Being a designer in 2020 is quite different than being a designer 20 years ago. The internet is no more a niche and has entered our life as an extension of our body, helping to solve problems and achieve goals.
When a service potentially reaches the whole world, it must be shaped in a way that is understandable and usable by everyone, without exceptions.
That’s why the internet, but especially the way its products are designed, has changed a lot in recent years and new methodologies and approaches have advanced to help designers improve the way digital products and services are designed, providing more attention to the user than in the past.
Let’s talk about the actual times: we live in a pandemic time (a pretty unusual situation) and people are forced to stay home, more than ever.
In the meantime, life goes on and there are actions that we are forced to do: paying bills, attend classes, do grocery.
Can we do these actions also online? Yes, it is possible.
The designers in charge of these systems need to consider that the user paying that bill may be a non-tech-savvy senior with low-performance technology devices. That the student who is attending the class may be suffering from dyslexia, or that the user who uses the online grocery service is a very busy worker who does not have the time or cognitive load to spend on this action.
These users should be able to achieve their goals fairly, understand the interface they use without encountering difficulties, anxiety, and frustration.
This is why the responsibility of designers has changed a lot: in the past they had to make sure to provide a good aesthetic to the project they were working on, today they have a real responsibility towards those who use the products they designed.
We designers can really help people improve their lives: buying a plane ticket, learn a language, searching for a new house are all tasks that solve problems and we have the duty to design those products in the best and simplest way possible, allowing them to perform their actions and reach their goals in an equal way.
1. Adopt a UCD approach and get to know your users
User-Centered Design (UCD) or User-Driven Development (UDD) is a framework of processes (not restricted to interfaces or technologies) in which usability goals, user characteristics, environment, tasks and workflow of a product, service or process are given extensive attention at each stage of the design process.
User-centered design is common in the design industry and when used, is known to lead to an increased product usefulness and usability.
It might be obvious but, when we start to think about a new feature or something new, the first questions we need to ask ourselves are: how would users react to this change? Does this help them reach their goal?
User-centered design is an iterative design process in which designers put users at the center of their decisions, using different research tools and methods to deeply understand users' needs and expectations. It starts with people and ends with a solution tailored to solve people’s needs.
Don Norman was the first to underline the importance of UCD approach (the term was first used in the early 80s when the computer started to be introduced into people’s lives) with the book User-Centered System Design: New Perspectives on Human-Computer Interaction, giving this concept wide popularity.
As we said, the UCD approach is an iterative process, each iteration involves four distinct phases.
First, we understand the context in which users can use a system. Then we try to understand the user’s needs and try to combine them with the business requirements, always focusing on the user. This is followed by the design phase: designers try to put on the table all the information they gained from the previous iteration phases and build a finished design.
And now the magic happens: our design is ready but we have to validate it, we proceed with an evaluation phase where all our assumptions and the outcome will be validated by users and we understand how it’s performing, if the product meets the users' requirements, expectations and if fits correctly in their context.
Designing using the UCD approach not only helps the team tailor the project on users' needs, but it also increases performance and usefulness of the product.
The international standard 13407 is the basis for many UCD methodologies.
2. Usability first!
“Usability is the extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals, with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in a specified context of use.”
ISO 9241 Ergonomics of Human System Interaction
Usability means “ease of use” and it’s a simple but very important concept every digital product should consider in order to be a good one.
An interface is “usable” when users are able to achieve their goal with satisfaction and the steps they must follow to do that are frictionless, clear and don’t require cognitive overload.
In 1994 Dr. Jakob Nielsen releases the first 10 usability heuristics.
He called them “heuristics” because they are broad rules of thumb and not specific usability guidelines and they are still an essential basis to carry out a usability test.
According to Nielsen, a digital system can be defined usable when it passes all 10 usability heuristics, such as always giving visibility of what is going on through appropriate feedback, maintaining consistency through all the screen of an interface and letting users be able to recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors.
Usability helps users focus on their own task without distraction, take advantage of their previous learnings and make the user session more efficient and performing, that’s why it’s essential in the perspective of design for everyone.
3. Avoid “exclusion” following accessibility standards
Exclusion means “non-inclusion”, and no one wants to be excluded.
As a designer, another important responsibility is to never exclude any user from using our system, which is why we need to follow the accessibility guidelines in our designs.
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 ensure no barriers with the interaction or the access to web product and services for people with physical, cognitive disabilities or with socio-economic restrictions (e.g. bandwidth limits). To design and develop a website that meets the accessibility standards gives the opportunity to have equal access to information and functionality to users in general, all of them.
For example, we must have a contrast ratio between a text and its background and use a readable font-size to help people with poor sight to read and understand the content. Also, supporting text content with other formats such as photos or graphics can help create a visual memory for people with dyslexia, who better read and retain information provided to them this way.
The UK Home Office has released some posters that collect the do’s and don’ts of designing more accessible services and products. They are very useful, easy to read and understand even for those approaching the guidelines for the first time.
There are a variety of tools to check the accessibility of an interface. I find a quick check with the “Inspect” feature on Google Chrome very useful. By simply inspecting a text you may find useful information such as the Contrast ratio of a text or if a link could be focused using only the keyboard.
4. Avoid complexity (or approaching it in the right way)
User-friendly, clean, understandable, simple.
All those objectives have one concept in common: avoiding complexity.
When we talk about complexity we refer to something which is unnecessarily complicated and confused and provides difficulties to the user and his journey.
As we said, a simple design is potentially understandable by everyone.
A complex interface could disorient the user, driving all his attention in the comprehension of what he’s doing and distracting him from the main goal, which is not to understand where the main navigation is.
There are different touchpoints that could be simplified in product design (it depends on the context, of course): we should decrease visual complexity by adopting the heuristic of Aesthetic and minimalist design (“Dialogues should not contain information which is irrelevant or rarely needed. Every extra unit of information in a dialogue competes with the relevant units of information and diminishes their relative visibility.”) or we should cut off unused extra features and try to focus more on the most used and useful ones.
Embracing simplicity is an approach that could be useful to design (literally) complex products, it’s democratic because everyone understands simple things and allows our product to be used potentially by everyone.