The Most Trivial Aspect of Designing Interfaces

I’ve been doing UI work for almost a decade.  I’ve seen a lot and been through many fads (although I won’t claim them if asked).  For a long time I thought the most important part of designing interfaces was the way it looked, and I was caught up in the next DHTML fad that would come across my RSS reader.  Well, thankfully I’ve grown and realized what’s really important, and I’ve come to realize that an interface’s appearance is not the most important thing.

Note: Please don’t think I’m saying that the way it looks is not as important, but is pales in comparison to our following discussion.

What? You Mean Users Come Here?

When I heard first of User Experience (UX) I had a hard time wrapping my arms around it.  I made it more difficult then it is supposed to be.  In short, UX is the discipline that aims to understand not only who your users are but what they are trying to accomplish with your application.  When you understand UX then you create an interface that facilities these user’s behaviors and desires.   I found this great definition of UX:

The term “user experience” refers to a concept that places the end-user at the focal point of design and development efforts, as opposed to the system, its applications or its aesthetic value alone. It’s based on the general concept of user-centered design. (Source)

I love this definition, because it illustrates that UX “places the end-user at the focal point” which is critical to your applications success.  When you neglect how your users will interact with your system then ultimately, and I guarantee this, it will be a failure. 

We’ve all been on sites that have left a sour taste in our mouth.  Maybe we are forced to use this sites, and when we use them we’d rather complain about them then actually use them.  Whether it’s an intranet or public-facing site we still have the same possibility for failure.  Often times schedules push the necessary time to understand UX to the back-burner in order to “get something out in front of the customer.”  Doesn’t that seem ridiculous?  We want to get something out for our customers so they can benefit from it, but we don’t do the careful assessment necessary to ensure that this happens?

Practical Steps to Facilitate UX Research

Here is a short list of items to remember when developing your next application to conjure UX research.

  1. Spend some meaningful time interviewing a wide-range of potential consumers to uncover what they would use your application for.
  2. If you’re replacing a legacy system then be sure to ask what about the current system frustrates them.
  3. Let your feedback from the consumers drive those tense decisions that often play out between the development team and management.
  4. Diagram workflow to understand all variations your users can get from your application.
  5. Usability testing will become invaluable to see how users actually use your system as opposed to a hypothetical discussion.
  6. Engage user feedback and understanding when developing your information architecture (labels, navigation, etc).

We are all users, and we all have strong opinions on how interfaces should look and function.  The only problem is when we start designing applications that cater to our personal or internal desires and not what aides our customer.  UX doesn’t have to be a burdensome process that puts your project behind schedule, and if done correctly you’ll see immediate and lasting positive effects from your effort.