What the Heck is User Experience Design?

I’ve been a professional designer for 13 years, meaning I’ve earned my living as a designer since 2002. I started out as a “web designer,” then morphed into “print designer” and “brand strategist” by the seat of my pants. Well, not really. I have a design education. I have read a lot of books. I have attended a lot of classes. I have done a lot of research. I like to people watch. So, while some days I think it’s by the seat of my pants, it’s not.

In today’s world of consumption many people think design is a commodity. Something anyone can do with the right tools. But for us designers out there, we know that’s not true. However, I have my been known to have my doubts. Like when a fabulous article “Web Design is Dead” went viral. A catchy title isn’t it? Imagine my horror as a “web designer” to see that headline donning the pages of Mashable. Thank God I went on to read it! In the end, the article expressed how important user experience was, and stated that just slapping up a website doesn’t work anymore. Whew. Inhale. Exhale.

User Experience is the Bomb

Okay. Yes. I agree. User Experience is the bomb. But this wasn’t a new concept to me. I mean as a creative, I knew good design was NOT overrated. As a writer and person who studies characters, I’ve always been interested in what makes people tick, and am cognitive of the power of sparking an emotional response. As a design thinker from the start, my focus is the user first.

At any rate, that catchy title “Why Web Design is Dead,” stuck with me, and I realized that articles with titles like that oftentimes don’t get read all the way through, especially by clients (ours included). It made me think about the conversations I have with clients, about our work, about deliverables, about the value of design, particularly UX Design. I mean UX design begins way before the actual design process. UX Design isn’t about just making something look pretty, so the user has a good experience. It’s not just about one thing. It’s NOT about tossing up your content, slapping up an app, creating a product and THEN getting user feedback.

Just for the record no design that works has ever been about just being pretty (in reference to the “Why Web Design is Dead” title). It’s kind of like a pretty girl. It’s what’s on the inside that counts. Right? It’s the conversation you hope to have that matters. Right? It’s the promise of an experience that keeps you coming back for more. Am I right?

I have to say my favorite sentence that I often hear over the phone when I take a call is “I just need a simple app” or “I just need a simple website” or “I just need a simple booth.” Now, if this is one of my clients AND I (Specto Design) have worked on the brand, it’s easy to pop off a brochure, a folder, even a booth display. Why? Because we’ve already done the initial work. We’ve already done the research. We’ve already laid the groundwork. We’ve already established their relevance. We’ve already determined the experience, the tone, the conversation. But designing and developing a product, even a website, which truly considers the experience, truly thinks about needs, truly understands the user, well that isn’t all that simple.

So, in the purely selfish interests of explaining what it is I do—what us designers do—as well as the intangible process we go through to achieve brilliance (for lack of a better word, wink, wink), I’d like to explain my version of UX design.

Needs and Wants

Let’s begin with the promise of an experience. As a UX designer, I know that I want to deliver what a customer needs. But I also know to retain that customer I need them to have an emotional response whenever possible. That’s why I think about the user first. What does he need? What does he want? Needs are easier than wants. I don’t need very much. I live in Los Angeles so I need a car. I don’t need an Audi, but I have one. I also need a computer, but I wouldn’t have anything but an Apple computer. No one can convince me otherwise. I’m a hardcore evangelist for Audi and Apple products. As for Apple, I held out, even when they weren’t doing so well way back in the late 90s. Even when iPhone was only on AT&T, and I couldn’t get a signal to save my life. I held on. Because I knew they wouldn’t let me down, I knew they had my best interests at heart and were fighting to deliver the best product they could. To date, I’ve converted nearly all my friends and family to Apple. Even diehard Windows and Android people. I’m Apple’s cheerleader, and I don’t need to be. I mean I don’t work for Apple. I just LOVE them. L-O-V-E them. Like I love my dog. Or my cat. Yep. I love the experience I have with Apple. In the stores, at home, on my phone, on my laptop, on my desktop, on my TV. (Yes. I also have an Apple TV.) I LOVE IT. Apple has nailed User Experience across the board. They ALWAYS think about the user. They always have, and I hope they always will.

