Why Usable Designs Avoid Bullshit: An Interview with Meagan Fisher

Empathy, sympathy, insight, and understanding are all key qualities when designing for the user. User-centered design is the holy grail of modern design practice–allowing teams to create products that better anticipate and solve for the needs of their user base. A strong UCD system requires not just talking about what users need, but getting into the field and connecting with those individuals who will be touching the product on a daily basis. While user-centered design has been shown time and again to create better systems for users, many are still not employing it into their project life cycles. UCD adds time and budget to interactive projects–something that clients have a hard time understanding. The results, however, when done right cannot be debated.

Meagan Fisher understands the importance of user-centered design in today’s interactive landscape. As the creative director of SproutVideo, she employs those essential skills in the projects she works on daily. She’s also a leader in the field of UX and design, which makes her the perfect person to chat with about the state of user-centered design and what it takes to create meaningful, valuable experiences.

User-centered design is a standard practice when developing new products. What do you feel are the big challenges that designers are still facing — especially when considering mobile and desktop experiences?

In my experience, user-centered design isn’t really a standard practice yet, and that remains our biggest challenge. Many product teams say they’re designing something that’s “user-centered,” but when you press them for details on how they’re putting the user at the center they say, “webelieve users want this feature” or “we don’t like this, so our users probably don’t either.” Conducting user research can be difficult if you don’t know how to start. Many times it seems easier to make product decisions based on assumptions about users.

I recommend reading Erika Hall’s Just Enough Research if you want to know more about how to, as Erika puts it, “make friends with reality”, and design what research shows users need rather than what you think or hope they’ll need. Once you truly put user needs at the forefront, questions of how to design for different devices become much easier to answer.

Putting ourselves in the shoes of the people we are designing for can help us better understand the audience’s needs. What role do you think empathy/sympathy play in designing for people?

Empathy and sympathy play a huge role in designing for people. As mentioned above, user research is crucial for ensuring that we design based on the user’s needs. But it’s also crucial for putting us in front of the people who we really work for — the users — so we can better empathize with them. As Jared Spool put it:

“Want to achieve a dramatic innovation in your design’s user experience? That’s easy. Just increase the hours of exposure to real users that your design team has.”

User testing and interviews show how a product affects the lives of real people, and as a result the designs are created through the lens of their real human impact.

Empathy matters even if you’re not able to conduct user research, because there are certain needs all humans share — we all want to feel respected, intelligent, capable, and even delighted. Being mindful of the shared humanity of you and your users will help you design a product people love, and a loved product is more likely to be a successful product.

Usable designs have an ordered visual hierarchy, and are typically spacious. They also treat users with respect and dignity by speaking to them in their language; usable designs avoid bullshit. Usable designs honor our shared humanity by delighting users. ~Meagan Fisher

There are a lot of less than stellar interactive experiences out there at this point. What do you feel are the hallmarks of a good, usable design?

A good, usable design makes users feel capable, intelligent, and happy. There are no blanket design patterns that achieve this goal for every scenario; no color palettes or visual trends or ui kits will guarantee a design will be good and usable every time.

There are some best practices that support usability. Usable designs are accessible: they give as many people as possible access to the content, regardless of their physical limitations or the medium on which they access the content. Usable designs have an ordered visual hierarchy, and are typically spacious. They also treat users with respect and dignity by speaking to them in their language; usable designs avoid bullshit. Usable designs honor our shared humanity by delighting users.

Getting the experience and architecture right are important, but how does good visual design play a role in supporting the user experience?

The role of visual design differs depending on the goals of the experience.

In marketing design, the aim is to quickly convey the value of your service or product in a memorable way, and visual design is central to this goal. When the colors, typography, negative space, and imagery support the content in a beautiful way, people feel better about buying what you’re selling. They trust it will add value to their lives.

In product design, the visual design serves a different purpose: it exists to guide the users in accomplishing their goals. When done well, it becomes a language users understand, so when they encounter a new feature or have a new goal, they already feel comfortable navigating it. They know, for example, that green buttons set off the page are a primary action (such as saving changes), whereas blue links are a secondary action (such as opening a modal window).

In order to know what visual style best supports the user goals, you have to first take a wider view of the product as a whole. When the experience and architecture are right, the visual style will emerge to support it.

