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Discovering and Applying UX Best Practices

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A column by Janet M. Six
December 19, 2016
Send your questions to Ask UXmatters and get answers from some of the top professionals in UX.

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our expert panel talks about how to discover and apply UX best practices. They’ve shared some of their favorite Web resources and articles for design inspiration, but also encourage you to implement, then evaluate new designs before applying them broadly.

Our experts also remind everyone that simply having some knowledge about UX design is not enough to make you a good UX designer. As we discussed in the Ask UXmatters column “Inspiration for UX Design from the Arts and Sciences,” inspirations for user experiences come from many different domains, and creating extraordinary designs also requires a solid understanding of business. Plus, our experts challenge you to consider whether a search for best practices is even something UX designers should pursue. Could it result in a futile journey, searching for a nonexistent holy grail?

Each month in Ask UXmatters, our experts answer our readers’ questions about user experience matters. To read their answers to your question in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, just send your question to: [email protected].

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The following experts have contributed answers to this edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Mark Baldino—Co-Founder at Fuzzy Math
  • Warren Croce—Principal UX Designer at Gazelle; Principal at Warren Croce Design
  • Pabini Gabriel-Petit—Principal Consultant at Strategic UX; Publisher and Editor in Chief, UXmatters; Founding Director of Interaction Design Association (IxDA); UXmatters columnist
  • Peter Hornsby—UX Manager at Distribution Technology; UXmatters columnist
  • Ben Ihnchak—Co-Founder at Fuzzy Math
  • Jordan Julien—Founder of Hostile Sheep Research & Design
  • Tobias Komischke—Director of User Experience at Honeywell
  • Amanda Stockwell—President and Principal Consultant, Stockwell Strategy
  • Daniel Szuc—Principal and Co-Founder of Apogee Usability Asia Ltd.
  • Jo Wong—Principal and Co-Founder of Apogee Usability Asia Ltd.

Q: What are the best ways to discover industry best practices for user experience? And how do you translate best practices into actionable knowledge?—from a UXmatters reader

“I can just imagine a starry-eyed student asking a question like this—hoping we can point everyone to a compendium of best practices,” answers Jordan. “Well, it doesn’t exist. This question has awkwardly stumbled upon the most difficult part of experience design: monitoring the industry for trends and patterns. Nevertheless, I recommend your starting your search on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. But, if you want to choose just one channel of information, I’d definitely start with Twitter. Follow respected industry leaders who actually share ideas. Unfortunately, there are lots of smart people on Twitter who tweet only about themselves.”

“A quick-and-dirty way to find best practices is to look at what organizations that have large UX teams are doing,” replies Ben. “Amazon and Google have massive numbers of UX resources and have put a lot of money on the line to make sure their experiences are good ones, so take a look at the various tools they’re creating. Of course, not everything they’re doing is going to be perfect for your use, but saving some favorite elements and patterns into your own personal pattern library of screenshots and screen recordings is a great first step toward making the patterns that you find accessible and actionable.”

Is this the Right Question?

“Asking How can I identify best practices? might be a better way to put your question if you’re asking about design best practices,” responds Pabini. “There is no single set of design best practices that is applicable everywhere. An optimal design solution depends on the context in which it exists, comprehending the platform on which it runs, the business domain it supports, other solutions that already exist in the marketplace to solve the same problem, and the user for whom you’re creating a solution.

“To identify design best practices, it is essential that you validate your design solutions through usability testing, user research, and analytics—that is, that you validate them in the marketplace. Once you’ve validated a design approach, you can apply it more broadly, and it may become a design best practice.

“On the other hand, if you’re asking about best practices that organizations should follow in creating extraordinary user experiences—that is, about how they should ideally accomplish their work—I refer you my On Good Behavior column titled ‘Design Is a Process, Not a Methodology.’”

“I'm trying to interpret this question in some way other than ‘How do you do UX?’!” exclaims Peter. “I struggle with the concept of best practices. There are design elements that I once would have disdained, but can now see a role for—sometimes a very narrow, specific role, but a role nonetheless. Sliders are no longer an element that I would cross the road to avoid. I just wouldn’t make eye contact or start a conversation with them. Carousels have their place—typically, some distance from me. Comic Sans … I’m still working on that one. Give it time.

“However, I recognize that I’m biased: I tend to regard the idea of touting best practices as intellectually lazy—something designers say to avoid giving a solid justification for a design decision. If the focus of your question is on User Experience as a process rather than on design elements, answering it becomes easier: Figure out what people need to do and what they already understand, then quickly design the best solution you can. Get your users to try it, then make it better.” For further discussion on this topic, Peter recommends his Innovating UX Practice column “Encapsulating User Experience.”

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Read Broadly—About UX, Design, and Other Topics

“One of the better ways to discover best practices is to read,” recommend Dan and Jo. “You can begin your discovery of existing best practices by getting into a routine of reading articles. But we recommend that you not read only publications relating to User Experience or design, but also venture into other topics that can provide you a wider and deeper perspective. Practice capturing some observations about what is happening at work and in life that you can then share and discuss with your peers and others. One place to start is with a few newspapers. We lean toward the New York Times—especially their opinion section—but there are other good papers. Browse the major sections to get a sense of what is happening and how writers have analyzed and discussed events.” Dan and Jo recommend that you read their article, with Michael Davis-Burchat, “Routines on Projects: Why They Deserve More Attention.”

