Sunday, February 27, 2011

10 things users don't know about UX (and where to find them).

UX is trendy. UX is topical.

Let’s gather a little background on UX growth and the exploding trend using some readily available corollaries - free internet statistics. First lets look at Google Trends to understand the overall use of user experience in stories and articles and how that corresponds to growth in search terms and use.

Growth exploded in the latter half of 2010 and there are already exponential indicators for 2011.

Now let’s take a look at the jobs market as it relates to the need for user experience, as found in job descriptions being posted on the internet.

Nearly 5% of all jobs posted mention user experience.

Finally let’s take a look at one of the web-based communities and UX associations to see how the trends are unfolding there. IxDA now has over 24,000 members and there are currently more than 1,000 UX jobs posted on their job boards.

Job postings for UX on IXDA have grown to the point where members
demanded a separate forum for them and IXDA is effectively
monetizing the trend with 90-day ad placements..
Why is UX trending up?
The short answer here is because it's expensive to launch products and services that fail.  And that failure is becoming more commonplace when user demands for social interaction, simplicity and intuitive use are not met.  There is naturally going to be a certain amount of hype generated by pent up demand to raise a collective toast to great experiences. This same trend emerges in the way we share Superbowl ads and talk about good brand advertising or add our voice to recommendations for restaurants or books online. It is not hype for a user to expect a great experience.  It is not hype when business leaders build pragmatic cases to understand ROI prior to heavier upfront investments in technology projects.  It is not hype when former design snobs open the door to collaboration and discussion as broader team members. The link in the previous sentence takes you to a recent article in UXMag that pointed to an interesting opportunity that exists in the UX practice now to properly align to the broader impetus around customer experience and to formalize how the practices interlock. When we peel back this onion, what we do find is that there are some more thoughtful leaders trying to level-set expectations on what it means to be user-centric.

There is a shared expectation in place today that an investment in user experience will result in the following areas of research and discipline being applied against a project.  There may be some unresolved issues in certain project types relative to upfront investment amounts but at minimum we need to synthesize user knowledge into usable design and measure the usage in order to understand adoption.

  1. User research – appropriate definition of target and impacted users and their frustrations, desires, needs and goals with both current and desire state.

  2. Personas and use cases – the amalgamation of the audience types identified in the research constrained into usable, useful, coherent identities that can be used to map features, prioritization and scenarios to situations. 

  3. Design and design thinking – the use of design to drive iteration in the project and to clarify outcomes to all stakeholders, as well as final form factor for the deliverables.

  4. Optimization – learning from behavior, usability testing, A/B design and offer testing and other data inputs and outputs that support the design thesis and inform successful adoption and satisfaction.
The question is, where else do we need to look in order to truly understand the delivery of a great experience. What other resources and inputs provide an equally pragmatic POV to users when properly engaged? Where can we draw on information that lends itself to inspiration?

A recent Gizmodo post featured a somewhat familiar video under the headline, “In Praise Of The People Who Make Gadgets Worth Using”. From a first mile (outside-in way of saying ‘last mile’) perspective, UX professionals may in fact be responsible for the ‘joy of using’ part, but the ‘worth’ part comes from a lot of disciplines and a lot of contributors to the overall promise being made by a brand which has embraced the provision of a category-leading digital experience.

But there are at least 10 more contributing, pragmatic, non-user inputs that support the story being told and ultimately inform decisions that need to be made. In fact, one could argue that these are just as critical to the success of any project built with the user in mind, since the conversation and actions that are being undertaken are critical to many areas of the business that go well beyond the success of the project or application being built.
  1. Marketing – the role of the experience is generally going to be inclusive of offers and programs that are part of how the brand markets itself. Beyond brand impressions, this is often the primary intended action as either acquisition or loyalty unless the product is an online service itself.

  2. The business goal – tension between user goals and business goals is ratified to common ground in order to meet the unique needs of both participants in an experience.  Beyond the user needs for the service or product itself, this may add unique needs for social interaction, service dialogue or transaction capabilities in the delivery of the interfaces provided.

