Category Archives: Agile UX

Revising UX: Learning from the Lean Startup Movement

As a consultant, I’m always interested in new ways to win interesting engagements. By interesting, I mean the opportunity to do research based design, measure the ROI and perhaps even have a publishable case study. UX designers are consistently plagued with situations that shut the door on research and KPIs. “We can only afford the time and budget for wireframes.” and “If only we would have brought you in at the beginning of the project you could have had more impact.” Are frequently heard when I to dig into a new project. I love Leisa Reichelt’s  great presentation Strategic User Experience at UX Cambridge 2011 discusses the state of typical UX engagements.

Brick Wall
User Experience projects consistently face the same barriers to delivering value.

User Experience has had considerable time to mature as a discipline. Heck, we even have a cryptic acronym with an ‘X’! It’s surprising that we haven’t broken through the roadblocks that we were fighting a decade ago. At the same time, iterative, user centered methodologies like Lean Startup are gaining significant momentum. The message is the same; make informed decisions about your product based on empirical information. From this we can see that the value proposition is not what businesses don’t embrace. It’s the packaging and delivery of that value. The way that UX presents itself to the market is in need of a pivot.

Stephanie Sansoucie and I have been discussing the shared ideals of UX and Lean Startup. Eric Ries doesn’t make much of a mention to user experience even though UX strategy is the core of what he is presenting. Stephanie and I have concluded that it’s time for User Experience to heed its own message and become more accessible to those we work with and serve. How do we do that?

User Experience has centered itself around design activities, always hoping to get the budget and time to do research first. What would happen if our defacto deliverable was research, and design was what got done with copious time and budget? Think about it. The UX resource focuses on doing the research necessary to develop a UX strategy to fulfill the product vision. He ensures that the project team is exposed to the information they need about users in order for the team to make informed interface and workflow choices. What would happen if our primary role was providing that information and we left the bulk of the designing to those with their hands in the code? I have a theory that the world would become more user friendly.

Which produces the better experience? A skilled designer making assumptions about what will work for users based on experience and no data, or developers making design decisions armed with ample information about their users? We have a world full of digital products produced using the former process. I’d like to see us try a new way rather than banging our heads against the same brick walls. I think it will be the first step to finally gaining wide adoption and having a better way to deliver on the promise of UX.

The Most Important Thing a UX Designer Can Do for You

The most important thing you can do to improve the user experience(UX) of your website, product or app is to spend time with your users.

Companies are sometimes surprised when we talk about spending time with users before starting on backlogs and design aspects. For a re-platforming project, there’s usually a catalog of current functionality. A UI person is expected to take a look at the screens and improve the interaction design on each. User Experience professionals are partly to blame for the misconception that UX=UI. UX designers ask for room in the budget to spend time with users. We sigh, then focus on creating great user flows and wireframes when we are denied. As a discipline we haven’t done our jobs selling the importance of user research.

Photo credit: San Jose Library

A recent article by User Interface Engineering, an authority on user experience methods, revealed the value of spending time with your users. According to Jared Spool, “We saw many teams that conducted a study once a year or even less. These teams struggled virtually the same as teams who didn’t do any research at all. Their designs became more complex and their users reported more frustration as they kept adding new features and capabilities.” According to UIE’s research, the tipping point to large gains in UX improvement is spending a minimum of 2 hours every 6 weeks with your users. The greatest return on a user research investment comes when you have diverse set of team members involved. Including developers, product owners and QA exposed to users on a regular basis.

The primary benefit to bringing a UX expert on board is not the expertise they bring to designing a screen. The real value comes in how we connect makers with users and examine problems from a different perspective. Approaching problem solving by asking how can we create a tool to help this person accomplish their goal in a way that feels easy and perhaps delightful. This is why user stories make so much sense to UX designers. The most common format itself imbues the requirement with a human goal. As a ____, I want to _____, so that ___.

Returning to our re-platforming example… A business analyst or developer will catalog the current features and look to how they fit within the future platform. A UX architect will begin by examining the tasks that the current system facilitates and how it fits into the overall context of the user. Rather than approaching a system as a set of features, UX design begins with “what are you trying to accomplish”. We use methods to understand what about the system is currently working, what is needed, and what features are deadweight and don’t need to be included in the future.

Then we have the current context and the user’s mental models. How do the people who are going to use the system think about the work they are performing? People all have ways of making sense of how things work, and when it comes to software, we often equate certain functions with things in our physical world. Think about copy and paste. That terminology was the result of the physical process that graphic designers used before digital design tools. They would literally copy the page, cut out what they needed, and paste it on the new paper. Copy & Paste, Cut and Paste. Folder metaphors have been a fan favorite for years. They are a very accessible mental model for conveying hierarchy through something tangible.

Most businesses have their own mental models associated with their business processes. Make sure that your design doesn’t conflict with how they currently see the world. If there is a unique way of understanding something that is part of the community’s environment, use it to your advantage. If it’s natural to them, it’s a great thing to use.

How do you learn about these cultural nuances? You spend time with the people who are going to use what you are making. If you’re working on a startup project and you aren’t sure who those people are, find the people that you want to target. Who are the users that you want to please…find them and spend time with them. The more time you spend with your users, the easier it will be to make your product fit your users. And that’s the most important thing a UX professional can do, connect your team and your organization with the human beings who will use what you are making.

Made at MiKE

This past weekend I attended MADE at MiKE: Mobile Application Development Event hosted by Bucketworks, Project H2OScore, MiKE, and Spreenkler. It was a nice opportunity to meet local (Milwaukee, WI) industry colleagues and engage in conversations around mobile design and development.

Matt Friedel, of presented some good business background on the mobile market. His presentation Mobile Business: Strategy and ROI contained some nice stats on its ramp up over the past decade and forecasts for future trends. One of his main points was that you should look at the platforms of your particular user community when considering platforms and devices to target. Even though iOS and Android may be leading the market, your app may be targeted to an industry that mostly loyal Blackberry users. Once again, you need to get to know your users.

I also attended fellow UX guru, Gretchen Thomas’ presentation Mobile Design is for Mobile Users. It was a good primer to get people thinking about the contexts in which mobile users are interacting with the apps and sites that the audience is wanting to build. Like Matt, there was an emphasis on beginning with a mobile vision and strategy rather than modifying your current website to fit in a smaller format. I loved the fictional example she walked us through illustrating her point “Mob Buddy for Angry Townspeople”.

During the Q&A after Gretchen’s presentation, someone asked how she would approach Responsive Design. Her response was a traditional position that design should not be limited by implementation considerations. On this point, I disagree. As a matter of fact, I think that this approach is unattainable and also the main reason that designers encounter so much friction.

My theory is that a long time ago some designers had a difficult time coming up with creative web designs because they couldn’t think beyond pre-CSS HTML table layouts. So they were encouraged to sketch and design in Photoshop and think about the implementation later. That was back when the web was new. There were two major browsers and most websites were static. Today, interfaces are highly dynamic and computing is ubiquitous. To get a product to market quickly, designers need to collaborate with developers in order to get to the best design as fast as possible.

Designers need to understand the medium in which their designs will be built and the technical environment in which they coexist. How else can we create designs that are efficient and take advantage of the interface capabilities?If designers adapted to become better team members and let go of our hero designer egos, we would all make better products faster.