User experience design involves the creation of interactions that affect a customer's experience with a company, product or brand, with the intent of influencing customer perceptions and behavior. Interactions range from touch (physical products and packaging), hearing (music, ambient noise, commercials) and smell (the aroma of flowers outside a flower shop). There are many situations where a UX designer will create a competitive advantage for your company.
User Experience Design for Digital Media
User Experience is a large field encompassing many roles and job titles. The three main areas covered by a UX designer are information architecture, interaction design and user research. As a freelance UX designer I often get asked to fulfill a mixture of these roles whilst also providing other core business services such as:
- Brand strategist or steward
- Business analyst
- Content strategist
- visual designer
- Front-end developer
Beginning a UX Design Project
Gathering requirements from stakeholders is key to successfully launching a new digital product or service. Using a business requirements document as a starting point for a project, the next phase is data collection using qualitative data from user interviews, surveys, etc and quantitative data from analytical data and market research.
Where there are no existing customers or analytical data for a project such as a start-up business or innovative new technology I proceed along the standard path of discussing the core business objectives with stakeholders and team members and include a swot analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) and competitor analysis to reveal potential avenues that should be considered. Swot and competitor analysis should feature in any business plan and is critically important for product placement but is often overlooked resulting in an ill-fitting image of the target market.
User research is an essential part of delivering a viable and well executed digital product. There are a variety of techniques that enable a UX designer like myself to discover important areas that should be focused on when beginning a project. Stakeholder interviews are very important in defining the types of customers that interact with your company. During the course of UX design I will discuss areas of user interaction such as customer service requests, market segmentation (demographic information), feedback / satisfaction forms, general documents about your company's strategy relating to company philosophy, goals, marketing strategies and business plans.
I generally follow Jakob Nielsen's 'Ten Usability Heuristics' when trying to understand the current state of an application. I also refer to Bruce Tognazzini's 'list of basic principles for interface design' although these are just stepping stones to understanding the overall issues associated with an interface.
To get to the heart of problems with an existing web page, site or application I use a quantitative approach to collect factual data.
I use a variety of analytical tools from Google Analytics to online surveys. This provides me with an overview of a website or web application where general problems can be diagnosed quickly by analyzing bounce and exit rates, and the overall user journey between pages.
Generally, analytical data and statistical analysis is good for quantitative analysis but to really drill down to a specific design issue qualitative analysis should be used.
Qualitative Analysis and Contextual Enquiry
I use a mixture of creative processes and usability testing when designing a new interface or refining an existing one.
To really understand how users interact with a digital product I use various techniques. Surveys and focus groups are good for quantitative analysis whereas one on one usability testing is great for determining problems with the intricacies design of a website such as navigation, call to action, user journey between specific pages, and focused tasks such as purchasing a product using a check out, editing and submitting user account details or posting a new online article.
Card sorting helps at the beginning of a new project as it allows participants to create taxonomies and allows the UX designer to understand how customers classify your products and services. This is great for defining synergies between the needs of business stake holders and customers alike.
Scenarios are great for getting to know the general situations where the product is being used, such as on a train using a mobile hand set, or in an office at lunch time. Scenarios directly affect the interaction design for if a user only has a mobile phone (think African / developing countries) then providing lengthy multi-page input forms are likely to be abandoned.
Conceptual maps are great for defining the emotional touch points of the interaction such as the words and vocabularies used to describe links and calls to action.
Collages using words and images to describe the emotions of a digital product or service are useful to define the emotional aspects of a digital product or service. These are especially useful when there are cultural differences between user groups.
Although not critical to interaction design I find that mood boards are helpful when used in conjunction with user persona's.
User persona's and are useful for creating clear personalities and representations of users who will interact with the design. I tend to adhere to Jared Spool's approach to developing user persona's after the initial phase of user research (demographic analysis, contextual enquiry, survey data) is complete, otherwise persona's can skew the user experience and the design team can be fixated on a particular persona too early thus resulting in an ill fitting design.
User persona's should feature the following information:
Optional user persona content
- Education level
- Salary or salary range
- Personal quote
- Online activities
- Offline activities
- Key entry or trigger point to client, brand or product
- Technical comfort level
- Social comfort level
- Mobile comfort level
- Motivations to use client, brand or product
- User goals
Project Definition Statement
The final part of beginning a UX design project is creating a project definition statement (PDS). This is very important to my approach in creating a detailed project brief as it summarizes the project requirements in a succinct manner that allows all team members to have a coherent goal in mind throughout the project.
Creating the User Experience
After all research and documentation is complete the job of creating the user experience can begin.
Sitemaps and Task Flows
I make great use of task flows and sitemaps as this allows me to develop a coherent overview of the website or application in a format that can be agreed upon by clients and stakeholders. I use Jesse James Garret's visual vocabulary to create task flows and sitemaps as it makes the interaction design easy to understand however task flows and sitemaps can be represented in many different ways. Labeling is very important to team members as it allows the project team to use the numbering system for design, development and testing and prevents misinterpretations further down the project life-cycle.
Wire-frames and Prototypes
I normally begin the creative process by sketching different designs and presenting them to potential users and stakeholders to review or by simply discussing how stakeholders use a similar application or what they would like to see and use when using a particular website. This is really helpful and the use of pencil and paper should not be under estimated as it allows on-the-fly creation of wire-frames and paper prototypes that can reveal many issues with the design that should be addressed before moving the work into a digital wire-framing environment. It is important to note that managing client expectations at this stage is critical as stakeholders and test users may think that you are presenting them with a finished design.
After creating initial paper base sketches I then move to the wire framing phase and use different approaches depending on the nature of the problem. Sometimes I will create a wire-frame mock up using Flash for websites and web applications that make use of a large amount of multimedia such as video and audio, this allows me to quickly develop the interaction design and user journey without being having to deal with browser inconsistencies and display problems when presenting the wire-frame design to clients. Although Flash is good in these scenarios I try to find the correct solution for creating wire-frames, such as basic HTML pages featuring a full sized screen shots with click-able image maps to various site sections which are also displayed in simple HTML files.
Using these approaches, it is a fairly easy task to quickly create basic prototypes to present to users to begin usability testing.