Workflows and wireframes are the tools in UX to sort out exactly how your users will interact with your product, and why.
As I continue this journey toward a career in the UX world, what I hear talked about the most is the importance of good, thorough user research. Not only is research the foundation for your design, but it can also speed up product development process (by knowing what your users want and incorporation design requirements from the start), which in turn will limit the amount of time and money spent redesigning the product, and also increase overall user satisfaction with the end result. Conducting (good) user research from the very beginning will eliminate wasted time, money, and headache. An all-around win-win situation in my book.
I was listening to an episode of the What is Wrong with UX podcast, hosted by brilliant UX-ers Kate Rutter and Laura Klein, that discussed UX research. One of the hosts made a great comment that has stuck with me to this day. During the process of interviewing candidates to join their team, one of the ways they evaluate a potential new hire is by asking how they would start a project. If the candidate mentions, or physcially goes, straight to the drawing board, they consider that a red flag, because no feasible project can start or end well without a solid foundation: user research.
Whether or not you "subscribe" to the use of deliverables in UX design depends a lot on the methodology you practice as a designer. Where one designer might find it useful, or even mandatory, to produce a deliverable for every stage of the design process, another designer might work within a team that lives and breathes Agile.
Being able to visualize a concrete solution to your problem is at the heart of design, (Goodwin, 2009). Solutions themselves range from finished, tangible products (such as a building or a new piece of technology), or they could be products that provide an "experience" to the user.
There is the danger of the UX designer focusing too much on their deliverables - and becoming disengaged from the larger project as a whole. Diagrams are great when they contribute to the production of the website, diagrams for the sake of making a diagram does nothing to help the ultimate goal. If the document does not contribute to the project, team, or final product, the document has been utilized inappropriately.
Kim Goodwin, "Designing for the Digital Age," (2009).
I read an article this week that really stuck with me, an article about the ten principles of good design by Vitsoe's designer Dieter Rams. Rams set out to distinguish the most important principles of good design, after becoming increasing concerned with the abundance of "bad" design (quotations my own) he observed in the world.
I would encourage anyone to read the full article, but the two principles I'd like to highlight here are, number two, "Good design makes a product useful", and number four, "Good design makes a product understandable". These two principles drive each other and go hand in hand with the objective of the design: if your product cannot be understood, it won't be used; if your product cannot be used, it must not be understandable. I am not sure if it can be stated any more simply: design with your user in mind, and testtesttesttest.
Welcome to my stream-of-consciousness essay on the history of typography and its relation to modern literacy!
A site's choice in typeface might be something that's only noticeable to you if the font happens to be particularly difficult to read, or one that you have a personal adverse reaction to. Think Comic Sans, Curlz, or Desdemona. But even if the choice in font is not immediately noticeable, there is a high likelihood that choosing that particular typeface style was carefully considered, even if you don't instantly have a reaction to it.
Typography has a rich and interesting history that dates back to the first typeface being designed by Johannes Gutenberg in 1439. (Moveable text based in bronze and metal had been around for centuries longer than Gutenberg in East and Central Asia.) Letters were individually designed and carved into lead, and were used in creation of the first printing press. Prior to the printing press, all existing text was hand-lettered, usually in Latin. These texts were mainly religious texts, were costly and hard to distribute, and subsequently stayed within the ownership of the church. Lending libraries too, although extremely rare, were usually restricted to the educated and upper-classes.
An aside worth exploring, but one I won't go too in depth with here, is the rise in literacy that exploded when printing presses made documents, news letters, and other important information able to be easily distributed to the masses. Until printing presses became the norm, it wasn't uncommon for an individual to go their entire lives without learning to read or write, or even look at a book. Books, after all, were usually illuminated texts commissioned and owned by the church. Scribes, as some of the few educated members of society, were few in number and, because religious organizations had the means to commission costly texts, scribes didn't often extend their services to creating information for the public.
The history of typography is vast and rambling, but puts our current ability access to information in stark perspective. Think of the incredible amount of change that had to take place in society, technology, and education for us to simply be able to choose a font and start typing in any style of our choosing. We often imagine learning to write by pen or pencil as the picture of literacy, but what would it be like if you couldn't type? Typing equals being able to spell, which equals being able to read. Our choices in typeface can be philosophized down to such a basic level. Sans serif fonts are hailed as the gold standard for computer-based typography; if you can't read, sans serif or serif fonts aren't going to make much of a difference.
The Golden Ratio is closely related to both the Fibonacci Sequence, and a ratio of 1:1:61. It can be found in nature, architecture, and art. Using the Golden Ratio is a helpful tool for designers to implement both attractive and functional sites that help guide the user in a natural way. An easy way to think about the Golden Ratio when designing, is to remember the Rule of Thirds - dividing the area equally into three sections both vertically and horizontally. You can then sub-divide these sections into further equal sections.
Being mindful of equal proportioning does not mean that as designers, we are held to symmetrical designs as the end-all-be-all of site design. Asymmetrical design can be challenging to implement, but working with balance and movement, and emphasizing motion and color, can make asymmetrical layouts visually appealing. The grid will still need to be in play - if anything, grids will be even more of use to the designer when working with asymmetrical layouts.
