Andy Budd on UX Design
Web Designer talks to Clearleft’s user experience director and co-founder Andy Budd. He gives a clear insight into the principles and practices behind the art of UX
The term UX covers a broad range of subjects. How would you describe UX to designers and developers who have a limited, or no, knowledge of the subject?
One of the problems with user experience is that it’s not one thing, but many things. At its most basic level it’s the way a person perceives a product or service, eg “that was a terrible experience.” Because of this, it’s also the natural output of the design process; it’s unsurprising we’ve started to see designers calling themselves user experience designers, because what they do has an effect on the user experience.
However, when I talk about user experience design or the user experience community, I’m using it to describe a fairly well known field of practice that has it’s roots in the world of human-computer interaction and covers disciplines and activities like design research, usability, information architecture and interaction design. So true user experience designers are those with a deep knowledge in these particular areas.
The first step to a successful UX project lies in the planning. What are the five essential steps that a designer/developer should consider at this stage?
I’m not sure I’d agree that the first step to a successful UX project lies in the planning – unless you’re arguing that the whole user experience design process is a form of active planning, or planning through doing. For me the five essential considerations would be:
• Too much planning doesn’t allow for flexibility. Set time-boxes and let the last activity inform the next.
• Don’t make decisions until you have enough information to base them upon.
• Don’t settle on a solution too early. Always allow time for exploration and synthesis.
• Involve domain experts as much as possible. Try to run collaborative workshops and consider cross-functional paring. UX is a team game and isn’t owned by one person.
• Always be sceptical of your solutions and test your assumptions wherever possible.
At the planning stage, what tools and personnel should ideally be involved?
At the planning stage you should gather input from as many people as necessary to build a coherent picture. Similarly, you should use the most efficient tools at your disposal to gain the insights you’re looking for. Typically we’ll have a small project team comprising of a user experience designer, a graphic designer or UI designer, and a front-end developer. We’ll talk to users, clients and important stakeholders. So these could include folks from the analytics team, the marketing department, the tech team, SEO or customer service. As for tools, we set up surveys, run interviews, organise collaborative design workshops and whatever else we need to get the information we’re looking for.
When evaluating a new project, are all the various guises of a site, ie desktop, phone and tablet, considered as a whole or are they all given individual attention?
In an ideal world, companies would create a holistic user experience across all of their customer interaction points. However, due to the size and complexity of most businesses, products tend to get siloed and tackled on an individual basis. This lack of consistency is one of the biggest challenges facing user experience right now.
When planning and evaluating a new project, how much input or influence does the client have in the creative process?
I don’t believe in the old fashioned notion of the creative genius locking themselves away for months before magicking up the perfect solution. It’s a romantic idea – but not an especially helpful one. Modern design is an inclusive process and today’s designer is more of a design facilitator than a creative demigod.
When I hear designers complaining about their clients it’s often their fault. They have failed to explain the process, set proper boundaries and managed client expectations. Consequently, if the client doesn’t feel that the agency is in control, it’s their natural instinct to try and be helpful and start directing the process.
“When I hear designers complaining about their clients it’s often their fault.”
Rather than thinking of your clients as blockers that get in the way of your design genius, it’s important to realise that they probably have a better understanding of their business and their customers than you do. As such, close collaboration is key. So you need to engage with your clients from day one and use them as an important resource to draw upon.
This doesn’t mean that they should drive the project. After all, you’re the professional and have done this hundreds of times before. Instead you have to create a structure that draws the best from your client while still remaining firmly in control of the design process. So ask them questions, involve them in workshops and draw on their experience as much as possible.
The purpose of rebuilding/rebranding a site is to finish up a better product. How much attention is paid to competitor sites and how much of an influence will it have on the outcome of a project?
A critical element of a user’s experience is navigation. How much emphasis is placed on ensuring the right structure is in place and what are your golden rules for creating a navigation system?
As I mentioned earlier, you could argue that design is a form of active planning, of turning a vague concept into something more tangible. So I don’t see the cut-off quite as well defined as you.
Information architecture is a key part of the user experience process and is all about defining structures. It’s also a form of design, albeit a more abstract one. So I would say that ensuring a good structure was a key component of user experience.
As for golden rules, I’m afraid there are none. Instead, good designers will come up with hypothesis based on the information they have gathered and their past experiences, then test these to see if they pan out.
How does the design process evolve, and how much of a completed project is attributed to the physical design process?
Good design is always an evolutionary process; a constant refinement towards some optimal solution. Good design is also a negotiation between competing pressures. So instead of a single perfect solution it’s more like a spectrum or opportunity space.
As for how much of a project is attributed to the physical design process, I’m really not sure what you mean by this. Everything you do from accepting the project to launching it is part of the design process.
Typically, how many designs are presented to a client and how many amendments are made before reaching a final version?
We have an incredibly complicated formula that factors in the number of stakeholders, the overall budget, the expected value of the outcome, the particular season and time of year, and the rotational movement of the earth to output the optimal number of design variations. Sadly, it’s patented or I’d happily share it with your audience.
Seriously, I’m fundamentally against the idea of showing multiple different designs. It turns the process into a beauty contest. We may create a variety of explorations for ourselves, but will usually show the client just one core concept.
We normally start with something pretty basic. Just spending a day or two sketching out the general direction. This is meant to provoke discussion rather than get to a quick solution. We’ll take the feedback on board and keep iterating until we reach a perfect composition. So sometimes we may get there in two or three iterations, other times it could be ten or 20. The limiting factor is the amount of time we’ve allocated to the design process, rather than an arbitrary number of concepts or iterations.
Once a project is completed and handed over to a client, is this the final act for the project team? Or will they have a continuing commitment and involvement in a project?
The launch of a new product should ideally be the start of the process rather than the end. However all clients and projects are different. Sometimes clients use Clearleft to conceive a new product and then take the ongoing development in house. At other times, clients are looking for ongoing support and advice. So, it depends on a variety of things like the needs of the organisation, the maturity of their team and the business context they find themselves in.