5 UX principles learned from building apps at my own startup.
The process of design is inherently a process of learning. Designers start off by conducting research and testing prototypes—then after shipping, dive into analytics, A/B testing, and user-feedback for further insight.
This is necessary because UXD deals with what some refer to as wicked problems. People are so unpredictable that it's nearly impossible to know how they'll respond to a given design. So the best way to find better solutions is to learn your way into them through a persistent cycle of discovery and creation. There's no such thing as a finished design—only a more informed one.
In a broader sense, user experience is intricately tied to shifts in technology and culture. How do expectations change in light of AI and automation, AR and VR, or IoT and ambient computing? How will a new generation of kids, brought up on social media, think about work, meaning, and love? As the world continues its relentless march forward, so too must the discipline.
Given of how essential learning is to design, I try my best to get below the surface of the problem, by learning from real-world situations as quickly as possible. This means engaging with real users to solve real problems, using a real product. The following is a typical UXD workflow:
As you can see, I've bucketed the steps into two groups: Above the Surface and Below the Surface. Steps Above the Surface are essential: they provide the preliminary insight necessary to define and create an initial product. They test the product concept before it's actually specced. But I've found that no matter how thorough you are here, you will always operate with some degree of abstraction—and as a result, make decisions from assumptions that may or may not be true. This area feels safe; it's where designers have the most ownership and can exercise the most control, but it's dangerous to over-rely on.
To me, it is imperative to recognize what is abstracted and work to verify it as much as possible. And there's nothing better for accomplishing this than getting Below the Surface, where you are putting a real product in front of real people, to get real feedback.
An important side-effect of this is that logistical considerations (e.g. how much is feasible to build, in what time) exert a constant pressure to reduce, reduce, reduce. They push you to focus on core value creation and resist the natural enthusiasm for more features. Furthermore, they emphasize collaboration, encouraging you to engage more with your teammates in engineering, marketing, and business development.
Every step is essential, but the best lessons are learned Below the Surface, with the real world as your teacher.
Cherish the user, in mind, body, and spirit. In my three years running a software company as CEO, Product Manager, and principle User-Experience Designer, this is by far my greatest lesson.
It took me some time (and many painful mistakes made) to relinquish the "head in the clouds" thinking that I was conditioned with as an architect and truly internalize this value—and more still, to understand the design patterns that are commonly used. What does it mean to cherish the user? It means to:
As a designer, it is my responsibility to align my goals with those of the users (not the other way around) and to help them accomplish their goals as efficiently as possible. In most cases, this just means getting out of the way.
Match the right patterns to the right tasks, keep things consistent, and remove unnecessary steps and distractions. In this sense, UX can be highly objective: it either works better or it doesn't (and in the majority of scenarios, the "usual" works better).
An inventory product for a person in the field is different than one for a person in the office. How does the design fit into a broader context, to make a life experience better, as opposed to only what's found in the UI?
Despite how diverse people are, there still remain bodily and mental attributes that we all share. For example, when people view web pages, their eyes move in an F-shaped pattern, starting in the top-left (skipping what appears to be navigation or banner ads), then scanning in an staccato rhythm from left to right, before darting to the beginning of the next row and scanning again. And on smartphones, the natural limitations of the hands form a "curve of reachability" across the UI. These attributes should be designed for, to ensure that important information can easily be found and important actions easily taken.
There is a great deal more to consider in this realm—such as how cognitive load can be managed or how patterns can be broken to influence behavior. Underlying it all is a general rule of thumb: the closer you get to intuition, the better.
Maya Angelou once said: "People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." She captured, so well, how central emotion is to the human experience.
When conducting User-Experience Design, then, I find it crucial to design for emotions in my work. I frequently ask myself: What is the user's emotional journey? How does it ebb and flow? Where can I bring joy or reduce frustration? Should people not step away from this experience better off than they were before?
There are even functional reasons for this: Providing positive feedback can encourage activity that both users and stakeholders benefit from. Making onboarding more fluid and delightful can improve user empowerment, engagement, and retention. And UIs that "feel good" tend to be considered easier to use, even if they're arranged the exact same way.
However, not all approaches are created equal. Which brings me to my next point:
As the landscape of digital experiences has evolved and become more engrained in daily life, I feel this now warrants a point of its own.
Certainly, there’s little merit to the silly, deceptive, or bad-mannered UIs that we frequently encounter—like hiding the “Cancel Subscription” button or mimicking system alerts to steal attention. But these are benign compared to a new kind of practice that’s growing in the industry.
Increasingly, technology companies are employing codified psychological techniques (what they call “behavioral engineering”) to maximize the attention that their products command. They range from the more benign, such as auto-playing algorithmically selected videos (YouTube), to the more manipulative, such as prioritizing incendiary content in News Feeds and engineering addictive, dopamine-based feedback loops (Facebook).
Perhaps the most alarming example of this is the Snap Streak feature in Snapchat. Social media companies, whether they admit it or not, are in a perpetual race to capture the attention of kids because they’re where the money will go in the future. The Snap Streak is essentially a record of how many consecutive days you’ve used Snapchat to engage with a particular friend. The moment you skip a day, the streak is broken and you must start over again. Now this doesn’t sound like that big of a deal, but it’s painful to break a streak—particularly so for kids. As a result, the Snap Streak has proven effective in addicting children not by making them feel good for starting, but by making them hurt for stopping.
Clearly, this is not good for the users (even though they don’t seem to mind), but it’s fantastic for Facebook and Snapchat, who sell our attention to advertisers for revenue and are deeply motivated to demonstrate growth. And this the crux of it: these companies aren’t evil, but the market demands of this kind of “attention economy” relentlessly nudge them into morally dubious ground—some unwittingly, through a thousand tiny steps, and others more complicity (e.g. Snapchat, Uber).
A growing body of literature is showing that many of these techniques correlate with detrimental effects in society, such as increased depression rates, the erosion of meaningful relationships, and drastically reduced attention spans. Yet it’s also been shown that good that can be done! Some products have employed the same techniques to motivate better habits, such as exercising, eating better, or quitting smoking. And cognitive behavioral therapy is becoming more and more mainstream, helping people to lead more mentally healthy lives.
Now, more than ever, it’s important to be aware that there are shades of morality in UX, and to make sure we know where we fall.