User Centered Design

My Favorite Three Product Experiences in 2016

Let's face it, 2016 has not been the easiest year. I'm writing this day after we lost Princess Leia, and everyone seems ready for the ball to drop in Times Square in a couple days. At least my beloved Cubs ended their long championship drought.

To balance out the negativity, I felt like sharing some positive during the year in the form of some amazing products. These are examples of products that stood out to me as a User Experience specialist. And no, I was not involved with these products in any way (although I wish I was).  

Hala Stand Up Paddle Boards:

Over the summer, I was invited out to do a little Stand Up Paddleboarding (SUP) and quickly realized how much I missed being on the water with a paddle in my hand. I decided I was going to invest in an SUP and get myself on the water as much as possible. I knew I wanted an inflatable board for storage purposes, but I didn't know much else. The local retailer showed me the Hala SUPs, and I immediately fell in love. 

What immediately struck me was the backpack that comes with the board. Most of the other boards come in duffle bags that look like they are difficult to carry around. The Hala SUPs come with a backpack that also has wheels. This allows the paddler to carry it just about anywhere at 20 some pounds, or to drag it through the airport for the epic trip they are about to embark on. The idea of taking the board up to a lake 2 or 3 miles from civilization just triggered my outdoorsy sense of adventure. And what a bonus if I wanted to bring it along on a trip that was a bit too far to drive. 

I can tell you that this SUP got the job done when I went a few miles up a dirt road to a lake in the middle of the San Juan mountains. In just minutes, I was on the water enjoying the solitude. And when it looked like the weather was going to turn, I was packed up within minutes and driving away.

Every time I was on the board this summer, I felt like someone was reading my mind when they designed the board and the backpack. It is easy to tell the product is targeted for that adventurous, loves to travel paddler. The designers at Hala did their homework in understanding their users, and developed a product that I know I will enjoy for many summers. 

Progressive's Mobile App:

One of the low points of 2016 for me was getting rear ended in a car accident in stop and go traffic. Luckily there were no injuries, but it is still a scary experience to be in that situation. As we waited for the patrolman, I started thinking about insurance, getting my car fixed, and what a pain the whole thing was going to be. 

I opened up my Progressive phone application so I could exchange my insurance information with the other driver, when I noticed there was a menu selection to start a claim. Interesting...I could get my accident claim started right there on the side of the road. All I had to do was answer a few easy questions about the accident. Then it allowed me to take pictures of the damage as part of the claim report. I clicked the pics with my phone, and within 5 minutes of opening up the app my claim was submitted. 

Did Progressive have all the information they needed for the claim? No. But they called me the next day to gather what they needed from me. What impressed me was that they kept the questions simple, and it kicked off the whole process with very little thinking on my part. Wondering if my back was okay and if the passengers in the other car were fine was a much larger priority for me than filling out a detailed set of questions about the crash on my phone. 

The application asked for just what was needed in a stressful situation. It did not add any stress to my situation. The fact I was so impressed with the design in that moment should say a lot to group that built and designed just enough and not anything more. 

Barracuda Luggage:

A friend of mine showed me their new Barracuda luggage while in Chicago recently. I was immediately blown away, and was lucky enough that someone checked it off my Christmas wish list. 

This luggage is a travelers dream. Are you tired of searching for a place to plug in your phone at the airport? It comes with a battery pack in the suitcase. Having trouble finding a place to store your luggage? It is collapsable and comes with a bag that you can hang up in your closet. Airline lose your luggage? GPS tracker! And I haven't mentioned the nice, ergonomic handle that makes it a little easier to navigate those tight crowds. 

I can tell someone who has had a lot of headaches while traveling really thought through these problems. It is another example of a product where I feel like someone was in my head and knew exactly what I needed before I realized it. Suddenly, I'm looking forward to traveling more...even if that means more TSA in my life. 

