On November 14, I presented Design Hacking: Great UX without time, money, or design skills to the Igniters: Stanford Entrepreneurs and Silicon Valley Founders group at Hacker Dojo in Mountain View, CA. I would like to thank Raj Lal, Cynthia Lee, and Wendy Soon of Vorkspace for inviting me and making this event happen. I had a great time, made some excellent contacts, and received a lot of encouraging feedback.
Design Hacking at Hacker Dojo. Apparently you are supposed to photobomb from the back.
Back in the saddle
First, this is my first real blog post since November 2011 (two years)! It’s not for a lack of ideas—I have a backlog of over 50 excellent topics. Rather, I haven’t had any spare time because business has been excellent (37 onsite UX Design Essentials Workshops and 17 public UX Design Essentials classes since that last post), plus the time required to write, produce, and recover from my new book UI is Communication, which was published by Morgan Kaufmann in June.
I have just now recovered enough to hopefully start blogging again regularly. It’s good to be back!
A tall order—but doable
Obviously this topic is a tall order—is this goal even remotely realistic? I think so, but you have to believe three fundamental ideas:
- We waste a lot of time and money on UX design now. Non-designers waste an enormous amount of time creating hard-to-use UIs because they don’t know what they are doing. Experienced designers often waste an enormous amount of time because traditional user-centered design processes are overly dependent upon user research, user testing, and lots of iteration.
- We don’t leverage what we know. Generally, we know a great deal about our target users—we’re just so focused on what we don’t know that we don’t even realize what we do know. There are basic attributes that all users share that we can take advantage of and use to avoid wasting time.
- The best is the enemy of the good. You need to make solid design decisions quickly and confidently—even if they aren’t ideal. As an entrepreneur, you don’t have luxury of making perfect decisions with the ideal design process. So, let’s define a “great UX” is one that provides value, and is simple, easy to use, and intuitive for its target users. If we nail those, any shortcomings can be addressed later.
What we need is a perspective to help us make better design decisions more quickly and confidently. Not only does such a perspective exist, but as you will soon see it is one that we already know!
Failing fast…or just plain failing
Traditional user-centered methods require user research, requirements gathering, sketching, prototyping, user testing, and lots and lots of iteration. But there are several challenges, especially if you are in a hurry:
- User research Frankly, the typical result of most user research is to discover that users haven’t a clue what they want. Or worse—users think they know what they want but really don’t. There’s an old saying: listen to your users, but ignore what they say. What this really means: you have to ask the right questions and interpret the answers. Users aren’t designers, so we can’t expect them to design their own UIs. Good user research takes a long time and is hard do to well.
- Requirements Gathering requirements works well if they really are requirements. Often requirements are arbitrary, ill-conceived stealth UI specs. The resulting UI might not work well, but at least it meets its acceptance criteria.
- Sketching Sketching is a great technique during ideation to suggest and explore different design directions. What I see most teams do, however, feels more of what I call “sketching a pile of features,” where the focus is on variations of physical placement of features on the page. This approach can work, but great UX requires going beyond features and layout.
- User testing User testing is the heart of user-centered design, but I have seen a lot of testing of poor designs that just weren’t test-worthy. A common question determined by user testing: Will users figure out this non-standard, hard to find, poorly explained interaction with poor feedback that doesn’t meet their expectations. We should already know the answer. It’s “no.” No testing required. Often, if you have to ask, you already know the answer.
- Iteration Iteration is great if it leads to rapid progress towards your goals, instead of just flailing around. When playing golf, I never shank the ball into the weeds and think “Yay! I’m iterating!” A lot of initial UI designs are like shank shots, and the subsequent iterations are slightly improved shank shots. Polishing a poor initial UX isn’t going to get us where we need to be. That first shot needs to be good for iteration to be effective.
These are all sound design techniques, but they take a lot of time and great design is hardly guaranteed.
From what I can tell, agile and lean UX techniques don’t help much here either. They still take a lot of time and money—often with mediocre results, especially for larger, more complex projects. The main difference is that you’ll know your UX sucks much, much faster. [Disagree? Please provide counter examples in the comments.]
The traditional approach favored by developers, which often boils down to putting raw the data structures required by the back end on the screen, doesn’t work at all. Find out why in Don’t design like a programmer.