Thoughts / Ten things I’d like to tell my son if he’d become a UX designer / January 29, 2016

Becoming a father has changed the way I see the learning process.

Now that I have a son, I realise he might one day learn things as I did, by sheer curiosity and an avid exposure to the world of knowledge. And as I’ve seen around, he might run into popular, catchy and groupthink-based approaches that everyone else are following.

So in order to help him (and others like him), I’ve decided to be part of the conversation and share what I think are the ten basic tenets of UX design. Here they are:

1. It’s about the user/customer

User experience design is about understanding how users think and see the world, what they want to accomplish and how they would succeed on accomplishing their goals and tasks, and giving them the best tools to do so.

It is first and foremost, about understanding others: their ideas and assumptions, their mental models and prejudices and their biases, and not about ourselves (designers and engineers and project managers), our ideas and assumptions, our mental models and prejudices or our biases.

Sometimes it feels to me UX Design is more about applied psychology and scientific research than about wireframes and visuals and patterns.

Always remember to see things through the user’s/customer’s eyes, and check with them if your designs work for them.

2. It’s about the flow/journey

User experience design is not about designing screens, or pages, or wireframes, or beautiful comps. It is about the process of achieving a goal, fulfilling a task or completing a process. It is all forward movement for users from the current state to a better state, where they’re better informed about the news, or have a better way to present their ideas, or just easily buy all the products they need without losing time, or just get to know more about how are their loved ones that live abroad.

It is about a process with a start and an end, although not the same start and end for everyone. A process with common traits and trails but different outcomes. It is about starting where you need something and end where you achieved it. It is about process and progress, not pages and buttons.

Always take into account where the user starts, what they would like to accomplish and how they’ll go about to fulfill that need.

3. It’s about the context

When we try to achieve something, we always do it within a context. That’s probably obvious. What’s not so obvious is that the context will most probably affect the process.

Whereas it is because the trigger of the process is the context itself, as when we need to find the meeting’s room while walking towards it, or we’re watching tv and want to check on the candidate’s assertions on wikipedia, or when the context has an effect on the process, as when we decide to text someone because there’s too much noise to talk where we are, or when we have to reload our starbuck’s loyalty card from our phones while queuing to get the loyalty points, the context will affect not only our attention and faculties, but the access we might have (or the lack thereof) to external information, to gestural affordances or even to our own other helping hand.

Contexts can be the makers or the breakers of a process, and taking them into account can make the difference between a process we use because we need to and a process we love to use.

Always take into account the possible contexts the user might be in or even better, the uncertainty of the context, even one you might not have though of.

4. It’s about the content

When customers and users engage with a service/product, they’re looking to engage with interesting content, in the case of informational processes, and in their own content to be easily and effectively manipulated to achieve their goals while being guided by very succinct, effective and compelling copywriting and labeling, in the case of procedural processes and services.

What they’re most probably not interested in is checking how cool is your interface. So although a sleek, cool interface can communicate a message of quality and excellence, it should never get in the way to the content they’re looking for or working on. This concept also applies to your patterns and processes, widgets and interaction models.

Always make so that every part of your product/service is there to help the user to better interact with their own content or the one provided by your product/service.

5. It’s about the need

Once I was presented with a very simple (and rather prosaic) metaphor for the process of creating interactive products/services: “it’s a scratch to an itch”. It indeed holds a simple way to see why people use our products/services: they need to do something and they need one way for it to get done (with the least effort possible, oftentimes).

So the most important part of giving people useful tools is knowing what they’re trying to achieve: which thirst they’re trying to quench, which desire they’re trying to fulfill, which pain they’re trying to relieve. This metaphorical “itch” is almost never what it seems, (as doctors know) but most often a symptom of a deeper issue. After all, nobody’s job is to create presentations, or send emails, or make todo lists, or organise workflows. Instead, people’s jobs are to better communicate their message to a larger audience, or to make sure a project gets completed within its deadline, for example.

Always make sure you understand what people’s needs and goals are so you can better satisfy them with your designed tools.

6. It’s about the details

There is one factor that distinguishes design for great experiences: the attention to detail on micro-interactions. The reason is that customers act and react to every micro-interaction several times while using a product/service, and it is the sum of all those micro-interactions that make for the customer experience.

