The Evolution of UX

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Ian Armstrong has put together a fantastic article here called The Evolution of UX Process Methodology. I could try to paraphrase, but it’s too good, so I’m not even going to try. Check out Ian’s article. I will add a few of my own points based on my reading of the article, but a full read is a must.

Ian states that “in its purest form, UX Design is waterfall based.” These days, in most circles where folks are talking about UX, ‘waterfall’ is a dirty word that hearkens back to rigid PMBOK processes and exhaustingly long requirements gathering sessions, but Ian’s absolutely right. You have to get a sense of requirements, gather perspectives, mock things up, test out assumptions, wash, rinse, repeat. It’s waterfall. There’s no way around it.

Ian nails one of the key problems with being outcome based, what we work towards with agile vs. requirements based. This is a conundrum that many of have faced and still work to reconcile:  “Whereas classic UX is requirements based, Lean UX is outcome based… Designers found themselves under immense pressure to fill a sprint backlog before they really understood what they were building. As a result, a lot of development cycles got burned on features that never made it into the final product.”

So much development and rework lost trying to anticipate product needs… <sigh>

I’ve read a lot about Google Ventures Design Sprint, and attended a session at an O’Reilly Design conference where they talked about it, but even then, Ian’s explanation is as succinct and spot-on as any I’ve come across:

“Google Ventures conceived the design sprint, which allowed teams to rapidly define and test a low-fidelity prototypes. This jump-started the Lean UX cycle on emerging product teams and effectively eliminated the waste and rework problem.”

I’ll put a pin it there. Check out Ian’s original article.

UX isn’t just for designers

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To non-designers user experience can a very abstract concept. We’re lucky to have this empathic perspective of walking a mile in somebody else’s use cases, but mostly, folks don’t get it. It’s kind of like trying to explain to your parents what you do as a user experience professional… ‘what the hell is that?’ They might say back to you… or they might just nod in feigned acknowledgement… Either way, just like having empathy for users, we need to have empathy for those folks who don’t understand what UX is all about.

It’s kind of exciting, really, because it’s our job to teach them about UX.

Where teaching UX is concerned, I’ve found that nothing works quite as well as a ‘show don’t tell’ approach. Teaching UX is even better if you can get lay-people involved in some kinds of interactive exercises around UX.

I’m reluctant to say something is easy, but teaching the value of UX is, well… kind of easy. In nearly every instance where I’ve had to introduce UX folks have been pretty quick to get what UX means and how it could benefit users and an organization alike. After all, who hasn’t had to work with crummy software, navigate a horrible website or complete a task through an ill-conceived smartphone app? These experiences are ubiquitous and universal in a world driven by human-computer interactions.

Two simple, high level, ways to teach a lay-person UX might be to:

  1. Make a series of paper prototype user interfaces for paying a bill or ordering a book online — a straightforward interaction that should have only a few clicks;
  2. Walk through a simple purchase on Amazon or eBay, narrating the steps and what’s happening, from a UX perspective, as you go.

Each of these simple, low-tech, steps, highlights in context, what the user experience is and what its benefits could be. Exercises like these bridge the gap of abstraction, making something conceptual into something practical. When you make a connection for a business person or some other non-designer, it’s magical; these Aha! Moments make the teaching of UX very satisfying and a lot of fun.

While UX is quickly achieving buzzword status, it’s a real and necessary discipline whose time has come. UX, after its vogue period, will stop being “cool” and will just be… a mature operational practice taken for granted like automobile safety features or tamper-proof packaging, so it’s our job to be teachers and stewards of UX, not just how it can benefit our organizations, but how it can benefit the world. We may get to a time where user interfaces cease to exist, but UX will be at the heart of that, too.

What did you expect? Self-awareness in UX

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It’s hard not to get hung up on expectations. When something doesn’t go the way you want, or work the way you thought it should, it’s hard to be cognizant of this and step back. It’s hard for most people, and UX professionals are no different. Somehow, we have to make an appeal to our bigger selves to stop, have the presence of mind to observe what’s going on and then reflect on the expectations.

We have to pause and think about what we expected. Should we have expected whatever outcome didn’t occur? Maybe we ask ourselves what somebody was thinking when they created that app, or that product or that experience. How did they arrive at the conclusions that brought me this experience that you didn’t expect.

When you walk up to a doorknob, and quite unconsciously go to turn it… but it doesn’t turn… You stop, you think about what’s happening, maybe you reef on the door knob, maybe you pull on it, but the unconsciousness of the mundane activity has dissipated and now you’re consciously interacting with the door knob, which is now a problem, that you’re actively engaged in trying to figure out.

When you visit a website, you surf around, maybe you find what you’re looking for, but then unconsciously navigate to the top left corner to click a logo and get back to the homepage, but the logo isn’t a link, or worse there’s no logo, maybe even there’s no home button. Again, you come out of that, almost unconscious, state, awaken for a second and now you’re in problem-solving mode.  How the hell do I get back to the homepage?

These are only two examples, two extremely basic examples.

Now, think about this: The average user (read: most users) won’t go through the trouble-shooting phase, they won’t investigate further. They will, unconsciously, look for another door, X-out of the webpage, delete the app, etc… they’re using a tool to complete a task and the tool isn’t working. Between the speed of life and (almost subconscious) expectations we, as UX professionals, don’t get a lot of do-overs, or second chances with bad first impressions. We have to deliver on expectations from go and keep on delivering right on through.

Sure, there will be cases like Facebook and their bazillion news feed UI changes, and Twitter with all of their timeline changes, but the value for these organizations has been confirmed and delivered, first impressions have been had, so they have some flexibility… to a point. If you screw around with the users enough times you’re going to have an Internet Explorer situation on your hands and most people are just going to give up and move just as soon as they can, veritable monopolies notwithstanding.

So, in your own life, try to take notice. Try to be aware of your expectations. Are things working the way you want them to be? If not, what did you expect and why? This isn’t an article about user research or user testing, but really a an article on self-awareness, because that self-awareness is the greatest asset that a UX professional can have.