Interaction

We interact daily with both well thought out and poorly executed designs from ATMs and software to websites and apps. In any interactive environment, design has an exponential effect on the user. Whether or not they realize it, a user may feel satisfied and content, or mislead and frustrated after interacting with a product. Those positive or negative experiences stick with them, especially the negative ones. Think order out of chaos. If people can interact with your product pain-free, and maybe even walk away smiling (ideal) then that was a good conversation. Wasn’t it? This is the bones of the operation.

Visual Design

Design is everything. From a house to a car, from a coffee pot to a wine bottle. From a chair to a bed. From a shitty restaurant with terrible lighting to an incredible cafe I never want to leave. Design surrounds us. Even nondesigners recognize good design in cities all over the world, whether they voice it or not. I mean the gardens, the architecture, the details. All design. A good garden is transformative, isn’t it? So is a good logo. Transformative. Visual Design is just one part of UX design. The creative part. I love this part. And, by the way, visual design can’t start until you talk to a potential user. UX designers begin at the end with the user.

For example, You want an app where people can hook up? You think that would be cool. You think you can do it better than all those other online dating services. Okay, let’s figure out who would use that app. Let’s watch people. Let’s go to grocery stores. Movies. Clubs. Dog parks. Car washes. Subways. Let’s watch people interact or not interact.

Let’s ask questions …

“Hey, how do you hook up? How do you meet someone? How would you like to meet someone? Anything we can do to make it easier for you to meet someone?”

“Really? If we could do that what would you expect from it? How would you interact with it? Would you tell your friends you were using it? Or would you be too embarrassed and hide it from them?”

“Okay. Cool. Well, we can do that. We can design that.” Let’s get started …

“Hey, what do you think? Do you like it? OK. Thanks for your input. Oh. Did you want to see more of that? Okay. Good to know.”

“What do you think now? Really? You can’t wait to use it. Woohoo.”

Backward from the user. The only way to approach UX. It’s important to genuinely care about users too. To like people. To be interested in how they think, act, react. To enjoy the process of discovery.

Writing

And then there is the writing. That’s almost more important than the design! Yikes. Did I say that? Let’s take a broader view of writing. Writing can be naming. You know product naming, company naming, language systems. Writing can be tag lines. The Ultimate Driving Machine comes to mind. Writing can be headlines. Got Milk? A real art. Writing can be technical, to help people understand a complex subject. Writing can be creative (copywriting), to engage, to entertain, to provoke. Any way you slice it, the writing is your story. Everyone has a story, even a product. And, as we know from watching movies, without a good story, you are nowhere. All users crave experience. You better be prepared to give them one. The content, even if it’s limited wording for the product is part of the USER EXPERIENCE. Put a writer on your UX team from the beginning. Bring them in, get their input. Take them out in the field. Trust me.

You had me at “Hello”

In short, visual design, interaction design, brand design, and writing are the cogs in the wheel of User Experience (UX) Design.

A good user experience leader works with a team of UX experts, specialized in various aspects of UX to develop a product that thinks about the user first BEFORE the product is developed. A good user experience leader is a “design thinker” not a marketer. Why? Because, a good user experience leader thinks about one individual (not the masses) who will use the product and creates with one person in mind. Can you say evangelist? A good user experience leader observes and interacts with users prior to designing or developing not after the prototype is ready. A good user experience leader is focused on creating customers who fall in love with the product, and I mean love. There is nothing better than a customer who loves your product so much that they can’t wait to tell their friends about it. Remember I love Apple and Audi.

A final note on design overall. Design is supposed to make things easier. Design is supposed to make things simpler. Design is supposed to make things enjoyable. Design is supposed to make things memorable. Design is essential. Experience is everything.

The User is the whole point

How do users (customers) feel when they experience your product? Do they LOVE it? Do they want to tell their friends about it? Do they wish you had more products? Does your company answer the why questions?

So, should you slap up a website or app or launch a product without thinking about a single user? No. Is Web Design dead? No. Is UX more complicated than it appears? Yes. But I can tell you one thing, I don’t know a single, successful brand that doesn’t promise and deliver a frickin’ awesome user experience across the board. An experience their users crave. Can you think of a successful brand who doesn’t deliver on a promise of an experience?

by Marla Carlton