UX Design - a real thing or just a pretentious buzzword?

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UX Design - a real thing or just a pretentious buzzword?

Many business owners and marketing professionals are used to hearing the term "UX" (short for User Experience) thrown around a lot in recent years. Some may think it's just an industry buzzword with no real meaning. Well, I can say it's not. Here's all you need to know to get the gist of UX:

User Experience Design is not web design or usability. It's not information architecture, nor is it business and content strategy…it's all of those things combined. UX takes into account a user's total experience when they interact with your product or brand. 

It is not strictly tied to websites - it could also apply to a storefront or exhibition. However, it's most commonly linked with interacting with digital experiences. There are several sub-disciplines of UX, basically split into two main categories: UX Strategy and UX Design.

Image Credit: Taken from Killer UX Design by Sitepoint

Questions we ask

UX Strategy is all about the very high-level aspects of a project. It asks questions like:

  • What are the business goals of this product?
  • Is it a sound business model? Is it technically and practically feasible, and is there a market need?
  • Who are the end users? 
  • What do they want and how will this product make their life easier?

UX Research and Strategy

UX Strategists will research the project by talking to existing and potential users, either in focus group settings, individually, or in usability tests. They may also interview various stakeholders in your organization to understand everyone's viewpoint and to see where it matches up and where it diverges.

 The UX Strategy may also involve creating user personas, creating fake "profiles" for three or four different typical users, giving each a name, gender, pictures and a complete story about who they are, what they are like and what they need out of the product. This is a great way to think of your users as real people interacting with their product.

UX Design

At some point, and that point is not completely clear and defined, UX Strategy turns into UX Design. This is where a variety of disciplines converge, such as information architecture, graphic design and branding, web and interaction design, content strategy and user testing.

Information Architecture with wireframes and prototypes

Information Architecture is all about organizing and structuring data on a page and throughout an application. The deliverables usually include things like flow charts, sitemaps and wireframes. The best products start out on paper and whiteboard, and UX designers are most free when drawing on graph paper with a Sharpie pen. This is the best way to get ideas and layouts out of our head and in the real world.

Paper prototypes are great because they are quick to produce, edit, or throw out, but they can easily show a client or team how the product should work. No product will ever work in code if it can't work on paper first, and the cost to produce a working product increases dramatically when there is no blueprint on paper that hasn't been fully reviewed and tested first.

Movie Making as an analogy

Think of it like producing a movie. What director will begin shooting any film without pre-production? It always starts as a script, and then as a storyboard before any actors are cast, costumes and sets produced, staged or lit. It's like that with web application - the script and storyboard has to be sound before anything is produced. The only difference is that the storyboard (wireframes/sketches) are begun before the script (function specifications).

Once the basic wireframe sketches are sound and reviewed by the team, it is important to test it with real users. This is best accomplished with a prototype. Back to the movie analogy, directors in recent years have begun using Previsualization, or Previz, especially for big budget action shots. Previs is a very simple and somewhat ugly computer generated scene using simple shapes and basic lighting that shows a complete action sequence. It allows the director and director of photography to play around with camera angles and cuts with ease to pre visualize sequence before actors and digital effects are engaged for the real thing. It's essentially a prototype of a sequence that can be done quickly and cheaply to see if a scene is going to work visually before committing to spending the resources on it.

In a similar way, prototypes are great ways to quickly assemble a simple application that will look close to the real thing, but is essentially stuck together with duct tape and bubble gum on the backend. It is made to be destroyed later. However, you can't get to the real thing without testing a prototype.

As an aside, I have been experimenting with different methods of prototypes for the past year and haven't yet found the catch-all solution. Depending on the complexity of the application, a variety of methods work. In my opinion they are either graphical prototypes or HTML prototypes. The first kind involves designing what the application looks like in a program like Fireworks and exporting flat jpegs of each view, and then assembling them into a tool like Invision where buttons can be linked to other views so the user feels like they are clicking through and using the application.

HTML prototypes are where each design view is an HTML file and actually assembled with forms, buttons, links, and layouts. The only difference is that they are static files with no "back-end" - no database, the application isn't yet built, but the front-end views are constructed so users can click through them and get a sense for how the application flows. I have found on a recent project that using JQuery Mobile is a great tool for quickly assembling slick looking prototypes with little effort - the only key is to not let JQuery Mobile dictate the design of your application and just use it as a high-fidelity wireframe.

Content, flow and those little touches

Back to the original topic: UX Designers give thought to the flow of an application, the visual layout and functionality, and even the small details and surprises that add to the experience. UX Designers may not be writers themselves but will give thought to how to use copy as a way to delight a user, or they may plan how content should be produced and organized on the site.

At this point, a UX designer may engage a graphic/web designer to produce the finalized, polished interface, or if he/she is inclined, will finish it themselves. The key for the UX designer is to conceptualize, sketch, design and test all solutions to make sure they delight users, are technically feasible, and make the product that much more remarkable.

In a nutshell

Hopefully that description helps you understand more about what UX is and why it's essential for every modern web or mobile product you build. The web is constantly evolving and as the complexity of applications increase, and the competitive nature of apps continues, it's imperative to have one or more team members who understand all or some of the concepts of User Experience. Your users will thank you, usually by giving you their money.