Experience of the UX design process

We’re user experience designers. We’ve all produced personas and user journey maps. More than once we got our hands dirty with information architecture spreadsheets. We’ve sat in rooms for hours, sticking notes on corporate walls.

We take pride in thinking about users of our products.

Sounds familiar? How about this: to design well we have to get others to understand our methods. I believe that this is something that we often fail at.

Is user experience design always targeted at external users?

What would you say if I asked you today about user experience design? You would most likely say that it’s a combination of methods that help us, designers, arriving at the ideal, user-focused solution. You would be right, of course. Yet, what seems simple to us, isn’t that simple to many others.

Did you ever have a client in a room with you rolling their eyes after you have presented beautiful wireframes, user journeys and personas? I am sure you did.

Devil is in the detail, right?

It’s time for a story. I’ve met with a talented interface designer. Let’s call him James. He’s not only good with designing UI; he understands and values the role of research in discovery. James presented me with a set of beautiful prototype screens for an app that he’s building. The app itself occupies a very distinct market niche. Yet, it will be used by individuals of varying levels of professional expertise.

On the top of these screens, James gave me some fantastic user journey maps to look at. They were good — I could see that there was a lot of thinking put into his product.

But James faced one serious issue. He was unable to explain how the app worked. It’s not that it wasn’t made right — but that the learning curve to it was very steep.

To address that, James produced great user journey maps. Yet, showing them to other people involved in the process (users included) didn’t work. They still weren’t able to use the prototype right away, as he was hoping them to.

When I got my hands on the prototype I was also puzzled. I couldn’t quite get it, even though I knew that what I was looking at was some data visualisation stuff. The user journey I understood, of course, but it took me a good while to analyse it.

I asked James a question. If it took me (a designer) a few minutes to get my head around your product, how could people with no understanding of UX methods get it?

Herein lies the issue. We’re so focused on the detail that we’re missing on delivering our work in an adaptive fashion. Looking at my new friend’s work I tried to wear the user’s shoes and… It has failed on me. I could only understand it as a UX designer would.

The initial engagement

What if James produced a simple, but well-drawn storyboard instead of showing user journeys? And if he built simple onboarding into his prototype? Two or three screens that explain what the app is trying to achieve and how to go about that.

He’d won me over in a minute, and his stakeholders (users included) wouldn’t struggle with the concept at all.

To be able to communicate our vision we have to treat the very design process as the user-centered design process, too.

Think of it this way:

  1. Your stakeholders are nothing else but your users. Users of your research and your functional specification. Users of your personas and user journey maps.
  2. Your stakeholders aren’t familiar with your product. Well, they often aren’t as their understanding of how an UX designer works grows with time.
  3. The product is only good if it’s usable and if it is a pleasure to use. Why not make this process of designing it as pleasurable and efficient as possible, then?

If we illustrated it on a very basic graph, we could go with something like this:

The red line is an experience that’s far from ideal — very difficult at the beginning and easing down with the time of using the product.

The green line shows a much better approach. A gradual introduction of users into the experience with their confidence growing in time. Whilst difficulty grows, too, we have people bought into the product and willing to learn it.

Doesn’t this remind you of onboarding a bit? Yes, it should. Now, replace the end-user with a stakeholder buying into your ideas. We can make it hard or easy for them. What’s going to work better?

Quick recipe for getting everyone on the same board

  1. Onboard your stakeholders as you would onboard your users. Run a session on what user experience design is and what is your role in the delivery. Explain how we work.
  2. Remember that tools such as user journey maps and personas are an ideal tool of co-design. If you want to use them as design devices throughout, create them with stakeholders.
  3. Speak the language of your customer. When talking to marketing folk, try communicating as they do. Senior financial management? No problem. Read up a bit and speak their lingo, understand some basics. When referring to KPI, understand what you are talking about and point at figures that speak to others.
  4. Learn about your stakeholders as you would do for your users. Map their influence on the project (Google for stakeholder mapping). Note down some characteristics, so you know what they’re like. Do some need more attention than others? Do you have anyone there who’s a natural learner and will be curious about your work? Are you working with anyone who’s reluctant to follow you? Make allies. Pacify enemies.

This doesn’t need a lot of time. It needs a different focal point and a wise choice of tools. For example, face-to-face communication over electronic one when explaining core methodologies. To give you an example: instead of writing an email about what user testing is, meet your client and do a quick role-play with them. It will have a completely different impact.

What if this requires new skills?

As user experience designers we have to learn a lot all the time. We need to understand how our end-products work, and what people want from them. One of the first skills that we have to master is to think as users do. Why not step away from the shoes of end users for a minute and put on our stakeholders’ shoes?

I bet it would save us some pain. Try it. What’s even better, you will get into the service design territory. You might even like it…

I am a service design practitioner, freelance UX consultant and trainer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. Find me at https://kutyla.design.

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