With technology being increasingly cheaper, quicker to implement and easier to use, the barrier to entry is low for anyone with an idea. With that, there are more competitors, and many businesses questioning the ROI of their digital spending. No more can businesses justify $100k on websites that are just pretty, with no consideration of the return. Social, Search & a good customer experience is how businesses have to differentiate, and this, of course has bred the newest, shiniest job title on the block since 20 year olds with an iPhone and a Twitter account were called Social Media Strategists: The User Experience Expert, or “UX”.
It certainly sounds sexy. But there are a lot of people, particularly in the last year, who are attaching the word “UX” without fully understanding what that actually entails. The User Experience field is actually very broad, encompassing everything from looking at the customer service team in a call centre, to choosing icons in a piece of software. People specialise in various areas, from Usability and Accessibility, to Information Architecture, to visual design & interfaces, to Persona Building and empathy-exercises.
As diverse as the discipline is, here are some of the things User Experience consultants should have in common:
1. They are strategic, multi-disciplinary thinkers.
User Experience tends to require a more holistic approach to digital than “what to put where”, and it begins with the project objectives — in other words “what problem are we trying to solve?”. But I also go one step further and align it with broader business strategy (business growth, cost saving).
I ask about the business. I ask about their customers and try to talk directly to them as much as possible. I work with customers to identify clear objectives for the project. I sit down with as many people from the business as I can, to get a true sense of what we are trying to achieve, and whether there are any roadblocks to that.
2. They tend to be pragmatic about design.
Designers who are not strategic just “make things pretty”. They generally follow trends, and recreate what they think is in fashion now. There is a big debate between designers, that frankly, I don’t understand, of flat v skeuomorphic design.
A designer will be focused on just the elements and how they look. A User Experience person will see the role that both have to play and generally not hit others on the head with a strong opinion.
Why is this? Because we know that a) design is subjective and b) there is no universal definition of what constitutes “good” design, because…
3. They look at the numbers.
Everyone has an opinion on “what users want”. I know from my experience that everyone from my mother, to developers, to print designers, have doggedly extrapolated their subjective opinion as a universal experience.
There are a whole range of cognitive biases (count them!) that UX researchers try to allow for. It is not an exact science, and a maturing discipline, but, like never before, we can rely on quantitative data as well as qualitative to make better design decisions.
If this sounds too geeky for you, basically this means that if you have the opinion that a button should be moved from left to right “because that’s what users want” — you should prepare to back it up and produce some data. Because, aside from “best practice”, there is nothing but opinion without the numbers.
4. They are OK with being wrong.
What is most interesting about User Experience Design is not in trying to define a universal “best practice”, but in realising that, like in any area where humans are involved, there is a high level of variability and exceptions to every rule.
This is why it comes back to the numbers, for example, around small business websites v enterprise, and the customer base. It has been shown on more than one occasion that sites that are less “polished” can have higher conversion for a Mom & Pop business, because they feel more accessible and “friendly”. Same with font choices — while designers may recoil in horror at the use of Comic Sans, it can actually convert in the right circumstances (yes, it pains me too…).
Having set ideas about anything to do with what is, effectively, a people-oriented discipline, is the quickest way to get it wrong.
5. But… the numbers aren’t everything
If you are looking at your Google Analytics and you say “only 5% of my visitors use my site on mobile”, but you do not have a mobile-optimised site — well, that is a sign of a UX problem, not a justification for not investing in mobile.
There are some industry wide stats that are somewhat Universal, and mobile & social are two of them.
Similarly, an experienced UX will not make assumptions about users based on data alone. I recently worked on a project where a client looked at the stats and said “oh, wow! The Our Team section is the most popular section of the site! We should put X & Y on the Our Team page”, got all excited, before realising that there was a navigation issue that meant it was just the first page they went to before giving up.
This is why UX has to be more holistic, so you don’t waste resources chasing something based on assumptions about users (that rarely pan out to be true). If there is something markedly surprising about the stats in comparison to experience, best practice and even gut-feel, it warrants investigation and further testing.
6. They are willing to pivot.
When you get your data in, the UXer will happily pivot or lose functionality to make improvements for users, rather than be married to a specific design, or element.
A creative or developer will often fight back on elements or functionality, because they personally think it is “cool”, rather than it adding value to the user. A UXer will be willing to switch at any given moment if it means improvements for the user in the long term.
Of course the answer to all of these comes back to a well designed process, clarity of process and testing, testing, testing. And, wherever possible, investing more at the beginning stages of a project in User Experience consulting — not as a token wireframe deliverable, but as a well thought out process that puts users at the centre.