Bottom Line:

The common thing that brought my attention to these three products was how much they grabbed my attention with a great User Experience. It is easy to notice a bad design and complain about a bad product. It is also easy to overlook a good user experience, because it is almost invisible and just fits what someone needs. To feel like someone interviewed me as part of the user research process for their product is a testament to the hard work that had to go into it. 

I'm all about doing my homework when it comes to User Research within UX. I feel like a lot of places are forgetting this or shortcutting this process. So a tip of my hat to these three products that made my 2016 a little better. 

My Favorite UX Tool

I have enjoyed watching the maturity of the UX field over the years. When I went from curious observer to Usability Engineer, the only tools I had were PowerPoint for design and a Usability Study template to test those designs. Over ten years later there are a wealth of applications and research techniques available in the UX Designer’s toolbox. As exciting as it is to see this growth, it can be be overwhelming as well. Like a plumber or carpenter, it takes years of practice to know what to grab out of the toolbox for the task at hand. Through my years of experience I have found my favorite to pull out of the UX toolbox are Personas. 

It may seem interesting to some that I would pick a deliverable which causes debate on how much value it truly adds. I believe when created well and utilized appropriately, Personas are a key factor to building a successful User Centered Design process. In a way, it is logical: Personas are representations of actual users. And User Centered Design is…well, design that is centered around the users and their needs. 

I have had a lot of success using Personas as a way to train my teammates on our users. When I present a new one to my teammates, I make sure I explain who provided the inspiration behind them. Their goals, their frustrations, and why they are using our product are all highlighted. A well presented Persona can save everyone a lot of tedious usability study recordings, and yet still get a feel for what makes the users tick. 

Not only are Personas great for raising user awareness on the development team, but I have seen them used successfully in other departments. Service and Support managers utilize Personas I have written as part of their new employee training. One of the coolest and most bizarre moments of my career was watching a Product Manager put on a wig and act like one of our Personas as part of a Sales Training course (he nailed it). Admittedly, watching one of our salesmen sweat during this exercise while painfully losing "the deal" with one of our more sassy Personas was kind of fun. 

I am not going to spend a lot of time on the basics of writing Personas. There are plenty of templates out there that serve as a good starting point (just Google Persona templates). I will provide 4 tips on how to make your Personas great:

Make sure your Personas are based on people you have met:

This may seem obvious, but it can be obvious when a Persona is based on assumptions and second hand information. Using only secondary research and assumptions will lead to a generalized Persona that is hard to relate too. A big part of the reason to use Personas is to help the team identify and empathize with the users. There is no need to make the difficult climb to a User Centered Design environment that much harder. It is also difficult to identify and prioritize user needs around a Persona that is too general. Generalized Personas are usually a sign of a lack of focus on priorities. 

Get out there and talk to the people living and breathing your product on a day to day basis. I actually believe you can create a great Persona just talking to 1 or 2 people. Some will say you need to talk to 5-7 people, but I would suggest creating a second Persona so you can capture some of the differences in personalities of your user base. Face to face interviews are ideal, because it is easier to pick up on the personality quirks that make each and every one of us unique…and thus making your Personas unique. 

Capture the Emotions:

To quote Amy Cueva, “Emotions matter”. None of us are robots, and neither are any of your users. (Although, it might be cool if we re-check this statement in about 10-20 years.) Sticking to the facts about a job does not really capture the reality of the situation. People get frustrated when things do not work well, and get a great feeling of satisfaction when they accomplish a difficult task. Avoiding the negative emotions and finding ways to trigger the positive emotions are part of the goal of good Experience Design. 

Capture these emotions as part of the Persona write up. Tie them to their work goals. Write a narrative about their daily life. What makes this person get out of bed in the morning? What are their aspirations? How can the experience you are designing make their day better? A great story captures the attention of your audience and helps get better buy in for a design. The most powerful healthcare presentations I have attended usually involve a story of how a medical error damaged someone’s life. 

Now you have some Experience Goals to focus on along with your prioritized user needs.

