Putting people at the centre of software design

That button is there for a reason. User experience – or, as the kids say, UX – is at the heart of building apps, software and websites. When it works, it’s invisible; when it doesn’t, it can be incredibly frustrating.

Putting people at the centre of software design

It’s no longer good enough to have an idea for an app or web service and then hire back-end developers and front-end designers to bring it to life. Now you need a UX expert too, to help those building the project to understand what users want and how to deliver it.

The key is making the software work well, says Webcredible UX consultant Alexander Baxevanis.

Looking nice is still very important; many people will make their evaluation of a product on how it looks

“Looking nice is still very important; many people will make their evaluation of a product on how it looks. But how it works is equally important,” he says. “If they can’t figure out how to use it, or they can’t find why they’d be lin this piece of software, they’ll very quickly put it to the side.”

Get talking

The first step in software design, according to the UX faithful, is talking to people. This of course includes potential users, but developers will also have discussions with stakeholders, such as the bank commissioning the new payment app, product managers, engineers and more. The end goal is to use this knowledge “to try to design a good service around that,” according to Cennydd Bowles, a design manager at Twitter.

“Your classic UX process is to spend quite a lot of time immersed in the world of users,” says Bowles, to uncover why they’d use the app or service, what language or level of understanding they have, and to avoid problems before they happen.

If you think this means running a series of focus groups, you’d be wrong. Baxevanis says Webcredible spends one-on-one time with potential users to understand exactly what they want from the app, and Bowles describes a host of interviewing and sociology techniques that are used to get the right information.

All of this is then funnelled into documents that drive the direction of the design; one popular way of doing this is by creating “personas”, which Baxevanis says are a “presentation of what we found from the research in human form”.

As Bowles explains, the development team will create four or five personas, giving each a name and details to make them “sound human”. So, rather than develop for a “70% male demographic between 18 and 40 who plays online poker”, you picture 33-year-old Jake, who likes online sports betting and Angry Birds. “You have that kind of specificity in mind, and that’s a useful tool to allow you and the rest of the team to put yourself in the shoes of the user,” says Bowles. “If you’re finding it difficult to come to a decision about something, you can all step into the shoes of Jake and say ‘how’s he going to respond to what we’re trying to do here?’”

This may sound silly: how can Jake and four other imaginary people represent an app’s many users? Bowles warns against looking at such research as a “statistically valid survey”. “This isn’t a thorough analysis or survey of all of these people,” he explains. “It’s looking at specific instances of behaviour.”

He compares it to designing a door: if the first five people push instead of pull, “you don’t need to test that with a further 999 people to get up to a statistically valid number. If that door was made to be pulled open, “you now know that what you’ve made doesn’t conform to the expectations of people.”

Lost in translation

In order to be useful to developers, the interviews and discussions had with people need to be translated into those personas and provide insight that can be acted upon. “People will never tell you, in any kind of research, what they want,” says Baxevanis. “They’re not designers; they don’t think in that way.”

He says that the goal is to understand their “latent needs” – that is, requirements they’re not yet aware of In other words, UX experts need to be mind readers. “People may not understand that functions can be optimised; it’s our job to spot that,” he says.

People will never tell you, in any kind of research, what they want

“That’s the dark art, if you like,” agrees Bowles. “The most critical area of UX design is taking research and turning it into valuable insight that you can design your products around.”

These insights and personas will drive every stage of the design process: from deciding whether it’s worth building the product, to its information architecture, the text used, and even the shape and placement of buttons. “Graphic designers may take that research and turn it into mood boards and sample imagery and iconography that might appeal to that user,” Bowles says.

It isn’t only about the graphical element of design, but the choice of words too. As Bowles notes: “if you know your customers refer to a function using a certain word, then you’d be a fool to impose a different one”.

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