A true UX tool

A call for a tool that goes beyond prototyping

Julius Huijnk
Jun 30, 2015 · 6 min read

It’s a joke I often tell my colleagues, but wouldn’t dare tell a client. It’s not at all self evident what a UX designer does. We don’t ‘make’ anything. In collaboration, we create a plan for our colleagues that do the actual making. The impact of our efforts is decided by how other people understand us.

This makes our work fundamentally abstract and collaborative. We need tools that support us with this. While the current tools we have are valuable, they are not sufficient. UX design is not just about creating prototypes. We need a true UX tool that supports us in the reality of our everyday work.

What we do

In order to take a better look at what would be required from a true UX tool, let’s take a closer look at a typical work day.

Here’s a short list of tasks based on my own experience:

  • Create a customer journey in collaboration with experts on dog food.
  • Brief an external developer on the first draft of the search functionality. Because it seems costly to develop in the CMS, we discuss acceptable alternatives to go over with the client next week.
  • Create two simple clickable prototypes of the main menu.
  • Incorporate new visual designs of a service component in the specifications. I highlight the changes in relation to the earlier wireframes.
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  • After learning the client wants ‘badging’ but no gamification, I make a small presentation on what gamification is, its potential value to the project, and how badging can be seen as a subset of gamification.

As you can see, the tasks can be quite diverse. For me, the overarching theme is that we clarify. We turn a vague idea into a concrete plan our colleagues can use to create a great product for our clients.

User experience

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In designing a concrete plan, we spend our time not just creating and testing prototypes. We first need to figure out what the desired user experience is, then we design the conditions that enable this experience to happen.

This design process demands creation, communication, collaboration and validation. Often the creation is the easy part, communicating something as abstract as a design for a user experience is the hard part.

We all have learned that a designer is not a typical user. The same goes for clients, developers, copywriters and all other stakeholders we work with. They all have their own way of thinking, expertise and level of understanding. This makes communicating about our work an extra challenge.

The tools we use

If you look online on sites like Quora, or when asking colleagues what tools they use, they’ll come up with tools like Axure, Omnigraffle, Balsamiq, Marvel app, InVision, FramerJS, Pop, Proto.io and UXpin.

The promise: prototyping

These tools promise to offer support in creating prototypes.

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All sorts of prototypes with all sorts of interactivity and fidelity, but the promise is roughly the same; we help you create a great a user interface.

Focus: the page

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The Axure interface invites you to add interactive widgets to a page. InVision invites you to connect pages to form a clickable prototype.

The majority of these tools enable you to make:

  • Wireframes of pages
  • Flowcharts that connect pages
  • Prototypes that make these pages clickable

The starting point for creating a great user interface seems to be creating a great page.

The non-prototyping work we do

Perhaps it seems like I take aim at prototyping tools, while ignoring the non-prototyping tools. Clearly there are many specialized tools for the other parts of the UX design process.

For instance, there are tools for user testing and feedback like Uservoice, Usabilla, and Survey Monkey. And tools for flowcharts, mindmaps and sitemaps like Visio, OmniGraffle or even Powerpoint.

While there is value in tools that do one thing and do it well. Using different tools for different perspectives on the same process offers a broken experience. Designing UX is the one thing we do, creating a deliverable like a flowchart is a subset of that.

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Sharing of assets is far from a seamless experience and it’s just not practical to use different interfaces to create, collaborate, communicate and validate the same design.

Switching tools is time consuming for myself, but in collaboration and communicating with different stakeholders it’s a potential source of mistakes and miscommunication. The preferred situation is that there is one online ‘truth’ of the current state of the whole design.

To the credit of some of the new tools like InVision and UX-Pin, they do seem to give a lot more prominence to support the workflow. It’s a step forward, but since they still seem to put the sole focus on creating prototypes, there is still a lot of room for improvement.

Let’s take a look at what is needed to move forward.

Requirements for a true UX tool

Based on my own experience, there are two core requirements for a true UX tool.

The core of the tool is formed by how the different parts are intertwined. Design elements like personas, customer journeys, information architecture and pages are all connected and used in relation to each other.

Makes communication easy
The tool is made to communicate the (state of the) design to different stakeholders. This includes sending and receiving feedback, sharing assets and different views on the design to support different communication needs.

Suggested features

Based on these requirements, I have sketched a number of features that I believe would empower me as a user experience designer.

Make it easy to create rich persona’s and customer journeys.

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If this would be the norm, not using persona’s would be a deliberate choice.
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Mike is wondering what step 4 will be.

Make it easy to present a customer journey, that goes beyond what is presented on the screen.

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It should output posters that look great on the wall of your studio.

Let me share a ‘safe version’ with the client, while I work on a new version.

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Let’s make a clean separation between design and communicating about your design.

Let me keep track of different versions of components, not just files.

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To put it nerdly; I want user friendly Git branches.

Provide different perspectives for different purposes and stakeholders.

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A strategic persona view would help communicate an opportunity.
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Providing the context of the customer journey as part of the documentation, the developer can better understand the importance and reasoning behind a certain feature.
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A view for copywriters

Make sharing of information and assets with my colleagues as simple as possible.

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The next step

One of the most fun parts of being a UX designer is learning new things with every project. In writing this article, I also learned a lot about how we work and how it can be improved.

I’m curious if the ideas laid out here resonate with you. What do you think is fundamental for a true UX tool?

I wrote a follow up article with contributions by Axure, InVision, UXPin, Marvel and Proto.io. It takes a deeper look in trying to find the right scope and conditions for such a true UX tool by learning from other tools, tool makers and the UX community. Read it here and let me know what you think.

Since July 2017, I started working on a prototype. You can find these articles in the Proof of Concept Publication. First article of this series:

Human, Business, Shape

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