Do not let your Personas get stale:

People change and so should Personas. As a product matures and changes, so will the use of the product. A mistake I have made is putting up Persona posters in my office, and then leaving them there. If it appears that I forgot that I put them there, why should I have expected my teammates to remember them as well?

Ideally, Personas are called out in requirements and user stories so they cannot be forgotten. Regular check-ins with teammates to make sure they understand which users and their needs they are addressing helps as well. I recently started writing, “what am I thinking today” thoughts for my Personas as a way to share recent feedback from User Research Interviews. If you have a Persona named Beth, then start a “WWBD” campaign to raise awareness. 

Personas are not a Primary Research replacement:

The interviews have been conducted, the Personas are written, and the development team is buying into them. No need to keep up the User Research, right? Wrong! User Research never stops, and nothing can replace the power of interacting directly with your users. The market is always changing, meaning the goals of your users are probably evolving as well. Getting complacent can cause a big miss in learning about new user needs and requirements. Get out of the office!

In Conclusion:

Following these steps can help create a very powerful tool to pull out of the UX toolbox. My favorite aspect of Personas: they are a great empathy builder. Telling a good story, capturing emotions, and even role playing have made this a very fun way to help my teammates realize there are real people out there relying on us. And ultimately for UX, it is about the people we’re designing for.

Prioritize Design with Principles

In the world of software things rarely work out in an ideal fashion. This is especially true when operating as a UX “army of one”. My experience as the lone UX Designer has taught me that I cannot accomplish everything UX in the same manner as I did when I was part of a great design team. User Research reports turn into executive summaries, fewer design concepts get developed, and other UX deliverables become nice to haves that just don’t happen. Through the frustrations I have learned the importance of prioritization and focus. 

One of those UX deliverables that becomes a nice to have is a UI Design Pattern Library. Design Pattern Libraries are a great tool to promote consistency across a product or an enterprise of products. When done well it can lead to a smoother, easier to learn user experience. However, they take a very long time to develop making it very hard for one UX designer to give it the focus it needs. 

I was glad to see Peter Hornsby’s recent UX Matters article on using Design Principles over standards and patterns. Not only is creating a Pattern Library a lot of effort, but I have to agree that patterns can lock designers and developers into the way things have always been done. I believe that User Experience is a group activity. Which is why I like to encourage developers to challenge my designs, and find ways to deliver the best possible user experience within our technical constraints.

Design Principles create a foundation for the open ended discussion that pushes for a better experience. They become a guide during design reviews. When tied to specific emotions, they can help build empathy for the users within the team. And ultimately, they can help create a desirable design culture.

Here are a few simple design principles that I particularly like to live by. These are inspired by Lean UX principles, the HIMSS elements of a usable EMR, and over 10 years of design experience:

  • Safety First: This one is the most important principle in the healthcare domain, as patient lives are at stake when software or a medical device is not run properly. Design solutions need to make sure we protect our users from causing themselves or others harm. It should be hard to make errors, yet easy to recover from them.
  • Know who you are designing for - This is one of my favorites as it focuses on the importance of User Research. Know the personas, their goals, their workflow, and have empathy for the roadblocks they come across. 
  • Build what is relevant – A good design solution solves a specific problem or problems that have been well researched. Do not build “cool” features that do not solve an actual problem - that seems to only work for Apple and social media applications. This principle goes hand in hand with keeping the designs simple so as to not overwhelm users with information overload
  • Prioritize! – Once you know what is relevant, focus on the primary tasks and the important data needed to complete those tasks. Make the most critical data easy to see and access, and show anything secondary elsewhere to reduce clutter. This is another principle that relies heavily on solid User Research and keeping designs simple. 

This is by no means a complete list. These principles are some of my favorites that I work with to deliver usable designs. I like to keep them simple, sweet, and easy to explain. I also make them easy to see by placing the list in places where the development teams have their meetings. 

Bottom line - a solid set of principles are very important tool in the UX toolbox, especially for the lone UX designer.