User Experience: “By the Book” vs. Reality

by | December 10th, 2013

After graduating with a degree in user experience design, you may have some big dreams. Ready to conquer the world with The Nielsen Usability Principles tattooed on your arm, you aspire to be the next Jony Ives. You sign on to do extensive, user-centered research and analysis for a revolutionary product that will blow away every existing social network and mobile app. After it launches, you finally prove to your engineering friend that better products start with the user, not the technology. Nice dream, now wake up!

Unfortunately, the academic system presents UX in a way that does not always match up with the realities of professional design work. When it comes to the real world, users aren’t always going to behave the same way they do with students. Rather than getting an enthusiastic thumbs up from the first design iteration, I often use every single one of the tools in my design utility belt. And this is not the only difference I have found during my career. Let’s take a look at three situations where this misalignment between what you read in books and reality exists in relation to user experience design for web development.

User Experience Situation 1: A Deficiency of Real Users

In the academic world, interviewing at least twenty-five different users prior to doing an actual website re-design is required. Well, that’s what the textbooks say, and that’s what the instructor expects to see if you want to get that shiny A+. Unfortunately, in real life, deadlines often preclude this much research. And when it comes down to it, Client X just wants the re-design to be finished before their biggest conference of the year at the end of next month. It seems like the majority of clients care little about how you get things done, as long as it gets done well.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I strongly believe we should try our best to get as much raw user data as we can when designing a product, especially if we have the time and resources to do so. However, sometimes we must rely on existing usability principles, personal knowledge about cognition, and good old human experience during those times when we can only get three user interviews completed before wireframing must begin. Often times, getting a project done involves more than one of the common approaches to design:

  • User-centered design – Users guide the design based on their needs and feedback

  • Activity-centered design – Designers create tools for specific actions, which the users perform

  • Systems design – Focuses on parts of a system for which the user has goals

  • Genius design – Uses the skills and experience of a designer, which are validated later by users

From my experience, I’ve found that a skilled designer can consolidate large amounts of data into relevant categories and extract big ideas from limited user research. The designer who can do both of these is well-prepared for almost any project, regardless of the number of users readily available.

Situation 2: The User Is Not Always Right

This phrase is taboo among some user experience designers. I even remember a point in time back in college when I was convinced that the user is absolutely, positively, always right. I mean, isn’t this what user experience design is all about?

  • Seeking to know the users well

  • Asking users about what they want to see in a product

  • Using these answers to inform the design of a delightful, user-friendly product


(iPhone photo from Flickr user Janitors, Plane photo from Flickr user Planephotoman)

Actually, some things work out just fine without relying intensely on user-centered design. The iPhone is an example of a project based on the genius design approach. And Southwest Airlines ticketing and boarding is an example of systems based design.

But these examples also show us what user experience design is all about: users do not always know what they need. When that happens, what users say they want is not always what they need. Therefore what they say is not always right. Jakob Nielsen popularly stated that we must “pay attention to what users do, not what they say.” Let’s explore this a bit more, shall we?

Tom Chi and Kevin Cheng. “All of the people, all of the Time.” OK/Cancel, 2006.

For decades, there has been disagreement between users and designers. Users think they are designers, and designers think they are users. It’s an easy trap to fall into, and I’ve found that a product ends up being less than successful when these roles are skewed. During the development process, there are going to be times when a user will think they know exactly what the product needs. Sometimes they will, and sometimes they won’t. Our job as designers is to:

  1. Identify users’ true needs and goals

  2. Separate those needs from any unrealistic ones

  3. Design a beautiful product that will satisfy the stakeholders

Yes, we must listen to our users, but it’s more important that we understand them on multiple levels, apart from what they say.

Situation 3: User Research Is Not Everything

As a young cognitive scientist and user experience designer, I took a class that focused on user-centered research techniques and methodologies. Design implementation was the goal, but we were graded on the techniques and methodologies used to approach design. During this class, I was able to test and refine several research methodologies, including:

  • User interviews

  • Contextual inquiries

  • User profiling

  • Competitive analyses

  • Open surveys

I started to develop a bias towards user data over other forms of valuable data, such as click tracking and web analytics. However, through my course of study, I realized there are benefits to both qualitative data and quantitative data.

SolidWorks Usability Testing.” CAD Fanatic, 2009.

Today, I still strongly advocate collecting quality user data and allow it to inform a product. But I have come to appreciate the value other forms of data hold in the research and the design process. At PINT, we are proudly data-driven, on several levels. We are holistic in our research methodologies. We not only seek to understand how the user will experience a product, but also how statistics and engineering can contribute to the best user experience possible. This is a robust approach, as it covers every aspect of a product, from the back-end to the front-end. As much as we designers need to be creative user advocates, we also need to recognize the limitations of various systems. That way, we can build solid user experiences in the real world, while still delighting users as if they were the center of our universe (which they are, in many cases).

Academics Are Still Worthwhile

Despite the realizations I have come to in the professional world, academia is still important. It is essential to our development as designers, because just as users inform the design, theory informs the way the design is accomplished.


The author at work.

Solid theory still produces a solid product. However, theory is only as good as the project on which it is applied. That is one of the most important things I’ve come to learn as a designer, and it has been immensely beneficial to my growth as a user experience professional.

References:
Jakob Nielsen. “First Rule of Usability? Don’t Listen to Users.” Nielsen Norman Group, 2001.
Joshua Brewer. “You are not your user.” 52 Weeks of UX, 2010.
Tom Chi and Kevin Cheng. “All of the people, all of the Time.” OK/Cancel, 2006.
SolidWorks Usability Testing.” CAD Fanatic, 2009.