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How to improve usability by leveraging design best practices

Have you introduced a new concept? Why? Is it necessary?  Can you get rid of unneeded concepts? Are you reducing distractions – unnecessary clutter? Are you providing only the necessary steps? In a priority sequence? (Progressive Disclosure)

Introducing a new concept is an expensive and time consuming process.  You need to introduce, design, develop and support the concept.  This requires time, effort, $$$.  Therefore, it’s a good idea to show only the most important options.  Apply the Pareto principle, also known as 20/80 rule, the law of the vital few, principle of factor sparsity.  This principle states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects comes from 20% of the causes.  Management consultant Joseph M Juran suggested this principle and named it after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto.  Applying this principle to user centered design, 80% of user satisfaction will come from 20% of the concepts or features.  Therefore, it’s important to focus on the key concepts or features that make your site or app usable.

Revisiting 4 principles from Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think

This is a classic on usability. Steve Krug states that good design is where you do not have to think about how you should interact with the design.  Good design is actually a lot harder to notice than bad design, in part because good design fits our needs so well that the design is invisible.  Bad design baffles, confuses, distracts, dissuades, frustrates. 

Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug

1 – GUI leave the user staring at a cluttered screen. If something requires user to spend a large investment of time to understand, it’s less likely to be used.
• Never make the user devote a millisecond of thought to whether things are clickable
• Make each screen self-evident, so just by looking at it the average user says ‘I get it’
• Make it simple. Make it memorable. Make it inviting to look at.

2 – No one reads the instructions
• Make it simple. Make it fun to read.

3 – Occasionally, time spent reinventing the wheel results in just that – time spent reinventing the wheel

4 – Test, Test, Test to find out if it really works

Other factors that impact usability –

  1. The aesthetic-usability effect refers to users’ tendency to perceive attractive products as more usable.  People tend to believe that things that look better will work better.  Apple’s success is an excellent example.

2 – A mental model is what the user believes about the system at hand.  This model is based on belief, not facts.  Each user has his/her mental model.  Understanding the concept of mental models can help you make sense of usability problems in your design.  When you see people make mistakes on your site, the reason is often because they’ve formed an erroneous mental model.

Mental models are deeply held internal images of how the world works
Image Credit: APAN Community

3 – Consider adding a signature element like the iPod’s scroll wheel. It took four generations of iPod before it tipped. What is interesting is that the industrial design (ID) team, led by Jonathan Ive, has been able to accomplish this, and still preserve the essence of design language. 

4 – Design shouldn’t be unusable. You don’t need to know how to work a telephone switch to make a phone call, or how to use Hoover Dam to take a shower, or how to work a nuclear-power plant to turn on the lights. 

How critical is UX for the success of your project

The level of criticality of UX determines the amount of investment you should make.

Generally speaking, UX is important for most UI driven sites and apps.  However, sometimes UX may not be directly important.   For example, a back-end service that populates data from one source to another happens in the background and does not have UI or UX component.  Therefore, while the service should work with no errors, user may not be even aware of such service and has no direct interaction.  This matrix outlines the general attributes that define the level of criticality of UX.

ImportanceAttributes
4Major new UX platform or new to the world of UI

Requires designing the full UX architecture

User Experience is central to the business value of the project

Many users use the UI frequently

Successful use heavily impacts customer and partner satisfaction and is critical to business

The quality of design impacts the company brand
3Complex UI or difficult UI design problems

Requires redesigning major areas of existing UI

User Experience is one of the major goals of the project

User errors may result in critical data loss or other system problems

Successful usage impacts many customers and partners directly or indirectly and is critical to the business operations

The design impacts the experience of other company products
2Solving major user pain points

User Experience is part of the business case for the project, but not a major one

Many users but used infrequently or few users but used frequently
1Incremental UI improvements

UI is not central to the success of the project

Few users or UI is used infrequently

Project is useful but not vital tool for users

Two key roles – UX Researcher and UX Designer

Research fuels the design process

It’s important to understand the different types of UX roles since they help you define the structure and composition of your team.  Primarily, there are 2 types of roles – UX Researcher & UX Designer. 

