Terms like ‘user-friendly’ and ‘usability’ seem to be on everyone’s lips today. Consumers want products that are easy to use and professionals in the software industry recognize usability as a competitive advantage. User Experience (UX) and Interaction Design (IxD) professionals represent the backbone of this movement, yet the role these individuals play seems to elude people, both in and outside the business.
…interface design comprises a small percentage of my work, sometimes as little as 10%. The majority of my work involves designing interaction models…
So why the mystery? People tend to focus on the result, the visual representation. Whether it’s a money management website, a music-streaming application or a social interaction system, it’s the interface that gets attention. I have found this to be true across the board. It seems everyone–clients, engineering teams, product managers, and users–easily consume and respond to high-fidelity designs and prototypes. Yet interface design comprises a small percentage of my work, sometimes as little as 10%. The majority of my work involves designing interaction models, which requires research, interviews, data modeling and facilitating communication. A skilled Interaction Designer knows the business, the product and the users intimately and can quickly produce a working proof-of-concept. This requires a fair amount of research, technical skill, creativity and a certain degree of finesse. Research involves gaining an understanding of the users, the business, and technical feasibility. Technical skill helps to quickly produce working models and prototypes. Creativity supports problem solving and visual design. And finesse helps align all of these to their greatest potential.
What’s missing is an understanding of the users. With 16 years in the business, I should be used to this by now, yet I am still often surprised when I find how sparse this information is.
The process begins with information gathering. All product teams have a clear and simple goal that defines their efforts: Update a legacy system to compete in the current marketplace, Add new features to span larger market share, Introduce a new product to reach an untapped market, etc. Along with the established goal, engineering teams generally have a list of features to focus on. Many teams find this information adequate to jump in and start designing. But this isn’t enough for an Interaction Designer. What’s missing is an understanding of the users. With 16 years in the business, I should be used to this by now, yet I am still often surprised when I find how sparse this information is. I might get an age range, a generalized business grouping, or the roles the users perform in their organization, but I rarely get information about user goals, motivations or daily life. Some find this level of detail superfluous, yet it can be highly instrumental in pinpointing the feature or, more specifically, the feature design that makes a difference to the user.
These are significant insights that may require only small changes to the product, yet, if accommodated, can influence employee productivity, consumer engagement or other behaviors that affect the bottom line.
For a simple example let’s focus on a system that delivers product knowledge and marketing collateral to sales representatives. The product team is aware that users (sales reps) need to to get corporate sales updates (i.e. new product feature details or marketing collateral for sales campaigns). What they haven’t learned is that time sensitivity ‘to the day’ is key and that displaying the publish date on the detail page instead of the publication list requires users to sift through data that may be weeks or even months old, clicking on each one to find out if it applies to what they need to accomplish today. Or that sales reps are on the site the morning of a public announcement, repeatedly hitting the refresh button because reps don’t get the data until the press release goes out and customers are already calling them with questions about the newly announced products. These are significant insights that may require only small changes to the product, yet, if accommodated, can influence employee productivity, consumer engagement or other behaviors that affect the bottom line.
So, why the gulf in user understanding? Well, each team member has a unique role in the release of a product–front-end engineers, database engineers, quality assurance engineers, the engineering manager, product manager, etc.–none of which is expected to go talk to users to find out what their experiences are, how they think or what their average day is like. The product manager might have some insight, but this generally consists of market data as opposed to user awareness. Quantitative data can help answer questions of prevalence and prioritization, but it’s qualitative data that helps define appropriate interaction design experiences.
Ideally, the Interaction Designer has a deep understanding of the user–their mental models, day-to-day operations, how the product fits into and affects their lives, their habits, expectations and frustrations. This information is revealed best through user interviews and usability testing sessions where the Interaction Designer has direct access to users describing or enacting their experiences. Useful insights can be gleaned from support representatives or other client support personnel, but exercise caution when obtaining information from a third party. It’s amazing how strong a role perception can play in filtering data and diluting essential information.
I have seen features designed without the use of narrative that have completely missed the point of the feature, rendering it useless.
User awareness informs how information is organized, the use of mental models in feature and visual design, process flow, verbiage used in the interface, and other aspects of conceptual and visual design. Personas, representing each user type as a realistic person and describing their significant attributes, are built from user awareness and used to help the whole team put product and feature designs in perspective. They help us understand the significance of what we build. Whether formally mapped out or simply included in team dialog, personas provide a narrative through which product use can be discussed. I have seen features designed without the use of narrative that have completely missed the point of the feature, rendering it useless. No one wants to waste time and resources building features that don’t solve the problems they were meant to address. More importantly, the cost to the business can be significant.
Interaction Designers tend to straddle these various spheres of perception well and end up being the interpreter between many groups…
This brings us to the value of communication. As an Interaction Designer, I have found that I often perform the role of communication facilitator, wether through dialog, documentation, presentations or designs. Product development requires the interaction of many disciplines; technical, marketing, product support, etc., not to mention the incorporation of user input. Getting everyone to communicate and understand each other can be tricky. Marketing language is vastly different from engineering verbiage and sometimes words mean different things to each group. Even two engineers might interpret a feature requirement differently. Interaction Designers tend to straddle these various spheres of perception well and end up being the interpreter between many groups, bringing together a cohesive understanding through representations of the models created.
In the end, everyone benefits from opportunities to supply the team with their professional and personal insight, resulting in a more successful and well thought-out product.
One reason for the Interaction Designer’s contribution to the communication process is their focus on user and system behavior. Describing user and system behavior moves conceptual ideas into the realm of practical application. With this information at hand, engineers can assess the technical requirements needed to satisfy system behavior, marketing professionals can assess wether or not the user behaviors fit their understanding and expectations of the market, and users can react to potential designs and flows. In the end, everyone benefits from opportunities to supply the team with their professional and personal insight, resulting in a more successful and well thought-out product.
I have found that these Interaction Design products function like a campfire, around which everyone can sit and discuss the needs of the project.
High-fidelity mock-ups, feature design documents and click-through prototypes are the culmination of all the research, interviews and team interactions. When I’m formulating ideas, these products help me flesh out models, flows and designs I wish to communicate to the rest of the team. But these manifestations perform other roles. Mock-ups and prototypes can be used in preliminary usability studies, product feature design documentation insures product behavior aligns with expected user interaction, and mock-ups and prototypes are essential for everyone effectively envisioning the end result. I have found that these Interaction Design products function like a campfire, around which everyone can sit and discuss the needs of the project. As the designs evolve, participation focuses more and more on the details, resulting in a more refined, more professional product. In the end, this collaboration is what makes a product great.
Interaction Designers comprehend what motivates people and how they process information. They are experts at getting people to reveal what makes a difference to them and incorporating that into practical applications. They know the possibilities and limits of technology to create feasible designs. They are keen visual designers, recognizing how nuances of the interface affect system comprehension and user success. The best Interaction Designers recognize that software design is a team exercise and have the ability to bring all of this insight together into a shared experience, focused on the creation of something that impacts peoples’ lives on many levels.