When a customer opens an app, they won’t “search for a specific product” as we designers write it down in many flows and descriptions. Instead they will: 1) scan the landing screen, 2) find the search icon, 3) recognise the search field, 4) click on the search field, 5) expect the field to be on focus (selected), 6) look down expecting the mobile keyboard to show… and here’s where if the keyboard does not appear, they’ll startle, befuddled. It might be that they missed the hotspot for the search field, but they probably won’t know that. So it is our work to make sure the search field’s hotspot has enough room to make sure even close-enough taps would succeed on getting focus on the search field.

This is just an example, but one that if repeated many times by many customers, it will start impacting their experience and then the perception of the product/service, disrupt their process and make it more difficult for them to accomplish what they wanted to.

Always be very mindful of every step in the process of every interaction that customers would face.

7. It’s about iterating

An interface for a new product/service won’t be right at the first try, or sometimes even at the tenth time. It takes time to refine an idea into a great product, same goes to the interaction and the interface. Everyone has to start somewhere, and your design experience, design tools, knowledge and know-how and design wits will help you get to the best start possible.

However, it is after the launch that all the real work starts happening: observing real customers use your interfaces and go thorough your flows, do their tasks on your platform and achieve, or not, their goals; and more extravagantly but still extremely interesting, some times you’ll see customers use your product/service in ways you’d never imagine they will (or even could).

It is all that knowledge and learning that will serve you to know where to go next, how to solve impasses users are experiencing, and how to make your product/service a better tool for your customers to achieve their goals and fulfill their needs.

Always remember that the real design work happens when it is being used, and measured.

8. It’s about measuring

You know what you measure, so you’ll only know if the design and experience of a product/service is good if you measure it constantly. More importantly, you’ll only know where to improve and how much impact those improvements will have if you measure them.

There are plenty of methods to measure, including usability testing, contextual inquiries, surveys, moderated/unmoderated remote/local research, multivariant tests, metrics and analytics and more.

By measuring your work you won’t only be able to know your product/service better and thus the way to improve it, but more importantly, you’ll be able to communicate those results and thus positively influence the perception of your product/service, and of your design process in general.

Always find a dimension to measure against for all you design and deploy.

9. It’s about the culture

Culture is a large part of that context we mentioned before. We live in a world that seems more globalised than it is. We have ~190 countries in our planet, and over 6900 spoken languages in our world.

Almost every country has invariably its own idiosyncrasies, and most cultures come with their own mental models shaped by different processes, from their previous experiences to their linguistic conformation and semantic structure. Even more, at different ages we see the world in different ways, and depending on our job role and rank we might even have positions about how to approach different subjects and issues. So what is common in the United States or in India might be quite edgy in France or in Japan, what is usual in China or Argentina might pass as exuberant or just nonsense in Australia or Senegal.

Our interpretation is usually affected by our language and culture, and since interfaces are but sensorial code to be interpreted by our brains, cultural nuances can make a big difference.

Always keep in mind that different cultures have different mental models, and never assume what’s right for you is right for everyone like you.

10. It’s about the passion

Design is a very misunderstood field. Through your life you’ll find people that won’t believe in the effort that good design requires, won’t understand it, or simply would prefer the easy way.

Passion is the one thing that will push you forward, by discussing with a larger audience, sowing ideas and concepts in your work and then harvesting results that you can share with others. Explaining to others the advantages of deeply caring about the audience of a product, and even before that, the uncovering of the needs that audience might have. To change the world one design at a time, one person at a time, one interaction at a time.

Always remember that the details are the design, and that design is also the work of explaining to others how design can change the world. 

Those are my tenets, the ones I’d like to share with my son. They’re very high in level of detail, perhaps more guidelines than rules.

You might have noticed I’ve not talked about wireframes, visual mock-ups or prototypes, and there is a reason for that: those are artifacts of the syntax of the design process, the tools to communicate design. Just as good syntax and orthography is needed for good writing, good use of design processes and tools are needed to create good design. But just as much as great syntax is neither guarantee nor the main attribute of good writing, those design tools are not what makes design great.

In my experience, good design evolves from attention to these ten tenets, and it is expressed by attention to best practices for tools and processes. So put in a simple way:

Although tools, best practices and methodologies will make you a good practitioner, adherence and attention to these tenets would make your design great, and will make a great designer out of you and your effort.