User Experience Design Blog

Commentary on strategy and design of interactive products.

Flawless Product Design with a Large Team

January 9th, 2014 by Sergio Paluch

A user experience that is designed by a group should be as seamless and coherent as though it was designed by an individual. When experiences are created by a team of designers inconsistencies are often introduced, making the end product awkward and, in some cases, introducing usability errors. In my own experience, I have found that there are three ingredients to ensuring effective design by a team.

Designate a Design Lead

It is tempting to think that a flat organizational structure in the design team will breed creativity and collaboration, and it may, in deed, do so. However, I have never been on a design team that will police itself perfectly when everyone is left to their devices. The reality is that there are time pressures, demanding clients, and imperfect information, which ultimately inhibit the team’s ability to self-police its designs. It is rare for one designer to shift through everyone else’s designs and make sure that design patterns align and inconsistencies are fixed. Instead, designers often do their best with the time and information that they have. For this reason, it is important to designate a design lead, whose main function is to review everyone’s output and ensure consistency and accuracy.

It is expected that the design lead will dedicate the majority of her time to overseeing work. She will both keep an eye on process to make sure that the team members are not deviating too wildly from each other as well as on the deliverables. In looking at the design artifacts, the lead is tasked with ensuring that designers are following established design patterns. Not only that, the lead must make sure that all the pieces will fit perfectly together and that the design is extensible. It is difficult for each team member to have both a detailed view of their part as well as a global one. Finally, the lead must manage deviations from standards or gaps in the overall user experience. When the lead does her job effectively, she acts as a conductor, making sure that the entire orchestra is in tune.

Vet and Document Patters

Because each designer is focused on their part of the project, it is difficult to keep track of all the design patterns that are employed in the design as a whole. At the same time, adhering to patterns is necessary in ensuring consistency and thus reducing confusion and improving learnability. Not only that, as new designers are brought onto the team, having a central repository of patterns greatly diminishes on-boarding time. Patterns should be identified by the entire team to give everyone an opportunity vet and challenge them. When new patterns are identified, they should be cataloged. When designs deviate from patterns, the team should ensure that they are warranted and possibly if patterns should be updated. Documenting such patterns varied by group and is driven by available technology, skill sets, and organizational constraints. There is not ideal, and it is important to rember that any patterns document is better than none.

Frequent Team Reviews

In order to achieve harmonious user experience, the entire team must collaborate and have a voice in the design. The key is to have consistent, frequent meetings where all members present their work and garner feedback from their colleagues. These review meetings are important for a variety of reasons. First, no one will be able to provide you with feedback than your team members, who are working on the same product and are intimately familiar with it on a number of dimensions. Second, each designer is super familiar with their part and the patterns that they use. Thus, they will quickly be able to identify when a design is not adhering to standards or is inconsistent in other ways. Finally, each designer will be able to immediately see how another members’ will work or not work with their own. This also allows them to plan for extensibility. Although the design lead is responsible for reviewing everyone’s work, a design review that involves the entire team is second to none.

I stress “frequent” and “consistent” because that I have found that if such reviews are scheduled ad hoc they often do not get scheduled at all. It my mind, I find it better to have weekly, even bi-weekly review meetings.

A Finely-Tuned Machine

When a team is not working in unison on a user experience design, the end product becomes confusing, inconsistent, and awkward. That is why it is critical for the team to work together. At the heart of every successful collaboration is communication and transparency. In my experience, I have found that the above practices go the furthest toward reaching that ideal.

Avoiding Agile Disaster

January 23rd, 2013 by Sergio Paluch

Agile development can be a wonderful thing. Unlike a waterfall approach that can be mired with checkpoints, bottlenecks, and other friction, Agile can free organizations to move quickly. However, with that freedom come deleterious consequences. Chief among them is the loss of  product identity, which leads to an unrecognizable agglomeration of disjointed featuresA blob of garbled parts.

A Blob of Garbled Parts

One of the first questions I ask usability study participants is, “What do you think this thing does?” All too often, the answer is simply “I have no idea.” In other cases participants grasp at random guesses. In the case of Agile development, the cause usually lies with a loss of strategic vision.

Agile works in small, fast sprints that focus on features. In this high-paced product development framework, a myopic mindset often takes hold causing the team to lose sight of the big picture. Rather than asking how each new feature will support the overall product strategy and how each feature will work together to form a whole, teams are just focused on the feature-du-jour. The result is a mishmash of disconnected features–an amorphous blob, not a product. When you ask people what they think it is, you are really giving them a Rorschach test.

This is a problem for an obvious reason. No one wants an undecipherable blob of garbled stuff.