Layouts that violate principles of good design are numerous on the web - just search for "examples of ineffective layout design" and you'll receive several hundred hits with listicles extolling the menace of bad design. If you were a user of the web in the 90s, you probably remember the unspoken principle of web design that seemed to state, "If it can be added, add it." Flashing site titles, moving text and images, strobe-like effects, and busy, loud backgrounds underneath busy, loud content seemed to be the norm. For the good of all, we have evolved beyond those times. Continuing to use the Golden Ratio and grids can help us continuing to evolve toward better user experience on the web.
Don Norman concludes "The Design of Everyday Things" with a call to action for all designers and users:
I appreciate the consistent voice Norman helps give to the user, to know that you are not at fault for not being able to work with a poorly designed product, and that good design can do something far more grand that just created easy-to-use products: it could change the world. I share in Norman's dream to see the "rise of the small" - to see individuals come together from all fields of study to continue to develop interconnectedness on a global scale: giving rise to open-source software that anyone can adapt for their open purposes, open-source 3D printers, and open-source education that can help expand access to education in areas where even basic literacy is limited.
These seemingly small tools are efficient, and with good design, can be used by anymore, allowing the user to make huge gains in areas where they were previously limited by lack of availability or bad design.
o A., N. D. (2013). The Design of Everyday Things. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Most adults read automatically - taking note of key words or phrases, but inherently taking in the shapes, lines, and colors of text effortlessly, and using the "leftover" space in our minds to mull over the implications of the words we are reading. Language is an innate human ability - when exposed to other conversational humans, we will learn to speak and communicate as we grow and learn. Reading, however, is a learned skill, not unlike learning how to use a computer, or how to play a musical instrument. Early childhood is an ideal time to expose a new reader to letters, shapes, words, and sounds, the ability to read develops easily as the brain develops and language acquisition takes place; by adolescence and early adulthood, a new reader will require increased effort in order to build to an advanced reading level, (Johnson, quoting Sousa (2005), 2010).
Learning to read is equatable to training our visual system to understand how lines and shapes build to form "patterns of characters" (Johnson, 2010), or morphemes. Morphemes can be combined to form recognizable clusters that we know as words; words combine together in various ways to form phrases, idioms, and sentences, and sentences merge together to form texts of larger meaning, such as paragraphs, from which we can learn to extract nuanced symbolism and meaning.
Johnson (2010) describes the eye patterns (saccades) and how they flow across pages of text, picking out the important words, that our brains then extract further meaning from. He also goes on to explain the distinctions between feature-driven ("bottom-up") or context-driven ("top-down") reading approaches that determine whether a reader has to analyze the subtle differences in line and shape, like, for example, in ideographic scripts such as Chinese, or if the reader is learning a foreign language, or if the reader is able to quickly glance at a line of text and gather the meaning, even if the words are obscured or misspelled.
All of this careful consideration of language quickly becomes moot in the online environment when reading is disrupted through texts that are too small or two large, the use of all caps, undecipherable fonts, and unfamiliar vocabulary. Even strong readers can become frustrated by loud or bright fonts, especially overlaid onto "noisy" backgrounds, with excessive and unnecessary blocks of text. Even the use of centered or right-aligned text can disrupt the automatic eye movements that allow readers to scan text easily from left to right. Poor readers can become even more discouraged, and the ultimate conclusion would be to minimize the need for excessive, difficult reading. Designers should "support reading" and understand the flow natural linguistic processes of how we read and take in information, "not disrupt it", (Johnson, 2010).
Designers should ensure the use of controlled vocabularies, and, whenever possible, plain or natural language; avoid distracting flaws such as difficult to read text sizes and fonts, indecipherable colors and noisy backgrounds, excessive use of blocks of text, and center and right-aligned text; create formats that allow for natural visual hierarchies, making text easily scannable and, (Johnson, 2010).
Johnson, J. (2010). Designing with the Mind in Mind: Simple Guide to Understanding User Interface Design Rules. Amsterdam: Morgan Kaufmann /Elsevier.
The Gestalt principle of Proximity stipulates that the distance between objects in a display affects our perception of whether and how the objects are organized into subgroups, (Johnson, 2014). A website can making meaningful attempts to organize information into groups and subgroups for ease of navigation, but can fail in implementing this principle by including massive amounts of unusable, and useless information that can confuse the user by making them wade through endless number of sub-categories for the information they need.
One usability test that would be beneficial in a scenario where the user is flummoxed with an overload of information to sort through, would be to test exactly how long a user is willing to weed through useless information in order to find what they are looking for. How much time, energy, and patience is a user willing to sink into an information retrieval session before they either give up and try and new tactic, or persevere until they are successful? My untested hypothesis would be that the longer a user searches without successful retrieval of information, the likelihood of that user returning to your website (at least with a recent positive experience in mind) goes down.
Users who experience successful retrieval of information, or who had a positive experience on a website or application with minimal frustrations, are more likely to continue their patronage of a website. On the other hand, a user who feels their time has been wasted, or who did not achieve their desired outcome, might result in that user leaving with an undesirable impression of the website and/or company. The Atlantic magazine forces the user to call their service line in order to obtain the education discount for students and teachers, while The New Yorker magazine allows you to sign up for their education discount quickly and easily simply by inputing your .edu email address. If brand loyalty has not yet been established, which magazine would more likely encourage a new subscriber?
Johnson, J. (2014). Designing with the Mind in Mind: A Simple Guide to Understanding User Interface Design Rules. Amsterdam: Morgan Kaufmann /Elsevier.