Evaluating UX: Would you buy a home without an inspection?

Marnie Andrews
Jan 3, 2018 · 4 min read

Let me ask you something: Would you buy a home without a building inspection? Would you build a home without consulting an architect?

Recently, my husband and I purchased a house. Although it’s only 20 years old, we wanted to be sure we were making a sound purchase, so we hired a building inspector. The building inspector found some issues but not enough to scare us off the house. So we bought it and got to work planning the necessary repairs and renovations. We’re really looking forward to experiencing the finished product later this year because we know it’ll be safe, sound and delightful after all of our hard work preparing it.

Building inspections are a wise choice

But that’s not always the end of the building inspection story. As we’ve seen in many home renovation TV shows, the issues can be much worse, meaning that the home owners need to completely rip out parts of the house and rebuild them. Sometimes, it’s just easier to tear down the entire house and start again.

Can this house really be repaired?

I use the analogy of house building often when I talk about User Experience Design. When I explain what I do for a living, I tell the story of building a home: you hire an architect to design it to your desired specifications and in a way that’s achievable; an engineer builds it; an interior decorator makes the inside look and feel great. You wouldn’t want an interior decorator to design the home since it requires a lot of knowledge about things like engineering and math. Likewise, most engineers don’t know about flow and colours like an interior decorator does, so they wouldn’t be your best choice for making the home look good. That’s because all three of these professions require specific education and experience.

Architects have mad skillz

So when you buy or build a home, you bring in these experts to get their advice. You might know a bit about houses, but these experts know more. Leveraging their skills is a much smarter way to determine how good a fit the home will be for you rather than just jumping in without any assessments, purchasing it, and figuring out the issues after you move in. It’s much harder to fix big things when you’re living there!

And yet often in software design, I see exactly this type of behaviour from teams. People think they can design without the knowledge of what the user needs and why or without training in user experience design. That’s like your architect designing your home without ever asking you what you want or designing your own house without an architect’s education.

Other software teams recognize that they might not know exactly what to build and how, but they wait until the product is released before getting user feedback. That’s like moving into a home without a building inspection.

In the past, I’ve been asked to conduct usability testing to determine how well an experience fits the users’ needs and expectations. While that’s a great initiative, you can save a lot of time if you do a “building inspection” first. That is, there’s a lot we know about what works and what doesn’t work in interaction design from previous, quality UX research. Not everything needs a usability test to know that it won’t be easy to use. Rather, you can consult great resources (such as Nielsen Norman Group’s incredible research and design database) and improve the design before any testing. That way, when you do get to the testing phase — and you still need to test! — time won’t be wasted testing issues you could have caught during your “building inspection” phase. Instead, you can focus on catching issues that are hard to detect in an inspection and issues you didn’t expect, particularly things that are specific to your particular users, their tasks and their context.

Sometimes these design inspections will reveal so many usability issues that you’ll need to get your cross-discipline team together and have a tough talk about if the experience needs a complete redesign rather than patching the issues. At minimum, explore that idea with some brainstorm sketching to see what it might produce, and then, based on estimates of the work and the projected effect on your users, decide whether it’s best to repair or rebuild.

Sketching is a cheap way to explore ideas

Next time you want to get the product out the door, think of the last home you purchased: Would you have done so without a building inspection? Would you have done so if you knew it was built without the skills of an architect or engineer?

No, probably not.

So why do the same for with your software product?

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Marnie Andrews

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Building the right experiences for the right people using design-thinking and user-centred practices.

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