How to Spot the Blob

Luckily, it’s pretty easy to identify if your product is an amalgamation of disjointed features.

  • Open yourself to critically examining where you are.
  • Find some people that have never seen or heard of your product, show it to them briefly and ask them what they think it is and what it does.
  • Allow your subjects to interacted with your product for a few minutes and ask them again.
  • If more than half the people you interviewed cannot tell what your product is or does, you have a blob of disconnected features.

How to Fix Your Blob

This is the difficult part. Often, you have devoted so much time, effort and money into getting to where you are, that it is next to impossible to let go and clean up. Here is what to do:

  • Understand that if you do not consolidate your mess of features into a coherent product, it will only get worse and you will lose more time and money.
  • Without looking at what you have, state your product vision. (E.g. a community for people to share documents.)
  • Itemize all of your product’s features and ask whether they support your product vision. (Do you really need a video editing feature in your document sharing website?)
  • Cut all those features that do not support your product vision.
  • Look at the remaining features and ask how they fit together to form a unified product. (E.g. How does sharing by email relate to new user registration?)
  • If you identify features that do not work well with others, figure out a way to better integrate them.
  • Test the final product to make sure that you actually do have a product that people can understand and want.

How to Avoid the Blob

An ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure in this case. It is substantially easier and cheaper to avoid losing the products identity than trying to recover it. Below are the steps to make sure that you build a product with a strong identity.

  • State your product vision if you haven’t already done so. (See above.)
  • With every new feature in the pipeline ask how it will (a.) support the product vision, and (b.) fit within the existing whole.
  • Develop a strategy for each feature to support the overall product strategy and to work seamlessly with the other features.
  • Ensure that the design and implementation of each features meets the above two criteria.

The Infinite Pivot and the Death Spiral

We all know them: start-ups that are caught in a cycle of infinite pivots. (I’m sure you’ve already seen the lampoon Vooza.) Sometimes it’s very obvious that a company is pivoting endlessly; other times it is much more subtle. Agile development is very prone to this chronic condition since it is so easy to change tack. What are the tailtell signs that your organization is stuck in an infinite pivot?

  • Your customers don’t know what your product is or what it does.
  • Every new customer support email prompts a new feature or revision.
  • You are often undoing previous work.

If any of the above sounds familiar, your organization might be stuck in an infinite pivot. Of course, pivoting is a vital step in any new company, but doing it too often will erode your product’s identity and leave you with a blob of disconnected parts as well as a fleeting customer base. When things get bad enough, your product can go into a death spiral.

The Infinite Pivot is really just a special case of the Blob of Garbled Parts, although it arises for slightly different reasons. The main culprit in this case is also a lack of product vision but also an over-sensitivity to customer and stakeholder opinion. What I mean by the latter is that the product heads make new product decisions every time they get a new piece of feedback from a customer or stakeholder. Take, for example, a shopping web site. A few customers write in wanting bigger product images, so the product team updates the web site with bigger images in one sprint. Then an investor insists on making the images smaller to fit more products on the screen, so the images are shrunk in the subsequent sprint. Sound familiar?

A strong product vision would curtail this scenario. Conflicting feature requests would be evaluated against the overall product vision. Do bigger or smaller product images support the product strategy? This is dictated by what kind of online store you are building, which is driven by business strategy.

How to Avoid the Infinite Pivot

As in the case of the Blob of Garbled Parts, the emphasis is on clearly stating a product vision and building a product around it. However, it is also important to develop an effective system for incorporating feedback.

  • Customer insights and stakeholder opinions should be viewed as a whole not piece by piece. For example, how many customers complain about the product images? Do more people want smaller images or bigger ones?
  • Each feature request should be scrutinized to see if it fits with the overall product vision as well as with existing parts.
  • If the feature request makes the first cut, one must guage its feasibility and its priority vis-a-vis other features in the pipeline.

Following these steps should help to ensure that you do not change tack too frequently and maintain a strong product identity.

Stay True to Your Product Vision

In my experience, the most common danger associated with developing products in an Agile framework is focusing on building individual features rather than a product. By clearly defining a product vision and ensuring that all development supports that vision, you can focus on building something that your customers will understand and, more importantly, want.

People Prefer Choice over Better User Experience

June 19th, 2012 by Sergio Paluch

Recent research suggests that if consumers perceive that their freedom of choice is limited, they will often switch to a new product from one with which they are already familiar,  (”Why Dominant Companies Are Vulnerable“,  MIT Sloan Management Review,Winter 2012). The researchers, Kyle B. Murray and Gerald Häubl, explain that this phenomenon might be one important reason why market leaders such as Microsoft lose dominant market share over time. For example, consumers might opt to switch to the Firefox web browser and endure the cost of learning a new software simply to exercise their freedom of choice. Not only that, Murray and Häubl found that consumers might make the switch to the competitor even though the competing product is not as good.

