IxD #1 — Down the rabbit hole

In this article, I’m talking about chapter 1 of About Face, according to this plan. The title A Design Process for Digital Products says it all — the development process for digital products is lacking a fundamental part: design. And that, as subjective and creative as ‘design’ might sound, we still can and should adopt a process for.

In this initial part, authors set some ground concepts and contextualize why we should be designing the behaviors our machines are going to have — this is Interaction Design’s definition. Also they defend that we should see design as product definition and designers as researchers, and then propose their design process.

Digital products are meant to help people achieve their goals in their day-to-day lives, which should be done in an effective and satisfying way . This is what ultimately will make them buy your product or not. So, why do we have so many bad experiences every day? Because there’s no design in the equation.

Figure 1.2 from About Face: the evolution of software development process. Guess which one should be being done?

Design is a very broad concept, but so misused, it lost its original idea. This is why they present the following definition right away:

Design, according to industrial designer Victor Papanek, is the conscious and intuitive effort to impose meaningful order.

From ten years in this field, this simple phrase sums it up for me. It embraces all that Design is and still can be. It is then unfolded into three branches that support our practice: people’s needs, business sustainability, and technical requirements.

These three concerns explain the missing link in most companies' processes: they worry about the technology and the market placement, but partially or fully ignore users. A cliché (but totally worth remembering) example of that was Segway’s unexpected flop. There are a bunch of articles on why it fell so flat, but in this straightforward one, three from the five reasons presented are related to not thinking about users:

It was a product not a solution. The product works well but it lacked a support context. Where can you park it? How do you charge it? Do you use it on roads or sidewalks? […]
No clear need or target market. […] It was an appealing novelty but there was no compelling need for anyone to buy it — and it was very expensive.
It was an invention rather than an innovation. The Segway was patented and kept under wraps until its launch. There was no user feedback or iteration in the process. […]
Remember Segway?

What else is interesting?

I’m a dedicated preacher of the ‘Design is strategy, not esthetics’ cause, so I’m already a fan of this book. What made me thrive, though, was its ability to present solid concepts and arguments to a lot of tacit knowledge I had about interfaces. Here are some of the highlight points for me:

  • On the what’s-wrong-with-today’s-products topic, it feels almost relieving to actually name the nasty behaviors we get annoyed by, but don’t even acknowledge during software use. Not-the-user’s-fault error messages, patronizing questions, unintelligible language and forced OKing weird actions are some examples.
“Come back later to check notifications on your Pins and boards.” Why, Pinterest? And what if I don’t want to?
  • There’s this whole section arguing on how Marketing insights are not the same as the ones as Design provides — and why it is important to have both. On the other hand, it also explains how unfair we have been to coders, wanting them to focus both on ease of use and ease of coding, which turn out to be two conflicting tasks. Designers are the people who can research and properly translate the results into objetive project requirements!
  • Understanding that there’s an implementation model (how something actually works) and a mental model (how people imagine it works) completely blew my mind! Specially because they right after introduce the represented model concept, the designer’s choice for a system’s representation, which bridges the former two in order to reach the user’s model. Ultimately, it’s all about empathy. ❤
Figure 1.4 from About Face: a comparison between the models and where we should stand.

Only the beginning

Chapter 2 is about the Research phase of the Goal-Directed Design process, which should be the part I’m more familiar with. Until then, this chapter closes with some questions that generally lead this quest. I decided to leave some of them here, to whoever wants to reflect on the importance of understanding users on a digital project:

  • Who are my users?
  • What are my users trying to accomplish?
  • What kind of experiences do my users find appealing and rewarding?
  • How will users interact with my product?
  • How can my product deal with problems that users encounter?

Research, here we go!

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