  3. The competition – what others in the field are doing. It’s important when we look at competition that we look at anything and everything that is competing for attention, not just direct competition. For example, when people are thinking about investing, they are not only thinking about investment banking.  Look at all the areas people invest in and see what is currently capturing passion, mindshare and the attention of your desired constituent.

  4. What users already like and use – what people know about and do already is often the inverse of the above, especially in the case of a new product or way of delivering service. By understanding the why and what of where your target audience is spending their time, you can better inform the decisions you need to make. This, like some of the other areas, may be covered by user research but too often this is narrowly focused on ‘what they use that you provide.' Motivational design and game theory may both apply here, but the point is not so much the design as the business and market trends that support decisions that you will make.

  5. The glass – We use the glass as a metaphor for the device or system that user will consume the experience on, and to capture and relate the constraints and affordances of the target environment. How can effectively persist context, history, profile and preference across multiple devices and screens? How do you prioritize the most common and lead into the next wave effectively?  This is not so much a question of screen size and pixel depth as it is a question of task and context.

  6. The platform – the complexity of back-end systems, their limited capabilities for great experience and business processes that they are built to support are at least in part why you are here. The bad news is that you can’t ignore them. The good news is that you can make them better. A good metaphor for this was discussed recently on Twitter - that experiences are akin to the razor market. UX (design) and the associated experiences are disposable – used temporarily, rapidly dulling and constantly changing. This is how digital agencies make money and how Adobe makes tools revenue in the category. UX (experience) and the associated systems and processes are more permanent - these are constraints and enablers and require the right adapter/configuration in order to use the design. As an example, it is this the sum of these parts make up the enterprise UX business as it relates to Adobe's focus on customer experience management.

  7. The domain – domain-driven design actually surfaced as a technology approach to enabling better user experiences during the industry’s learning years. While it does not solve everything, what we do know is that the inference of domain is critical, and that the informed separation of domain from service and interface requires that you represent domain effectively. Some platform and tools providers infer this as a pattern and best practice.  IT teams have deep knowledge of the domain model and its association to underlying systems and should be the core contributor to this knowledge.  The consumerization of IT may lend itself to some rethinking of domain models, but that does not mean they are gone.

  8. Data – data is the interface and data absolutely informs the interface. Historical, competitive, industry, market, geography, audience and technology trends are all surfaced as data that can be used along with your own analytics to drive broader insight about the conditions your new design will exist within. Embrace it, live with it, learn from it, and consume it continuously, especially after launch. Then share it with everyone who is a stakeholder in order to maximize learning and inputs into the final form factor.

  9. The world around you – Close your laptop lid and go for a walk. Visit a gallery. Attend a wellness conference. See a movie. What are people doing, reading, studying, watching, visiting and talking about? What commonalities in these shared experiences can you extrapolate to your audience and desired outcomes? What persistent affordances cross over into your world in a way that will both inform and prepare your customers for your leg of the journey?

  10. The designer's body of work – You are, or have hired, some brilliant designers. These brilliant designers are focused on transforming digital experiences based on two key inputs – everything you know or can learn about the project AND who they are and their past experience and knowledge. Today’s UX designers understand layout, color, brand, interaction, information architecture and even the constraints of development. Armed with these tools, their magic is going to play a big part in finding the right path, and we can benefit from some pure, unfettered ideation that borrows on the wealth of education and experience that is hiding in their portfolio. What we do know is that designers all appreciate great UX and that users increasingly appreciate the source of great experience.

This is by no means meant to be an exhaustive list – nor does the list preclude that users or user experience professionals will often have knowledge of some of the workings in specific areas - the intent was to both push a little on the realities behind UX trend that favor design and usability in order to inform the overall discovery of requirements.

If I had one question of readers, it would be where do you find your inspiration and logic outside of the design process?  Or, perhaps when is user-centric too user-centric?

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