Two key roles - UX Researcher and UX Designer
Image Credit: Berkeley Boot Camps, New Breed Marketing

UX Researcher

The primary work of UX researcher is to provide answers to the most challenging questions in the design of the product.  UX researcher reveals what the users need from the product or service by conducting primary research, exploring user behavior and motivation, and working with the product/service design,  program managers, developers, testers, management, business and other stakeholders to develop new product or service features or update existing ones.  UX researcher assists the user experience team in understanding the user’s experience with the product or service and advises on how it can be made more simple, intuitive and easy to use. 

Revisiting 4 principles from Think Like a UX Researcher

Think Like a UX Researcher by David Travis will encourage you to think beyond the obvious preconceptions of UX research. You’ll learn how to plan and conduct UX research, analyze data, persuade teams to act on the results.  You’ll develop a more strategic view of product design that helps you focus on optimizing the user experience. It shifts the popular dichotomy of quantitative versus qualitative into attitudinal versus behavioral data.  This helps you evaluate the strength of the evidence more critically.

Think Like a UX Researcher by David Travis and Philip Hodgson
Think Like a UX Researcher by David Travis and Philip Hodgson

1 – This book emphasizes the importance of psychology and experimental design
2 – User research implies a focus on users only. In contrast, UX research encourages a more strategic focus on what really matters – the user’s experience.
3 – Quantitative data simplifies complexity, qualitative data articulates it – Emmet O’Briain. Quantitative research in user experience shouldn’t be done at the expense of the more qualitative side. Sometimes speaking to a handful of people gives you much more useful information for your product than surveying thousands.
4 – Research is not just about cranking out methods and doing studies. Research is primarily a way of investigating and thinking about a problem. Put on your Sherlock Holmes hat and think differently about the problems that you’re trying to tackle. Avoid being gullible, develop healthy skepticism, challenge things, sharpen your thinking faculties.

The second type of role is Designer.   There are different types of designers – UX designer, UI designer, Visual designer, Animation designer, Content designer.  Let’s look at each one.

UX Designer

User experience design is often concerned with architecting the blueprint of a system, which includes UX research, translating business requirements into design, information architecture, wireframing, testing.  UX designer –

  • Explores many different approaches to solving a specific user problem
  • Ensures that the product flows logically from one step to the next
  • Develops and maintains design wireframes, mockups, specifications

UI Designer
UI designer ensures that a consistent design language is applied across the product –

  • Focuses on the visual layout of the product
  • Creates workable prototypes, typically in HTML+CSS+JavaScript
  • Creates a cohesive style guide
  • Maintains consistency in visual elements

The boundary between UI and UX designer is fairly blurred and it is not uncommon for companies to combine these roles.

Visual Designer

Visual designer deals with static assets like color, typography, layout, illustration, personality, branding

  • Crafts beautiful visual elements like icons and controls
  • Makes use of suitable typography
  • Sweats the small details that others often overlook and frequently operates at the 4X to 8X zoom level in Photoshop

Animation Designer

Animation designer creates animations, deals with what the interface does after user touches it, decides how a menu slides in, what transition effects to use, how a button should fan out, etc.

Content Designer

Content designer creates different content types, taxonomies, metadata frameworks-

What has most value

At Microsoft Engineering India, I institutionalized design thinking across 7 business units with the goal of improving usability of Microsoft’s internal engineering applications by 20 – 50%.  Established the value proposition of design thinking by delivering on successful pilot in HR domain.  Architected & designed AskHR, a LUIS powered bot, to reduce volume of tickets by ~35% and response time by ~25%.  Conducted contextual inquiry, created personas, user scenarios, prototypes to articulate productive end user experience. 

Additionally, I pioneered outreach program cross company within India in collaboration with Microsoft’s engineering, sales, marketing groups. This program evangelizes the insider’s view of business and engineering best practices from how Microsoft run its digital transformation powered by Azure at scale. As part of the outreach program, pioneered breadth engagement on design thinking with engineering undergraduates in India. This engagement delivered average mindshare 45K attendees/year.

Ramesh Chandak pioneered breadth engagement on design thinking with engineering undergraduates in India.  This engagement delivered average mindshare 45K attendees/year.
Ramesh Chandak pioneered breadth engagement on design thinking with engineering undergraduates in India. This engagement delivered average mindshare 45K attendees/year.

How do you determine the level of criticality of UX for your project ?

What design best practices do you leverage to improve the usability of your applications ?

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