What is UX all about ?

UX is a quite a buzzword now-a-days, but there is a lot of misunderstanding about what UX actually entails. Does it mean making wire-frames and mockups or talking to users and conducting usability studies ? You have probably heard of UX specific job titles, such as Information Architect or Interaction Designer or UX Researcher or UI designer.

This post is about understanding what UX really means and taking a look at the various elements that make up a great UX. We will also look at the various elements that together make up UX Design.

So what is UX ?

This is a great description of what UX is all about:

“The user experience is made up of all the interactions a person has with your brand, company, or organization. This may include interactions with your software, your web site, your call center, an advertisement, with a sticker on someone else’s computer, with a mobile application, with your Twitter account, with you over email, maybe even face-to-face. The sum total of these interactions over time is the user experience.” ~Joshua Porter

So, the next time you walk into a Apple Store, notice the way the products are arranged in the store, notice how the customer service is, because thats a part of the UX design too. This is an important point to understand — UX is not just about the product, it is also about the experience that the user has with your product or service and all the associated peripheral interactions.

With this understanding, lets break UX down into its constituent layers.

Lets dig a little deeper into each layer and see how a layer feeds the layer above it. But before that, lets answer two important questions.

What does it mean to design something — a product or a service ?

Why should we care about UX design?

Designing is really about all making a series of clear, deliberate choices, in order to best solve a problem that we have, subject to certain constraints. These constraints might be technical limitations or business considerations.

In the context of a product or a service, it is impossible to talk about design, without talking about the consumer — the person who is actually going to use the product or the service. So, when you are designing, you are really making deliberate choices, to solve your customer’s real problems. A great design solution, solves the customer’s problem in a way that delights and engages them in such a way, that they end up being passionate users and advocates of the product.

Designing the UX is no different. It is at the heart of it, all about solving the customer’s problems. A great UX design, is in most cases, necessary for a successful business.

Great UX design = Customer happiness

Customer happiness = Successful business

Now that we took that quick detour, lets get back and dig into each element of UX:

Strategy:

This is foundation on which a great UX is built and is therefore, perhaps the most important element of UX. The choices that you make in this step, will have strong implications for everything your do in the other layers. Get this part wrong, and no amount of tweaking the visual design, will save the day. Get this right, and you have a solid chance of creating a product that the users really, need and love.

At this stage, we are concerned with the following types of questions:

What are we building ?

Who is the user ?

What are the pain points of the user and, how is the product solving it ?

Why is this product valuable to the user ?

Why is this product valuable to the business ?

Why will the user use your product and not the competitors?

What are the business objectives and how does this product tie into those objectives ?

We start off at this layer, having very little insight into the user’s needs or maybe even the problem we are trying to solve. Then through research, we figure out the answers, may be not all at once, but through a careful, iterative process. All good strategy, starts with research, simply because we know very little at the outset.

In a big organization, the person responsible for this is called a UX researcher. For instance, check out the job description taken from a job posting for a UX researcher at Google:

“User Experience (UX) Researchers work to answer the most challenging questions in design. In this role, you will reveal what our users need from our products by conducting primary research, exploring the behaviors and motivations of our users, and working with teams of Designers, Product Managers, Engineers and others to develop new features. ”

So, how does a UX researcher go about getting the information that’s needed to build the right solution for the right problem, for the customer ?

There are no hard and fast rules around this. A UX researcher will employ a range of research tools ranging from individual user interviews to online-surveys, to understand the user better. Usability testing is a very popular user research technique. I wont go into the details here. Check out this link to get an better idea of the various user research methods normally used:

http://www.usability.gov/how-to-and-tools/methods/user-research/index.html

Essentially, at this stage, you want to understand the user, their problems and the business context in which you are operating.

Scope:

In this step, all the stakeholders- engineers, product managers, marketing, sales etc — chalk out the scope of the product.

Some of the questions you want to answer at this stage are:

What are the requirements ?

What features are must-haves ?

What are the content requirements ?

What are we going to deliver ?

This step is essentially about making sure that the various stakeholders are on the same page. You dont want to end up in a scenario, where your client wants an apple, and you think he wants a orange, while the sales folks think you are delivering a exotic fruit.

