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.