deltatre

A Quest for Change in User Experience Design

Jeff Bezos once acknowledged that “people who were right a lot of time were people who often changed their minds”.

In his vision, the smartest people are “constantly reconsidering a problem they thought they’d already solved” thus being open to new points of view, ideas and even contradictions to their own way of thinking.

Changing vision, or change as a general concept, is indeed a central part of our everyday life as product/UX/interaction/whatever-you-want-to-call-us designers.

Everything changes at a rapidly increasing pace: technology, processes, tools, user needs and wants, and most of all the business we work in. We all know that.

We also know that change is difficult to cope with, especially if you do it on your own. That’s why it’s so important to listen to other people’s points of view and experiences. And that’s what conferences are there for.

I recently attended the Future of Web Design 2015 conference in London, where change (and particularly the need to reconsider our way of working as designers) was one of the main topics tackled by many brilliant speakers.

The following are the three aspects of change that I deemed more interesting to share.

From pages to content chunks

The advent of responsive websites/apps forced designers to rethink their workflows. How can you start jumping in Axure, Photoshop or Sketch if you don’t even know on which devices your work will be viewed on? What dictates your design? What can we consider a page?

During his workshop, Steve Fisher proposed to start from a different perspective.

It all begins by defining what he thinks should be the pillars for every project: Audience, Vision, Design Principles and Goals.

Then, instead of diving into designing pages, Steve’s approach focuses on working out the content strategy first. It does so by working on content chunks, atomic pieces of content that will compose our pages, and assigning priorities to them based on the pillars defined before.

Priorities will in turn dictate these chunks placement in content templates that will be coherent across different screen sizes. Design as we traditionally meant it (ie. full comps) comes only at this stage.

From processes to frameworks

Starting off with a project vision, is a recurring theme in many talks. Dan Mall spoke about it (calling it “manifesto”) during his keynote on designer processes and the need to shift towards frameworks.

In Dan’s opinion, a framework is like a football pitch. Working on sport everyday in deltatre, the comparison immediately grabbed my attention.

Just as a football pitch provides rules for players to observe during a match, so a framework provides a set of rules to apply in each project, rather than fixed steps of ‘processes’. Then, just as a football game plays out, so projects will evolve differently according to their peculiarities, the context and, obviously, the players involved.

One of the most interesting elements of his framework are “Element collages”, initial visual explorations or, as Dan puts it, “translations of concepts into visual hooks”.

I find it particularly interesting because it allows Visual Designers to creatively sketch quick ideas right after the project kick-off, without having to worry much about the layout of entire pages or even wireframes that have not been started yet. It also makes the whole design process more iterative: Interaction Design informs Visual Design, but it also happens the other way round.

From space to time

Space and time. This seems huge, doesn’t it?

Don’t worry, nothing complex. We’re still talking design, not astrophysics. Yet.

A lot has been said about The Guardian responsive redesign, with its year-long beta period and the huge design effort that led to its current version. In his talk at FOWD, Chris Clarke (UX Architect in the “next guardian” project) gave us interesting insights about what actually happened.

It turns out that the project radically changed direction when the team realised how the amount of content you display on a piece of screen (they call it Information Density) is not primarily a matter of space, but rather of time. Or, better said, how much time users perceive it will take to consume it.

Thinking of content from this perspective reshaped the direction the design was taking. Pages were designed alternating “slow” and “fast“ content blocks, that coped with the three main use cases they identified: Update (“I need to know what’s happening right now”), Extend (“I want to gain a deeper understanding of a story”) and Discover (“I want to be shown something new about the things I’m interested in”).

The bottom line is that sometimes the key is looking at your work from a different perspective: it may lead you to unexpected pleasant surprises.

Wrapping it up

Changing habits, perspectives and ways of working are hard. That’s pretty normal: it involves risk, getting out of the comfort zone, starting off something new. Moreover, it means doing something in which we’re not experts anymore.

If this really scares you, this latest bit of advice given by Dan Edwards, may help: “Allow yourself to be a beginner. No one starts off being excellent”.