So, this step is about constraining, the ‘scope’ of the product and making sure all the stakeholders are on the same page. Placing constraints on the product, helps the team focus and deliver a real product and reduces the possibility of conflict in the future.

Structure:

The structure plane is split into two parts:

Information Architecture and Interaction Design.

While we are still thinking conceptually at this level, the decisions made here will have a concrete impact on the way the user actually experiences the content.

Both — Interaction Design and Information Architecture — define patterns. An Information Architect designs patterns to organize all the content or information and, to determine how things are presented to the user, in what order, in what context. A Interaction designer on the other hand, defines patterns which lets a user ‘interact’ with the information that is presented to him.

Lets us consider an example to understand information architecture and interaction design.

Consider Facebook paper — a mobile app available on iOS.

The information in the context of this app is — photos, posts, events, bday, notifications, ads etc.

How do we organize this information ? Paper did it in an innovative way way. If you are using an iPhone, go download the app and contrast this app with the facebook app for iOS or Android to get an idea of the difference IA can make to way the user sees the content or the information.

user profile page in paper iOS app

On the left is a snapshot of my user profile on facebook paper app for iOS. Contrast this with the image below — which is a screenshot of the same screen in normal facebook app for iOS. The same content — the user name, photos, personal information, friends list is organized in a different manner and prioritized in a different manner. So, even though the content is the same, it is ‘architectured’ in different ways in these two apps.

user profile page in the normal facebook iOS app

Now that we have looked at IA, we have to answer an important question.

How do we interface with this information ?

How do we go from one photo to another ? How do we get to the settings screen, how do we get to a particular friend’s profile ? Thats where interaction design comes in.

Each interaction has to be designed deliberately in such a way that it maps naturally to a user’s mental model. One of the greatest examples of Interaction design is the first version of iPhone. iPhone completely did away with a stylus which traditional smartphones relied on until then, and instead used, as Steve Jobs put it ‘The greatest pointing device that all of us are born with’ — the finger.

To sum it up :

Here are some of the questions you want to answer at this stage:

How do we arrange information throughout the entire site or the entire app ?

How do we organize information to make it easy for the user to complete the most important tasks ?

How do we design the search and navigation systems so that the user can find his way around the app?

Some of the things Interaction Design deals with:

How does the system behave when somebody does something?

What happens when I click on a link ?

How does the user interact with the information ?

Skeleton:

Interface design is about what the user actually see’s on the screen. The design of the buttons or the navigation , the font styles etc, are all a part of the Interface design. Interface design provides users the ability to do things with the product. Let us say that, as a part of your Interaction design, you decide that to favorite a tweet, the user has to click a button. The ‘clicking a button’ is the interaction here, but making sure that the button actually does look like a button and, providing enough visual cues as to what the clicking the button will do is a part of interface design. Get it?

In case you are confused about the difference between interaction design and interface design, check out this link:

Interaction design vs Interface Design

Surface:

The surface element has only one part — the visual design. This is the final product, where everything comes together. In today’s age, a product with a poorly designed interface, is at a serious competitive disadvantage. Good visual design is honest to the product that is being created, put another way — it is not ostentatious. Visual design is an opportunity to express the brand and ethos of your product and if done right, it can result in more engaged users. This part of the UX design is typically done by a Visual designer, at least in bigger companies that have the resources. To get an idea of what a visual designer does, take a look at the job description for a Visual Designer at Google

“At Google, Visual Designers weave iconography, typography, color, space and texture together to help our users successfully navigate our products. We believe that all of our products should be beautiful and accessible. As a Visual Designer, you’ll delight users with designs that inspire, engage and excite them. You’ll rely on user-centered design principles to produce high-quality visuals — from concept to execution — across many platforms.”

To learn more about the fundamental principles of visual design, check out my post on medium:

Fundamental principles of Visual Design

I hope this post gave you a good idea of what UX really means.

For those of you interested in learning more about UX, here is a reading list.

Reading list:

This article is based on the seminal book ‘The Elements of User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web and Beyond’, by Jesse James Garrett.

http://52weeksofux.com

http://www.uxcheck.co

Book : The Elements of User Experience

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