“One of the things I love about User Experience is that it’s an ever-evolving practice,” says Warren. “It doesn’t allow you to stagnate. I have found that the best way for me to keep up with best practices is to read regularly. Here’s my reading list:

“I keep these in a feed reader—I use Netvibes—then, every day, I quickly scan the feed for articles of interest.”

Don’t Try to Learn Everything at Once

“Staying up to date in User Experience means staying up to date with technology trends in general—so trying to stay on top of everything can be really overwhelming,” replies Amanda. “The first thing to know is that you don’t need to try to learn everything all at once. You can’t anyway, so choose a few things to investigate at a time. Following a site like UXmatters is a good place to start, but there are lots of smart people publishing in all kinds of places, including Medium, LinkedIn, and tool blogs. I recommend your setting up a feed reader for a few key terms at a time, then setting aside time once a week to review your feed.”

Meet Other UX Designers

“Get connected with your local UX community,” suggests Amanda. “Most major metropolitan areas have at least a meetup, if not more. Even if events are not on topics you think you’d learn from, you’ll probably meet other smart people who will be willing to share their experience. This means you’ll not only hear about what other people are trying, but their struggles and lessons learned. You can almost always find someone who has tried tackling a problem similar to yours or used a tool in a slightly different way, and you can hear firsthand how they approached it and incorporated into their practice. This is a great way to figure out how to get started on your own. There are lots of writeups online of a similar nature, but I find it helpful to have a conversation rather than just reading an experience report or case study.”

Try Out New Design Ideas

“Simply hearing or reading about someone else’s experience doesn’t mean you’ll get an answer that will work for you. Every team and project is different,” adds Amanda. “The best way I’ve found of incorporating best practices or new learnings is to just go ahead and try them out. Choose a side project or a noncritical component of your current work and go through a few rounds of trial and error, involving other team members in the learning and demonstrating the value of your new practices to others along the way.”

“You must translate all your learnings into actionable knowledge,” advises Warren. “Here’s an example: I recently read an article on A List Apart about ‘The Coming Revolution in Email Design.’ At Gazelle, working on an ecommerce site, we do a lot of email, especially around the holidays. We have traditionally used animated GIFs, but recently, for the first time, we tried using CSS animation. It worked great and the files were a lot smaller than animated GIFs. This is just one basic example, but if you read regularly, you’ll invariably find things you’ll want to try out yourself.”

Look for Patterns

“A significant part of establishing best practices is extracting them from patterns in your data, then understanding what drives a behavior,” reply Dan and Jo. They recommend their article “Deeper Understanding: Stories, Observations, and Insights.” “If you can recognize habits and behaviors that are leading to negative outcomes for your projects, you can spend time considering and thinking about what practices you can adopt to demonstrate that there may be another approach,” Dan and Jo continued. “Then, back up those new practices with evidence that’s supported by both your project experience and reading references. You want to be sure that your revised practices help you to avoid negative outcomes.”

“Our firm uses a set of user-experience heuristics that are based on research by luminaries such as Jakob Nielsen, Rolf Molich, and Steve Krug,” replies Mark. “Arm yourself with a good set of heuristics that are already actionable—such as the oft-cited ‘10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design,’ by Nielsen and Molich. Lather, rinse, and repeat long enough—that is, gain experience by repeatedly applying the heuristics—and these best practices will become second nature to any UX designer.”

Remember Soft Skills

“To learn, go to conferences, read Forrester and Gartner reports, and join user groups—either on LinkedIn or in your own area,” recommends Tobias. “Then, communicate best practices within your organization—especially upward to management to get their support. Determine in what areas you can readily copy and adopt the best practices and also in what areas this would be problematic. To overcome any obstacles, call on your supporters in management to help you effect the necessary changes.”

“Consider that practices are made up of soft skills, and it requires constant practice to improve these skills over time,” suggest Dan and Jo. “These soft skills include, but are not limited to, observation, leading, listening, connecting, framing, playing, and storytelling.” Pabini recommends that you read her article on soft skills, “13 Human Qualities You Must Have to Succeed in Work and Life.” 

Principal at Lone Star Interaction Design

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixAs Principal of Lone Star Interaction Design in Dallas, Texas, Dr. Janet M. Six helps companies design easier-to-use products within their financial, time, and technical constraints. For her research in information visualization, Janet was awarded the University of Texas at Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering Computer Science Dissertation of the Year Award. She was also awarded the prestigious IEEE Dallas Section 2003 Outstanding Young Engineer Award. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Graph Algorithms and Applications and the Kluwer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science. The proceedings of conferences on Graph Drawing, Information Visualization, and Algorithm Engineering and Experiments have also included the results of her research. Janet is the Managing Editor of UXmatters.  Read More

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