Designing the user experience

Posted in User Experience | 18 October 2011

A website, a software application or even a ticketing machine are all examples of design interfaces where the user is engaged in a human-computer interaction (HCI). From a user point of view, whether this experience is positive or negative strongly depends on how the interface is designed and developed – the architecture behind it, basically. Known as User eXperience Design (UXD), it’s a “holistic, multidisciplinary approach to the design of user interfaces for digital products, defining their form, behavior, and content”.1 A complex yet fascinating process that I shall explore from start to finish.
(Cover image credits)

The user comes first

One important consideration is that there is no one single user experience. Instead there are multiple, diversified user experiences, depending on the characteristics of the final users.2
Creating a toolbar palette for a software application is different to designing a website interface. Similarly, an e-commerce website requires a different interface than a university website.

User experiences on the web

The user-centered approach is even more evident when talking about web interfaces. The innate nature of the internet is the absolute and unconditional power given to the end user: they can decide with one simple click whether or not a website deserves a visit, returning to, or a deeper experience. Not only  is updated, useful and relevant information a prerequisite but, above all, a combination of friendly, intuitive navigation; an attractive design; and a logical organisation of elements are among the key elements of a successful website.

UX designers at work

The user experience designers – or UX designers as they are commonly called – try to deliver the most appropriate interface for a particular user in order to provide the most suitable experience. To achieve this goal, the following stages of the User Interface Design have to be fulfilled.

  • The Information Architecture (IA)
    At this stage, the UX designer aggregates the main elements that need to be displayed in the interface into “a coherent structure, preferably one that most people can understand quickly, if not inherently.”3 The UX designer must then provide an answer to questions like:
    How do users get from place to place? What is the application’s search mechanism? How should elements be labelled?
    A site audit (i.e, a usability and accessibility study of the existing website),  plus flows and navigation maps are usually defined at this stage: this gives an overview of the content and sets the foundation for the other stages.
  • Interaction design (IxD)
    This is the core activity of the UX designer. At this stage, the designer is asked to provide solutions to create rich and engaging user experiences. Typical questions are:
    Which features and information are of higher importance, and how do I draw users’ attention to them?
    How should I incorporate the user feedback I am getting from user research, user surveys, and formative and summative usability testing?
    The UX designer can make use of different methods and techniques to get an insight into the user’s expectations when interacting with the proposed interface. The most common are research techniques (observations, interviews, questionnaires, and related activities); personas or user profiles that are reflective of their target user group; scenarios or storyboards, which imagine a future workflow the users will go through using the product or service.4
    At this stage, a website wireframe and/or prototypes are built to give an interface proposal or for the purpose of usability testing.
  • Usability testing
    In a simulated navigation, a selected sample of users “try to find information (or use functionality) on the website, while observers, including the development staff, watch, listen, and take notes.”5
    The results from a usability test identify critical points and give recommendations for improvements. In existing websites, a usability test may be conducted at an early stage in order to give valuable details about the site performance, in terms of user experience. When a website is not available, the UX designer can perform the test on a prototype and/or use the data collected through the research techniques at the IxD stage and the analysis of the IA stage.
  • Visual Design
    This is the purely creative stage of the User Interface Design process. The UX designer can work in combination with visual designers (depending on their own skills and the complexity of the project) to create the actual look and feel of the website.
    Questions like
    What’s the appropriate colour combination, typeface and iconography?
    have to be addressed. Graphic mock-ups and style guidelines are the typical deliverables of this stage. It should always follow the conclusions of the usability testing and the interface solutions indicated in the IxD stage through prototypes and wireframes. Though in rare cases, the graphics may drive the prototyping, depending on the importance of visual form versus function.

1http://www.uxmatters.com/glossary/
2http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User_experience_design
3http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_Architecture
4http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interaction_Design
5http://usability.gov/basics/uc_design_testing/index.html