Do you see a large disconnect between the role of experience design and visual design? In your opinion, how do they relate to and support each other?

As mentioned above, I believe experience and visual design are inseparable; the visual design exists to support the experience. Many designers will specialize in one discipline or the other, but the best visual designers have a solid foundational understanding of user experience, or work very closely with their ux team. Beautiful visuals will fail if the underlying experience isn’t great.

Video and motion graphics are pretty popular these days…in the early days, it was used a lot on designer’s websites, but now Air BnB and others have joined in using it. How do you see video and motion being used in the future? Will it continue to grow in prominence?

I think motion is important; it’s one more tool in our toolbox when we’re trying to guide the user to accomplish a goal. When used to this end, it’s a wonderful addition to a website or app.

An animation can help convey the functionality of an element, or give users a reason to smile. A video can better explain the purpose of a service, or show how to accomplish an otherwise confusing task. These are all wins for the user. I hope whatever tool we use in our designs, whether it’s video or animation or whatever comes after, it’s used to make our users feel happier and be more successful.

The traditional role of a “web designer” has become extremely diverse over the last several years. What do you feel are the key skills a designer needs to develop in order to work on the visual or front-end side of design?

This response could be an article on its own! A skill that all web designers need is the ability to quickly mock up a system (either through sketches, wireframes, or prototypes — whatever helps you and your team communicate best), and spot (and correct) the problems inherent with that system. This gets easier with experience.

With practice, you’ll get better at communicating how a website could be, and the tools for communication (such as Sketch, InVision, etc.) are constantly improving too. Your instincts for common flaws and best practices will sharpen through use, as well as observation of user behavior, and input from a variety of teams. To that end, empathizing with users and working well with internal teams are also important skills.

Web designers should also understand what makes design accessible, and be able to surface the most important content. And of course, they need a solid understanding of design principles such as color, layout, and typography. Additionally, most web designers today need to know the basics of front-end development, so they understand the environment they’re designing for. And, as you mentioned, many are now expected to know how to create animations, since interaction design is now a key part of designing for the web.

This is a lot. The good (and bad) news is you’ll never be finished learning and you’ll never be an expert at all of it. The best place to start is with a focused study of user experience design best practices, along with a foundational knowledge of basic design principles. The rest will come from working with awesome people, making a lot of dumb mistakes on the job, and continuing to learn through articles and conferences.

If you’ve never done freelance before, I’d recommend giving it a try at least once in your career; whether you succeed or fail at going independent long-term, you’ll learn an incredible amount from the experience. ~Meagan Fisher

A bit unrelated to the idea of UX and design, but you’ve made the transition between freelancer and employee recently. What are the major benefits/drawbacks to being a freelance designer in today’s market?

As a freelancer, you have total control over your career. You decide how much to work, where, who with, and for what price. The biggest drawback is that you then have to decide how much to work, and where, and who with, and for what price. Figuring out how to have a work-life balance, choose the right clients, and charge the right amount for your work can be incredibly hard.

The other advantage (or disadvantage) is that your work is constantly changing; typically you only focus on a project for a short period of time before moving on. This is great because there’s little room for boredom, but can be frustrating if you’re never embedded in any one mission long enough to do rewarding work.

The decision to freelance or not is complex and personal, dependent on too many factors to name. I’ve done freelance work on and off many times in the last decade, and I’ve learned a great deal each time. The biggest benefit to me was the confidence I gained in several disciplines within a short period of time. I’d be jumping between ux design, marketing design, responsive front-end development, etc. every few months, which helped me hone my abilities in each area. This made me more of a “full-stack” designer, which is vital in my role as Creative Director at SproutVideo. We’re a small team, so being able to fulfill any design need and communicate well with all teams is crucial.

If you’ve never done freelance work before, I’d recommend giving it a try at least once in your career; whether you succeed or fail at going independent long-term, you’ll learn an incredible amount from the experience.

Photos by Jason Hawkins and Pierre Phaneuf

This interview was originally published on the WebVisions blog, Word. The article was written by Erin Lynch and edited by Erin Lynch and Brad Smith. You can see the full version of the original article on the WebVisions website at http://www.webvisionsevent.com/2016/01/why-usable-designs-avoid-bullshit-an-interview-with-meagan-fisher/.

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