Three actions to strengthen UX
by Ali Carmichael, Managing Director and Owner

For every degree a ship veers off course, it misses its intended destination by one mile. The further you sail, the further off course you find yourself. Jesse James Garrett, in a recent article, has articulated what many of us have been feeling, the world of UX is, by and large, off course. Or at least, off a course it might have been wiser to follow. Is it time for the industry to take heed, absorb his warning, and take course-correcting action? Or will a few tweaks do?

Great products and services come from a place of intuition. Intuition, grounded in good usability principles, is essential to create products and services that are in-tune with their users. For me, UX requires a belief and trust in the process; an intuitive understanding of how to connect human needs with digital design and build.

What got lost along the way?

Name any digital product and service development and there are fundamental UX methodologies that need to be completed, just as Jesse James defined in his book from 2000, The Elements of User Experience.

However, whilst there are plenty of inspiring authors, readers today seemingly pick and choose the bits they like from a book or a process and discard the rest. Over time the original principles and processes evaporate in the pursuit of MVP, ROI, lean, first to market, and fail-fast – all of which can work amazingly, but are also at risk of ‘pick-and-choose’.

As these principles lost their way over a short space of time, UX never did bridge the gap between practitioner and boardroom, and therefore failed to sell the human-centric benefits, let alone demonstrate the ROI on a spreadsheet. UX is, in essence, common sense. So, “why?” asks the boardroom; “why should I spend thousands to determine an end-result of common sense?”.

In our Western society hooked on speed, information, and the illusion of progress, we push aside our values. It is no wonder the IT Department will introduce a new ‘off the shelf’ system regardless of any UX process that points elsewhere.

I would not ask my builder to design my house

Take architecting habitable buildings: the principles of architecture never change. They are well-defined, documented and adhered to. Architects would not be asked to do the job of the builder and vice-versa. It is, of course, fundamentally important that the builder is involved in the process of designing the house, and the architect is involved in building the house. One cannot achieve the outcome without the other. There is no question or argument – conventional building practice says you need to dedicate time and budget into the blueprint of a new building.

Digital creation does not have this same understanding. It is ill-defined, misunderstood, and fraught with pushback, negotiation and dilution. I still witness digital build projects falling foul of the same issues I came across in the early 2000s. Technology has moved on massively, but executing the process somehow hasn’t. Even in a world of Agile, no two projects are delivered using the same process, it is very much ‘pick-and-choose’.

How do we correct our course?

I see three critical components to course correct the discipline of UX:

1. We need to restore the fundamental principles of usability and user research.

We need UX Practitioners and Designers to fight for and communicate the rationale for placing users at the heart of any project, and to include research and information architecture before a project’s scope is finalised. Let’s not put the cart before the horse. When a project afforded the opportunity to run some user research, we must ensure it is facilitated adhering to best practice (it is not just chatting with a customer and watching them use a website).

2. We must seek first to understand the problem from a user perspective, and not rush into solutionising, building and problem-solving.

Stop. Take time in discovery. Involve the end users. Map the foundations before finalising the detail of the build. Still today digital teams are put under immense pressure to confirm schedules and budgets, and to deliver something quick. Whilst many projects do include a Discovery Phase, they are often prey to time and budget constraints. Discovery needs sufficient time and resource to be truly effective. As the carpenter’s saying goes, “measure twice, cut once”.

3. We need to work closer with IT.

We need the IT department to pay closer attention to the user. Not to take a list of ‘user requirements’ and assume that’s that. I want technology led coders to be part of and bought in to the process. Of course, there are IT leaders and managers who are already bought in, but we need more of them.

There is much debate on whether IT and Digital sit together or not. Either way, I do believe UX and IT need to work much closer together, but I often see UX being over ruled by IT decisions. We need the IT department to pay closer attention to the user, to demand a sound research led UX process.

Speaking recently with a UX advocate in the IT team of a well-known national brand, we quickly realised the harmony between our two areas of work. The frustration is that, regardless of what words are used, the collective IT position is to focus on what they want users to do, not what users actually need or want to do. I think this is similar in many organisations. What is agreed, however, is that to meet the objectives, the output needs to be intuitive and user friendly.

Essential foundations

Useable digital products and services are grounded in the essential foundations of user research and UX. By trusting the process and staying true to the methodology the end result will be evermore satisfying for the user, designer, developer and manager.

We don’t need an all-encompassing culture change, but we do need to look at ourselves and ask if we are really delivering on the UX promise. Whilst part of the role is to push for more research budget, what we need to always be doing is to listen, and to then share our perspective in a positive manner. Everyone gets it, we’re human, but there are layers in the way.

Let’s embrace the fact that UX is on the table. Let’s seize the opportunity and deliver UX to a high standard. Let’s shout loud and clear that this process works and delivers results. Let us educate and inspire. The spreadsheets will speak for themselves.

We are human, and our products and services are better when the threads that bind us all are sewn within.

UX Consultant Matt Fisher

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