A design student’s take on the value of UX by Liv Bishop
As an advertising and branding student working with Google Maps on a UX-focused design project, I’ve learned quite a bit about what drives relevant web design and services that positively impact a business and its customers. Starting with expansive research and ending with a dynamic finished product, this ten-week program through the Savannah College of Art and Design taught me valuable knowledge that I want to share with you.
If you’re not entirely familiar with UX (like I was at the start of this project) but have heard it used as a buzzword, you might be picturing a young web designer with false-lensed glasses toiling over a fancy Mac laptop somewhere in Silicon Valley. But what does a UX designer actually do, and why is it important?
UX isn’t all beanies and Apple logos. It’s the process of creating products or services that provide users with meaningful and relevant experiences. In other words, UX-ers treat the user as if they are the sun around which their research, methodology, design and branding revolve. Because ultimately, if a designer makes something without an intended audience or loses sight of the audience’s needs, the work will most likely land somewhere in the asteroid belt – the design won’t be user-friendly. Similarly, if a business acts without the customer in mind, it’s unlikely that the business will be successful.
Successful UX breaks down into three main processes. The first is to build empathy with the user by conducting research. The second is to ground design in users’ needs. The third is to package the product in an attractive way for the user.
Conducting Research to Build Empathy
In order to build empathy (the ability to understand and share the feelings of another), the natural first step is to get into the user’s shoes and understand what their needs, aspirations, motivations, and desires are. This is where proper UX research comes in and serves as the integral foundation for successful products and services.
The most important research task is to remove bias and subjectivity so that users’ needs come to the forefront. This ensures that a design is not a skewed version of the designer’s own wants and desires. Asking the right questions is equally important and greatly determines how insightful and useful the research will become in the later stages of UX. This means not asking leading questions that coax the user into answering in a certain way. It means avoiding confirmation bias, cultural bias and any number of other biases that might interfere with finding a holistic truth that serves as the guiding principle for design.
Think of the research process as navigating the dark waters of the user’s mind, with their motivations, needs, desires, and aspirations acting as the North Star, guiding the researcher to the essential problem they are trying to answer. The researcher acts not just as the captain but as the ship that is responsive to the user. Each time a user answers a question, there is a shift in the wind’s direction, leaving it up to the researcher to adjust the sails and stay on course.
In this way, the UX researcher tacks through the user’s mind and toes the line of facilitating conversation – staying on topic yet allowing for deviations that can lead to key insights. In other words, the hunt for the “why,” or the motivations, needs, desires and aspirations of the user, is a tactful and touchy process. If UX research is done empathetically and skillfully, the rewards for the user – and for the business designing for that audience – are immeasurable.
Identifying Users’ Needs to Generate Ideas
The next step after UX research is to identify users’ needs, then design around them. After compiling qualitative and quantitative data from long-form user interviews, intercept interviews and observational research (among the few avenues a researcher can take), researchers affinitize the data – the process of organizing and grouping data in a way that sheds light on certain themes.
With a set of more than 900 data points from interviews, it took my class a week’s worth of intense affinitization sessions to identify the salient themes of our research that would drive our design process. From these themes came insights that propelled us toward an inspired, informed design.
Generating ideas based on insights is the most abstract phase of the UX process. It’s about striking the sweet spot between imagination and achievable reality. In the Google Maps program, we were taught to use the funnel method: start by generating as many ideas as possible; then edit down for quality from there.
The funnel method is a great way to eliminate as much design bias from the process as possible, especially if conducted as a group. If you address as many facets of the user’s needs as you can with a large list of ideas, the design scope isn’t narrowed by an individual designer’s hunch of what proves to be the most salient need. In other words, blue-sky thinking (within the right atmosphere) is a key step in realizing compelling designs that still meet users’ needs.
Evaluating Ideas to Create a Finished Product
During this final stage of UX design, the quality of an idea is determined by how well it answers the problem statement, benefits the user and follows the themes and insights that were drawn from research. To begin, these factors can be weighed by one designer or discussed as a group. However, designers are not the user, so the best way to test the quality of an idea is to prototype it and put it into usability testing with real users.
If you’re a business owner seeking services from an agency, usability testing is worth the most investment. Like buying in bulk, investing in user testing puts emphasis on getting it right on the first launch, versus crawling back time and again to fix bugs or design issues that would’ve been discovered had initial testing been a part of the process. Plus, if empathy for the user or customer is truly present, involving the user and iterating designs based on their feedback shows care. Up-front investment and trust in the user’s feedback
Filtering Design through a Brand
At the end of the day, no amount of UX strategy will be impactful if it doesn’t fit the narrative of a company’s brand. Crafting a compelling story that shines through the basic ideas, the design’s look and the delivery of the product is essential for having a successful website or product launch. That said, the power of a creative agency equipped with UX researchers and designers is having the ability to strike that sweet spot between head-turning innovation and an understanding that leaves customers feeling appreciated – ultimately making it more likely for them to return to the company’s website or product in the future.