The experiment consisted of websites with different interfaces that allowed users to search for new stories. Some participants were allowed to choose the website to use while others were not. Specifically Murray and Häubl found:

51% of consumers who had no choice in selecting the interface they learned to use switched to a competing website as soon as it was available. By contrast, among consumers who were free to choose the website they would learn to use, only 23% switched to the competitor, despite the fact that other users rated the competitor’s website superior on several dimensions (including ease of use, fun, efficiency and effectiveness)… [We] found that the market leader’s advantage in being able to install a set of nontransferable user skills in its customer base is offset by psychological reactance, a force that motivates people to act against perceived constraints on their freedom of choice.

Murray and Häubl go on to explain:

As people learn to use a particular electronic interface associated with information search or online shopping, for example, they often become locked in and develop extremely high levels of loyalty even when otherwise equivalent competitors are available; the cost of switching outweighs the benefit of using another product. However, our research indicates that the depth of loyalty weakens when consumers feel that their freedom to choose is restricted. Specifically, as people feel that their choice is constrained and that one interface dominates the market, they react against the constraint by turning away from the market leader’s offering, thereby subjecting themselves to the associated costs of switching.

What does this mean for product strategy? Strong-arming customers to stick with a particular product might actually alienate them rather than foster their loyalty.

The Future of Interaction

November 17th, 2011 by Kimmy Paluch

In his article A Brief Rant on the Future of Interaction, Bret Victor counters the status quo and a recent video from Microsoft projecting the future of interaction. Victor argues that, while the future does encapsulate using our hands, the future is tactile and not touching glass or ‘Pictures Under Glass.’

Images of the Future of Interaction

He summarizes his argument as:

In this rant, I’m not going to talk about human needs. Everyone talks about that; it’s the single most popular conversation topic in history.

And I’m not going to talk about about technology. That’s the easy part, in a sense, because we control it. Technology can be invented; human nature is something we’re stuck with.

I’m going to talk about that neglected third factor, human capabilities. What people can do. Because if a tool isn’t designed to be used by a person, it can’t be a very good tool, right?

Read the rest of this article »

UX Design and Business

October 27th, 2011 by Kimmy Paluch

A few months ago, I received an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management. As a UX designer, it seemed a strange choice to many I spoke to about the decision, but I’ve been a long-believer in the convergence of design and business. Furthermore, the need for collaboration between all the roles in the product development cycle has been a recurring theme both on this blog and in the wider community. Collaboration is greatly improved with mutual understanding, and thus the MBA serves as a great linkage between an engineering and design background to the business disciplines, including product strategy, marketing, and business management.

Signs of Convergence

Evidence of the mingling of design and business abounds. The convergence can be either very concrete, such as merged managerial-design roles, or less so through collaboration.

Don Norman, the father of user experience design stated in 2008 that UX professionals need to “learn to speak the language of business,” including using numbers to sell  ideas. In his 1998 keynote address to the Human Factors society, he mentioned that “four equal legs [of product development] are required for good product design, all sitting on the foundation of the business case.” In a Nielsen Norman Group report, Norman gets into either further detail by describing the organizational design that supports these principles of effective product development and collaboration. It has been a common drawback of each of the elements of product development to struggle for power and overlook the essential contributions of each “leg.” A recent article from this year at UXMatters nicely addresses the issues of power vs collaboration for the UX leader.

Obviously one of the big companies that has highlighted the integral importance of design in business is that of Apple. In 2005, in the wake of the iPod’s success, Bill Breen of Fast Company wrote about the Business of Design and the “design-based economy,” which has clearly gained even more momentum over the past decade. Design and business complement each other in so many ways that the field of  ‘Business Design’ is spreading in schools and companies alike, most notable of the latter is human-centered innovation consulting firm, IDEO.

What the MBA provides

Beyond a broader perspective to apply the user-centered approach, I have gained a better understanding of cost-benefit analysis, marketing process, techniques, and goals, competitive strategy, organizational dynamics, team building and incentives, and executive managerial issues. These fundamentals allow me to think beyond delighting users now, and thinking about long-term success for the company and the user alike. Compromises in the development cycle are necessary and it’s making the right compromises that can make or break a company or product. Furthermore effective collaboration across disciplines requires understanding each side with an appreciation for what each brings. Irreconcilable differences that can often happen between marketing, engineering and designers can end up surfacing in a product’s experience.

