A UX Designer walks into a bar

This article is preferably consumed and enjoyed along the song accompaniment: “Leftovers” by Planet of Zeus

A common question addressed towards a UX designer is the one about the initial steps of the UX design process. Which is the first task that a UX designer performs at the beginning of a project? What does it take to kick-off all that storyboarding and wireframing and “styleguiding” afterall?

There is a misconception in the tech product industry that a UX Designer is someone who can listen to your idea or pitch and immediately make a product through sketches, wireframes and prototypes.

Allegedly, he has the ability to accomplish this by having a brainstorming session with your team, then jump immediately into implementing the visual solution. As if this design ability is some kind of unique super power. Well…not so much…

To be fair, the misconception about the “amazing powers of designers” was cultivated by designers themselves due to the “from brief to deliverables” approach used by many in the past. A “leftover” mentality from the non-interactive era of marketing campaigns,billboards and print in general. With the exception of some market research, no one else was involved in the creation process, except the all-knowing, visual guardian, his majesty, the king Designer!

This old mentality has been transferred in modern product design projects and most of the times goes like this: There would be an initial meeting with the clients at the beginning of the project to set objectives and deadlines. Then the designer would crawl back into his prrrrecious gloomy cave in order to solve the problem all by himself or with his (designer-only) team. Several days later, he would present the clients with the final design, expecting awe and ecstasy. The clients (most of the times) would love it, because the designer would have made everything according to their needs. In proper waterfall fashion, the developers would then follow the given guidelines the product would finally get released. Surprisingly, the users would hate it and have every right to do so…

Learn thy client’s business

In a properly executed UX design process, the designer needs to clarify the objectives of the client first. What the purpose of the business is and how money flows into the company from the customers. Additionally, he must explore how users become customers, which is a commonly confusing topic. This means a bunch of interview sessions and/or workshops with every business stakeholder, including marketing people, developers, sales, support staff and others.

Educate thy client

Communicating to everybody involved in the project the upcoming design approach should be part of the UX design strategy for success. However, don’t expect everyone to understand. Not all people are familiar with the value that this UX design process brings to the table. It is the job of the UX designer to educate and evangelize these principles and the benefits they bear.

It is important to get stakeholders exposed to the effort hidden underneath every visual interface component, which most of the times is only a visible result of a more detailed preliminary analysis.

Understand thy user

The next step is to conduct a pretty well-defined user research. In the case of the aforementioned gollum-designer (the one in the cave), nobody took the time to look into user needs. Nobody examined their pain-points, nor researched their goals. Everyone just assumed they know what features need to be included, better than the audience that the product is addressed to.

Make no mistake, creating assumptions is a vital step in product design. Even when the assumptions are invalidated by user research, you have gained experience and knowledge on what not to do. Rushing forward and developing unvalidated assumptions is a crime that should be punished by the pirate torture method of “keelhauling” (google it).

Iterate constantly

When available business requirements have been gathered and the most important user needs have been discovered, the designer along with the rest of the team, needs to work on a solution that will bring the two sides closer.

Great value comes when the goals of the company meet the true needs of the users. This is what Steve Blank calls Product-Market Fit and is achieved through UX design. In fact, user-centered design as a discipline along with Lean principles, guarantee that after multiple “build-measure-learn” iterations the product can reach an ideal state of “delight” for the target audience. Not only being usable but also pleasurable. But first of all a product needs to be useful and solve a problem for the user. Of course this means that at the end of each iteration, everything is tested and validated by users. Even more so, the feedback gathered has to be used as learning material, which should be reflected upon. Such reflection typically shows the way for the next iteration.

The main point here is that it doesn’t matter so much how experienced the designer is, nor how many times he or she has created solutions for similar products with the “same” addressable audience. It doesn’t matter because that mentality addresses the solution, without first identifying the problem clearly. What matters the most is the perspective of the people that are going to solve their everyday problems by seeing, using and interacting with this product. What do they experience and how can we as designers make their lives better. So in the end, what matters most is all that experience to be focused on solving the right problem for the user in the context of the client’s business.

This is a viking-horn blow for all us UX designers to get out of our caves and start learning more about our clients and their clients’ clients (aka the final users). Explore and adapt according to their needs and take all design decisions based on facts and evidence.

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