I often find user experience design to be a profession abundant with idealism. Many of us preach about the importance of making websites and web apps that cater to user needs, and we rally behind usability tests, interviews, surveys, content audits, heuristic evaluations and expert analyses, because they help us design systems that bring us closer to the best user experience. But for many, there are a myriad of constraints that prohibit us using some of these elements of UX in our projects.
At Tribus, we treat each of our projects like they’re a problem to be solved. To get from the problem to the solution we can take many different routes, the route we ultimately take boils down to which of the following constraints we’ve managed to overcome.
Cost will always be a subject of tension when designing and building anything, and making websites and web apps is no exception. In the early days, we struggled to find clients willing to pay for the research stages of a web build. We knew we needed to carry out things like interviews with existing users, or perform in-depth, qualitative content audits to gauge how effective their current content is at delivering on business goals, but we were forced to make a decision between skipping over those vital tasks, or doing the work anyway and not billing for the time.
These days budget is less of a problem than it used to be, and along the way we’ve devised a sliding scale of UX tasks that allow us to perform as much of the necessary research and testing as possible, and still keep within budget.
One of our greatest decisions in the early days was when we adopted remote testing services, like usertesting.com, because, for a relatively small fee, we could watch screencasts of a user performing very specific tasks, and get vocal and written feedback. Arranging expensive in-house testing sessions was no longer the only option we had.
Some clients have the money, but don’t have the time. They want delivery yesterday, and try their utmost to study the schedule and query the need for each task. It’s very difficult to rush user experience design because much of it requires time to analyse data, and understand what users are doing.
One of the best things we did to cut down time in our projects was to ditch the use of software packages like Illustrator, Balsamiq and Omnigraffle to produce our wireframes. Instead, we use A3 paper, whiteboards and marker pens, because it fosters collaboration within the team as we are not all individually tied to a computer screen, and we become more focused on the problem we are trying to solve, rather than spending a long time presenting the solution in a pretty PDF. We actually scan our wireframes to present, and because they are hand-drawn the client appreciates that things are still fluid and can change.
We’ve fought a lot with clients over the value of UX design, sometimes we’ve won, sometimes we’ve lost. User experience can seem very abstract and subjective to many people, so we’ve had to form a few metaphors to help our clients grasp the importance of our work.
For example, many have questioned the need for doing mood-boards and style guides, as well as design mockups. To demonstrate the value of these tasks, we equate them to redecorating a house. You don’t jump right in and start painting doors and sticking wall paper everywhere without any thought. You need to experiment with colour combinations, and variations of wallpaper, and how they look with different carpet samples. That’s the mood-board’s role – it allows for rough and ready experimentation. Once your selection (or mood) is chosen, you set rules for which colours, wallpaper and carpets go in which rooms – that’s your style guide. And then, finally, you redecorate – that’s like the mockup stage.
By contextualising the three stages in a way that clients can relate to, they quickly see the value in experimentation before execution. It’s far easier to change the ‘mood’ of the design before you’ve started to redecorate a house, or design a website.
There is a disconnection between what is taught academically in the field of user experience design, and the practice of user experience design. Unless you are a large web agency, or dedicated usability lab, where you can attract clients with plentiful budgets, you will always be working within the constraints of money, time and perceived value.
But we are problem solvers, that’s what we are hired to do, and these constraints are just three more parameters for us to work within. User experience design is not an exact science, nor is there a perfect answer for every problem. We must aim for the best possible solution, within the means of the project. Some call this lean-UX, others call it guerrilla testing. I prefer to just call it what it is – User Experience Design.