User Experience Design, contrary to common belief, is not all about icons and colors of a user interface. Unquestionably, those elements are parts of it, even the most visible ones. But there is a whole lot more to user experience design. And if you get those other element wrong, pretty icons won’t fix it. As the term user experience already suggests, our discipline is all about user empathy and bringing this empathy into the day to day software development and product management reality, with all its questions, decisions, and compromises that need to be made. In short you can say a UX designer is an advocate of the end user, representing and defending their external perspective, goals, and needs while making product decisions internally. So UX is about ensuring that the outcome of such a messy agile product development processes will still feature a great user experience. It’s not always easy, but we do our best every day!
As you can imagine, as a UX designer you have no background in web content management, translating content, managing localization projects, or technical documentation when you start. And without such expertise it’s fairly impossible to design awesome products that solve problems deeply rooted in those domains. So, the essential first step every UX designer goes through is learning and researching the customers and users. We typically visit our end users in their “natural habitat”, sitting with them at their desks and perform basic qualitative research, mostly in form of one-to-one interviews. Nothing scientific really, think of questions such as “How does a typical day looks like for you?”, “What makes it a successful one?”, “How big is your team, how do you collaborate, and communicate?”… you get the idea. There is a method we use sometimes which is called “contextual inquiry”, which basically means that you (as the UX researcher) pretend to be the “new colleague” on the team and ask the interviewee to tell you all you need to know to do their job. You can imagine how interesting and revealing such sessions are – they reveal the human perspective behind all the technology and business complexity our end users live in. That’s what provides the basis for customer empathy and generates a lot of information and data that we bring back home after such visits.
Nicely equipped with this type of data, we enter the next phase which you could label “ideation”. Here we work primarily with product management and the product owners on how to best address the needs and problems customers and users expressed during the research. Here we use all kind of methods from the “design thinking” toolbox. Think of brainstorming sessions with our agile product teams, with whiteboards and loads of post-it notes :-). Here we typically try to find as many possible design solutions for a well-defined customer problem, and then look at all of them critically and evaluate them one by one. Does the design solve the problem in an elegant way? Is it feasible to build? Will customers see value in the solution and are willing to pay for it? It’s a constant discussion and negotiation with the other disciplines and stakeholders. Ones we found a potential solution we try to prototype and test it. Here it’s the first time you have some kind of user interface, but often very rudimentary and “ugly-on-purpose”. We then try to test and validate the solution prototypes as much as possible, and iterate based on the feedback. Ones we are confident enough that the solution or feature works for our intended users and is feasible to build, it’s being picked up by one of the independent agile development teams.
In this “execution” phase, UX design supports the development teams with all the detailed questions and discussions that come up when you map out a feature in all its details. Edge cases, exceptions, things you did not think of. Again, it’s an interactive and iterative process and there is no such thing as a “final design” that designers throw over the wall to development. The UX designers present the “draft design” and defend the user perspective during all the discussions and negotiations that happen after. It’s a team sport after all and great products are the result of tough collaborative decision making as a team, where the UX designers maintain an outside-in perspective.
So even there is a lot more to it, this is UX design in a nutshell.