are many new tools that help us save time. It is true. I haven’t found one that has everything I need, but I’ve tried a few. A great find for me was Keynote for transitions and animation details. Things that happen in relation to time. It is much simpler to communicate an idea if you can see it in action.

The best tools are those that you feel most comfortable with. Don’t get lost within the options, you can’t use them all. Don’t get obsessed with having the newy-lastly-app. Perhaps it’s more important to know deeply the ones you have chosen. So, select your tools, test and control them.

5. Question everything

This is my favorite one, I am very picky.

Start by stop assuming:

  • that wide spread is widely understood
  • that your design solutions always work
  • that users will love your product
  • that your navigation is quite simple
  • and so on…

Question by making questions, like Tim Brown said:

“Most interesting solutions, came out of the most interesting questions”

Asking questions will help test alternatives, reinforce decisions or make changes on time. And I’m not talking about only asking questions, but also testing and proving that your designs actually work. There are many techniques to make sure you’re on track, use them.

Design, for me, is about making questions.


A practical case:

Let’s see an example of theses strategies in practice. I found a very interesting post by Sergio Nouvel about what he things it takes to be a mobile designer. He points out that there are things that we have to unlearn before going in deep. I highly recommend you this post.


This are just some strategies to survive, I’m sure you have yours too. Changes are good and won’t stop.

So, we have to accept that being up-to-date is an attitude. And this attitude means that we try to understand what happens around us, on this chaotic surface. But… Is all this enough to be a decent ux designer? I do not think so. This is just The surface.

Fundamentals

Returning to the story from the beginning, I knew what to do to make a flash intro and how, but I didn’t know why I did it. I’d assumed too much, even qualities that the product didn’t have. At that time I was following a trend.

Now from a distance, it’s clear that I had done everything wrong. Knowing that little detail, my idea would have taken another path.

  • I hadn’t a methodology
  • I hadn’t done enough research about the product and its goals
  • Above all, this piece of design made no sense

In addition, I was unable to say what the reasoning was for what I was doing, it was like a giant banner that promoted the website where you already were.

Keeping up to date cannot make us lose sight of the basics. And regarding that, the big difference in the quality of our work, I believe, is about understanding and communicating.

Understanding — Why

“Never delegate understanding” — Charles Eames

Do all your design decisions have a reason behind them? This is related to the exercise of design, the practice. Are you aware of why you do what you do? (or are you more like “just do it”?) Do you know who the users are and their needs? As I move forward with a design I question myself, every element, every detail, every decision. I think:

  • Could it be done differently?
  • Could it be explained with less words?
  • Is it clear enough?

It’s like a balance between what I can do and what I consider correct. And here is where it is important to recognize if we are working or not.

Communicating — How

When it comes to communicating that understanding, in fact, we have to provide a design solution. It’s the outcome of our work as designers. I’m talking about what the users will have in front of them. This may sound obvious, but we can’t ever… ever forget the most basic design principles. Those that have been proved thousands of times to be aligned with our perception as human beings.

And I’m talking about the well known: consistency, hierarchy, simplicity, clarity, affordance, feedback and many more. I can tell you that it’s very easy to forget about them unconsciously, many times the new stuff sounds sexier and we get caught up in it…

Conclusion

Sometimes we think that being up-to-date is to follow the current fashion or to know screen resolutions by memory, but instead we should be trying to spend more time focused on providing solutions to people’s needs. Now you know, that you are the only one responsible for your work.

Being prepared for tomorrow is an attitude. The real solution for tomorrow is to understand today why you make the decisions you make.

Just do it!


PS 1: Many thanks to Sarah for reviewing and listening to my bad english. And to my friends Armando, Ruyman, Wabi·sabi’s and Simon for their feedback.

PS 2: Cover picture from Andrew Becraft

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