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User Experience Demystified

Of all the many aspects of product design, User Experience (UX) seems to engender the most confusion in those who don’t understand the iterative and multi-faceted nature of the discipline or appreciate its value. While many great books have been written about User Experience Design, the following are some foundational tenets to address the most common areas of confusion:

UX is iterative

User experience is an iterative process of refinement until a level of acceptable quality is reached — meaning that success criteria has been met, as measured by objective user data.

Design opinions are signals, not deciding factors

People are highly opinionated about design. This is why the notion of style exists. But when building software at scale, ultimately our opinion doesn’t matter. Our opinion about the brand matters, but not the user experience. All that should matter is the efficacy of the experience:

  • Does it achieve its goal?
  • Does it engender positive user sentiment?
  • Do the majority of users love it?
  • What isn’t working and why?

If design decisions are made based purely on opinion, you are no longer building software for your users, you are building software for yourself or your co-workers. Despite stories to the contrary, that usually doesn’t work. The opinion of your colleagues are signals that should inform assumptions to be tested. Nothing more. Nothing less.

User research is vital

User research is about validating assumptions and testing ideas. It is not to be confused with market research. It is about how people feel and behave about performing a certain action or completing a goal. It is not about asking people what they want, but perceiving how they behave.

User research also means understanding the user. It is critical that user-centered PMs spend time in the field talking to users and gaining an understanding of their needs, desires and problems. Ultimately a PM needs to empathize with the user and advocate for them. This can only be accomplished through genuine human interaction. Nothing is more effective at sharpening a PMs instincts than getting to know their users.

UX is adaptive

Some organizations have a strict, top down, UX authority that all end-user facing products must go through. This approach is ineffective and doesn’t serve the user, it serves only the figures of authority and is therefore meaningless.

UX is best thought of as a set of best practices and tactics that are employed as necessary, when needed. Teams should apply a flexible toolkit to solve specific business and user problems in targeted ways — leveraging the right tool for the right job.

UX is not just about UI design

Many people think UX is the practice of designing web-pages or screens. It is not. In fact as we move further from traditional form factors towards new interaction models like conversational or VR-based experiences, this distinction becomes even more pronounced.

UX includes every interaction a user has with a product or brand, including:

  • Top of the funnel marketing interactions
  • Naming conventions
  • Service design (consider how important speed of delivery is to the Amazon experience)
  • User research
  • Scenario planning
  • User journeys and storyboards
  • Prototyping and usability testing
  • Design patterns and visual languages
  • Designing non-traditional interaction models (gesture-based, conversational, etc.)

Usability Testing is Really Important

No matter how much confidence we have in an experience design we must always remember one extremely important fact: we are not the user.

We can apply best practices, use the right design patterns, and do all the necessary research, but we still will not know how people will react to the experience until we test it with them. The best way to know if we’ve got the experience right is to have people engage with it and then let them tell us how it works and what they think, with no instruction or demonstration beforehand. If they do that and like the product, then we know we are on the right track.

Usability is not UX

Usability is an important subset of UX, but the two are not synonymous. In fact, because people’s standards have increased as they are exposed to better and more usable experiences, usability has become commoditized, and is something that almost all modern solutions successfully provide. Anything that isn’t usable in the competitive marketplace will not succeed.

Usability Testing is not User Testing

Usability testing helps to answer questions and gather both quantitative data and qualitative feedback about specific features and functionality. User testing. focus groups, and user surveys seek to validate and inform higher level strategic decisions.

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