The more strategically we can think as designers, the more effective our recommendations can be within the businesses in which we work, and as a result the better the final experience can be.

Please share your comments and other articles on this issue as I’m constantly trying to track the convergence/intermingling of these disciplines.

Market Research and the Primitive Urges of the Consumer

March 7th, 2011 by Kimmy Paluch

“The trouble with market research is that people don’t think how they feel, they don’t say what they think and they don’t do what they say.”

ThirdSight Software on a Smartphone Decoding Expression

The BBC reports on an upcoming breakthrough for market research, currently being developed. Dr Roberto Valenti of the University of Amsterdam and Dr Theo Gevers.

The two have established a company, ThirdSight, to take advantage of computerized emotion recognition (decoding emotions from facial expressions). ThirdSight has successfully run its software on a smartphone, but the team acknowledges that results are not yet perfect, requiring a researcher to oversee the software, because it cannot decode context or hidden meanings. For instance, it considers both a happy smile and a bewildered smile as ‘positive’.

This technology poses some promising power in the future of market research.

Read full BBC article »

Design Research and Innovation: An Interview with Don Norman

January 11th, 2011 by Kimmy Paluch

Great words of insight (as usual) from Don Norman in an interview with Jeroen van Geel on Johnny Holland Magazine. He talks about the gaps between academic research, design studies, and design as well as topics on innovation, emotional design and design thinking. In regards to design thinking, he refers to a previous article that he wrote (which I re-read recently and highly recommend): Design Thinking a Useful Myth. Highlight quotes from the interview and link below:

On the difference between researchers and practitioners:

One wants deep understanding, the other wants to know what to do next. One is happy as soon as an idea has been demonstrated, even if it is held together only by tape, string and mirrors–that is, even if it only works on special cases and requires careful attendance and repair by the research group. The practitioner wants something complete, robust, and reliable. Researchers are incapable of delivering this; they are too curious, too driven to learn new knowledge. The practitioner is too practical.

On emotional design and websites:

Everything has a personality: everything sends an emotional signal. Even where this was not the intention of the designer, the people who view the website infer personalities and experience emotions

On getting inspiration:

Stay curious. Always be learning new topics [...] And I talk mostly with my critics.

Read the full Don Norman interview on Design Research and Innovation.

Baidu Focuses on Usability Not Proliferating Features

September 13th, 2010 by Sergio Paluch

A recent Financial Times article, “Functionality remains Baidu’s priority“ (free registration required), juxtaposes Baidu’s product development philosophy with that of its chief rival, Google. The piece states that Baidu focuses on making functionality that allows the average user to get things done, while Google’s approach is pushing out a ton of “cool” features and hoping that some of them will stick. I don’t know that I quite agree with the author or Ms. Mengqiu’s assessment of Google’s product strategy, but I certainly applaud Baidu’s commitment to making features better rather than making more features. From the article:

Wang Mengqiu, senior director of technology and products, says Baidu’s product development philosophy differs from rival search company Google’s focus on “very cool” technology. “Our logic is different – we think about what users need most,” she says.

…“I don’t care that many people say Baidu can’t innovate,” she says. “You have to ask whether completely new things are needed.”…

She says Baidu would never have developed a product such as Google Earth, for example. For China’s nearly 500m internet users – Baidu’s target market – Google’s interactive world map has very little value, she argues.

“It is a dazzling, very cool product, but really think for a moment. The users we need to consider are not just high-end, well-educated users,” she says.

The Real Life Social Network

July 14th, 2010 by Kimmy Paluch

I loved this presentation by Paul Adams of the Google UX team. He explores designing for real social networks by examining relationships, influence, identity and privacy.

The entire presentation is extremely well done, and the discussion around relationships and our online versus offline social network truly illuminates important factors in social design.

Read the rest of this article »

Content Strategy and UX Design

July 6th, 2010 by Kimmy Paluch

In “Fusing Content Strategy with Design”, David Gillis gives a very good summary of content strategy and its interplay with the overall user experience strategy and information architecture. The leading advocate for the field, Kristina Halvorson defines the field as such:

Content strategy plans for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content.

Necessarily, the content strategist must work to define not only which content will be published, but why we’re publishing it in the first place.

I particularly like the way he discusses the importance of setting contexts, using context maps, to better integrate content with the overall experience (see example map below).

Example context map from "Fusing Content Strategy with Design"

Example context map from "Fusing Content Strategy with Design"

Such discussions all point to the importance of a fully integrated product experience process where content certainly plays a very big (and often overlooked) role.




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