Reverse Engineering UX Design

No two days are the same in the life of a UX designer. The daily routine of a UX Designer depends on the stage of the product he/she’s working on.

The trickiest part in their lives is not shifting routines, but it’s the first step: the ideation phase or the creativity routine. This routine usually begins with user stories.

I remember the first time I was handed a bunch of user stories to design a product on my own. I was interning in Boston with a retail giant. My mentor gave me the specification document and also a free rein to explore my creativity. It was really hard to get access to end users and ethnography was ruled out. Business and finance folks were prime stakeholders. I was provided some artifacts, notes and receipts from the store and was told to get started. Since I was just out of college, I decided to stick to the textbook.

“Contextual Design by Beyer and Holtzblatt” was what I’d been taught in school, and I followed it to the dot. I started off by sketching affinity diagrams, card sorting, activity diagrams, sequence flows et al.

The problem statement was pretty simple. We were designing an app for bakers, working in our company’s grocery stores. The idea was to help the bakers note down all of their custom/special orders.

I don’t know if it was simply an urge to prove myself, or just plain eagerness to please the stakeholders, I went overboard.

I was looking for inspirations while compiling the activity diagrams. I noticed that making a cake had a similar pattern to baking a pizza. You start with a base, choose a filling, pick the kind of cream you want, and finish with the icing. Now, there are many pizza-builder apps out in the market. All the pizza places with an online presence have a pizza-builder of their own.

Model of the Dominos Pizza app (For illustration purposes only)

I borrowed one of those ideas for this cake-making app. And that’s how I learnt a very valuable lesson, which would last a lifetime.

I had copied over the process sequence flow blindly. And I ended up with a product which was highly aesthetic, usable and fun, but not efficient.

The landing page of the app showed the base where the baker had to select the size and flavor. The next step was to select the filling. Consequently, each step built up the cake in a step-wise fashion.

My cake-builder app

Though the app solved the problem statement, it did not meet the UX metric. Because the UX metric was not clearly defined in the first place! The idea was not to make the app pleasurable, enjoyable, or to enhance the user experience. All we had to do was to make it efficient. We had to help the bakers note down an order as quickly as possible and track it all the way till delivery.

After a good shake-up, I took time to introspect and see where I went wrong. I realized that we as UX Designers always need inspirations to help us with our creative acumen. But my mistake was that I did not delve on my inspiration long enough.

Pizza-builders are meant for actual end consumers. Pizza apps are meant to increase expectations, and engage the user. The stake-holders were a different segment altogether. I should have reverse engineered pizza-builders. Had I done that, I would have evinced the target audience and the core UX metric. This would also have taught me where to break away from the inspiration, while designing the process sequence flows.

I spoke about the blunder with my mentor and brought up the concept of reverse engineering. He loved the idea and gave me some time off to explore some random products. All I had to do was to reverse engineer the end product and guess the UX metric. Along with that, I had to predict the target stakeholders that the UX designer might have had when he/she would have set out to design the product.

This was a highly enriching experience for me. I had to retrace the steps and go down the design path instead of going up. So I went from end product to prototype, to wireframe, to user personas based on everything I had learnt till then.

This is what I came away with. There are some key indicators worth observing and analyzing. These indicators provide deep insights about the product in terms of the UX metric and the target stakeholders.

1) Holistic Visibility — How much of the system/process is shown to the user at the first step? How much of it is left to exploration?

If you see a detailed menu bar and site-map, it’d indicate that the UX designer anticipated a lot of first time users. Likewise, if a website expects repeat users, it would not make sense to have a very detailed top menu bar. For eg: Take a look at all the social media websites. None of them have a menu bar.

2) How many CTAs (call to action) items are present in the home screen? How many of them compete for attention? Do they create a conflict of priority in the user’s mind?

If a product seems to have a lot of CTA items, it may look like a cockpit to a normal user. But it may be meant for a niche segment. A DJ’s digital console has a million buttons. It wouldn’t make sense to simplify it and embrace the idea of minimalism in this context. Likewise, ‘complex’ is not necessarily bad.

Screenshot of the virtual DJ app

3) User centric — Can the user find information about himself/herself easily (login, favorites, personal settings etc)?

If this user information is small or abstracted, the focus here is on the actual system than actions of the user. Likewise if ‘settings’ are generic, and have a system-wide effect, the UX designer intended the product to be used exclusively by a single user.

For example — let us consider the home screen of Amazon

Home screen of amazon and spotify for iphones

How hard was it for you to locate the product reviews you had written?

And now lets see the landing page of spotify:

How hard was it to find your music now?

4) Are all the dynamic components hidden on purpose and left to discovery? Or does the app scale the user’s mental model to expect the dynamic UI elements?

If it is the former, one of the intended UX metric might have been to engage the user and make the app more enjoyable. ‘Fun’ would be definitely one of the intended flavors.

And if it is the latter, the main UX metric is to drive home the famous usability heuristic — ‘recognition and recall’.

AC Nielson’s heuristics for evaluating web-usability are well known. Likewise Don Norman’s design recommendations and Deiter Rams’s 10 design principles are almost faithfully followed by UX Designers the world-over.

There are very few sources which talk about how to draw inspiration the right way! I hope others can learn from my mistake and garner more from their future inspirations. It’d please me immensely if my article ends up helping the UX community even in a tiny way. Comments are welcome!

UX Engineer. My doodles are usually wireframes of board-games