Application Teams Can Deliver A Better User Experience (Part 1: User Studies)

Great UX doesn’t happen by chance. It is deep and holistic, with all parts of an organization having responsibility. It is not UI or “polish” — even APIs have a user experience. Treating it as a late phase of development will be unsuccessful, with many decisions affecting UX already having been made without guidance from over-arching UX goals. These decisions compound over time, often resulting in a lackluster experience.

Meanwhile, application sponsors often underappreciate their own role in delivering a great UX. Sponsor involvement in ideation and prototyping with a strong emphasis on, and commitment to, simplicity is critical. Demanding that development teams deliver “all the same features as the old system” will stymie creativity and typically produces products that are confusing and overly complex.

The good news is that UX has been around long enough that best practices are starting to emerge. There is certainly no shortage of frameworks available. However, when we look at the big fish (Design Think, How Might We, Object Oriented UX) we notice that they all center around 5 core principles:

  • User research
  • Definition of personas and scenarios
  • Narrow scope
  • Prototyping
  • Analytics

A great UX does not require manuals, lengthy tutorials, extensive text or domain knowledge. It does, however, require organization-wide dedication to UX through every phase of product development. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of collaboration in building your UX framework. Safeguarding UX practices within a single group or, worse yet, a single individual is less productive than blowing the doors wide open and extending invitations to participate across the entire organization. All activities within your UX initiative (prototypes, personas, user studies, analytics and scoping) will benefit from being shared by all stakeholders.

Start With User Studies

It’s tempting to believe that UX is an art best left to creative right-brainers. Creative professionals do, of course, contribute to the UX, and good design can go a long way toward delighting users. However, UX is multidisciplinary, and the best UX professionals are equally comfortable challenging assumptions about users as they are at facilitating prototypes. UI is only a small part of the actual UX.

A central tenet of good UX is that opinions (as expressed) are overrated. For various reasons, users aren’t always conscious of, or willing to share, the truth. A good UX initiative focuses on what users actually do, rather than on what they say they do. Successful development programs dedicate time to observing actual users interacting with production applications, applications in development stages and even prototypes.

User studies offer several important benefits:

  • The discovery of what users think and feel as they engage your product
  • Insight into user’s needs that may have previously been unknown
  • Goodwill gained by user involvement with the process
  • Where users are internal to an organization, political paybacks can occur when those users return to their own groups and remark on the work being done in IT to improve the UX of applications
  • Potential breakthroughs on the part of project stakeholders who have not previously been part of UX initiatives or who have never seen real users interacting with the product of their work
  • Opportunity to build a sense of empathy for users and ownership of project quality

Practitioners who have not previously conducted or seen a user study are often dubious of its value. When it comes to user studies, “seeing is believing.” Few, if any, contributors involved with a user study consider it a waste of their time or eschew participation in such a study in the future. To the contrary, most skeptics find the experience of watching a real user interact with their application to be initially cringe-worthy, then only slightly terrifying, then humorous and then, eventually, exhilarating. When it comes to conveying the importance of a UX initiative, user studies can be revelatory.

User studies are a complementary practice to all other components of a good UX framework. Scenarios and personas can help define the best candidates for participation in user studies. Prototyping undertaken as the result of user studies are more focused on solving specific problems or creating specific opportunities. User studies often reveal the most critical points of interaction and help narrow the scope of development to address only the most important issues. Also, analytics can help guide user studies in an attempt to answer the Why behind the numbers. When your analytics reveal that users are not accessing a certain part of your website as often as expected, make that task the subject of a user study, requesting that users find the neglected content. In this way, analytics and user studies are complementary.

This post is the first in a five part series. Next: Application Teams Can Deliver A Better User Experience (Part 2: Personas and Scenarios)