A History of Separation and Reconciliation
Computer-science classes have traditionally emphasized functional engineering, while the art schools in which visual designers have been siloed focus only on look. But as the software industry’s focus has shifted from software for professionals to software for the masses, these disciplines have begun to overlap. Plus, user experience has emerged as a critical factor in software development.
Consumers now expect authentic branding that flows into seamless Web experiences. They naturally gravitate toward brands and services that have clear visual identities. But branding and visual design only get people in the door. If a product lacks features or functions poorly, users will switch to another service. This is why Gmail now dominates—even though it was late to the email game. Its massive storage capacity, powerful search, smart spam filter, and easy-to-use user interface have delivered both form and function, leaving other email providers in the dust.
Think Like a User
However, it’s not possible to accomplish the mission of marrying form and function until UX designers have learned as much as they can about their systems’ users and how they work. They need to gain such a deep understanding of users that they begin to think like them.
Two straightforward ways of gaining user insights are generative user research and usability testing, through which you can understand how users work, learn what capabilities they need in an application or system, and identify the painpoints they struggle with. By working to remove the most serious issues, you can greatly improve the user experience. While conversations with users can yield useful insights, many users have difficulty explaining their experiences. So observe them in action, preferably in the environment in which they typically work. Ask users to perform the tasks for which you’re designing solutions. Having users follow industry-specific workflows for particular tasks can enable you to map patterns across an entire industry and develop solutions that ease an industry’s adoption of your product.
Observe users interacting with competitive solutions that were designed to address the same issues as your product. Determining where you’re falling short and where you’re succeeding can ensure that you don’t add or eliminate the wrong features—negatively impacting the user experience.
When interviewing users, make sure to ask them about cases where their current tools simply don’t enable them to accomplish their goals. Dig for details. When users get bogged down by a time-consuming manual process or an odd circumstance that requires a workaround, they’re probably not the only ones. Addressing these painpoints can lead to design innovations.