User Experience and Use Centric Design

Less than two decades back, when we engineers set out to work on industry standard programming and application development, we had no idea of user centric design. We only knew or ‘GUI’ or user interface. UI of the late 80s and early 90s was largely designed to maximise performance with a minimal look and feel.  As programmers we were adept at Unix commands on command line or typing powerful data manipulation commands on an Oracle or SAP interface. Everything was a text command. Programmers designed the applications or apps. Expectedly all apps that were considered usable by geeks were released to innocent unsuspecting customers. If you are in doubt, just find a copy of Oracle Enterprise Manager User Manual of version 8. Life has changed so much since then. In my mind the following has changed .

  1. Products have to address a customer’s potential need which even the customer has not envisaged. One popular motto of a product reads ‘design the product such that the customer cannot imagine going back to old ways of working’.
  2. On whom is the onus or the blame of incorrectly using the product. This has changed from the user to the designer. If a user didn't use the car’s bluetooth navigator  correctly for example, it’s the designer who is dumb not the car driver. Same argument goes on in the famous book ‘The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman’. 
  3. Role of designer has changed. The designer isn’t there to merely produce something to specifications. Rather she is there to guide the user through the experience from the first moment that person opens the seal of the casing.
  4. With limited memory and computing power, a rich user experience needed to compromise with product’s performance. Not anymore. A product can have a good user experience and give a good performance. 
  5. Products have evolved and are cognisant of being used by different users with varying skills, needs and from different cultural backgrounds.
  6. It is accepted that small is beautiful and minimalism adds to delight
  7. Customer is Queen; And market place is crowded.

Standard benefits
On less philosophical terms there are well tested and established benefits for a well thought out user experience.

Reduction of training requirements/cost. No user guides or help manuals.
Increase in user productivity. The more intuitive the interface the faster the works gets done.
Increase  in user adoption as a well designed product caters to various users. 
Increase in user satisfaction as the targeted job gets done by the targeted user.
Reduction of support/service calls and therefore reduction in costs.  A good metric to measure ROI of good user experience is reduction of training and support costs.

What tools does the industry have
I’m assuming that most readers of this blogpost will be from information technology industry and so I will list out a few leads from software world of designing.

  • User Centred Design Process  tools that define Process, Guidelines and Concepts on how to deliver/provide highly usable user experiences
  • Requirement Visualization and Prototyping tools that mimic the exact look, feel and workflow of the final product. Actual data can be fed into it and results experienced.
  • UI/UX KPIs, Business cases and Measurement methods - industry standard bodies are slowly but surely making this art into science. There are various measurement methods to benchmark products for usability as well as against industry scores.
  • Consistent UI Design - UX guidelines are generally available for corporates. If one wants to be a supplier to a corporate, usually there is the corporate guideline available that specifies colour, accessibility, touch, spacing, zoom etc.

What’s the point in talk, talk, talking without ability to execute? In terms of acquiring or building capabilities, the domain areas fall into the following:

Capability Requirements (competencies, skills)

  • User Research  - this is the most difficult thing to do. How do you know you have profiled all kinds of users? Be pragmatic and be as comprehensive as possible.
  • Information Architecture - This is how content with show up and how best to design taxonomy. When you drive a car, you don’t want to do multiple clicks on the GPS with one hand while it shows a ‘rich, exhaustive, all categories’ of restaurants.
  • Interaction Design -  Embedded in UCD
  • Prototype Engineering and visualization- this is a very important capability. To actually be able to see how the product works and not just as screen shots or wire frames.
  • UI technologies - Use a technology agnostic platform if possible in order to scale later.
  • Cross functional Business Process Understanding - this is closely connected with interaction design. Prototyping must include all user interactions even if minimally demonstrated.
  • Project/Program Management - classic requirement. 
  • Last one - how do you go about championing the cause? 

Adoption Program:

  • Create the material for influencing - Define Training Modules and content
  • Define and agree on one or two ‘test the waters’ experimental projects. Involve foot soldiers and top management in this experience.
  • Define and agree Usability and User experience KPIs per project. Even if you don’t shoot for the stars it’s okay as long as you measure something you have agreed upon.
  • Align Usability guidelines and user experience design with your suppliers and consumers. Every company has it’s own branding, style and accessibility guidelines. This is the age of the platform and no product is a stand-alone by itself. 
  • CIO Communication - The CTOs and CIOs have to do their bit of evangelisation. Human behaviour expects top authorities to lay down rules and guidelines.
  • Project adoption support, QA monitoring and control.  Embed User Centric design requirements in all stages of product development.

User experience is an almost necessity for any business. While it was considered a luxury in the past, it is important to treat it as table stakes right from product visioning exercises. The money spent on UX will return as rich returns later.  The evangelisation must be done at all levels of the business chain.