I am a user experience designer with experience designing, developing and leading the creation of software products. I am seeking an opportunity to work with a team that is passionate about building great technology products.

Being a Designer

It’s been just over a year since I moved from being a software engineer to being a designer. In making the transition I have had to change a lot about how I function. This post is a small and incomplete list of things that I have had to get used to for me to function as a designer.

Getting used to Uncertainty
Working as a designer has meant getting used to a certain level of uncertainity. In the engineering world, you get a project, understand the expectations, create a plan as per the existing process and get to work. As a designer, things are not that linear and clearly laid out. I find myself a lot more unsure about how to begin, how to establish what is really required, once a direction is established, how to know whether this direction is the right one or if its missing something.

Trying new things…
To deal with this uncertainity, and lack of a defined path, I’ve had to rely on trying new approaches. I have created my own user research techniques, defined and redefined visual models to aid and validate my understanding, created new documentation formats tailored to the needs of particular projects. I have also learnt to become comfortable throwing incomplete ideas and approaches in discussion without worrying too much about them being right or wrong.

Bringing more of Me to my work…
As opposed to engineering which is precise, design is subjective and often quite personal. Different designers approach the same problem quite differently because design is not just informed by user needs, it is also informed by personal opinions and philosophical standpoints. And with good reason. When you are working on conceptualizing a system, which does not exist today, as you might be on some design projects, you have a really broad playing field. There can be hundreds of different approaches that can be taken, how do you narrow it down to just one? You rely on as much user research that the project timelines allow you to do. You try to get a lot of opinions. And importantly, you rely on your own opinions, philosophies and values to show you the way.
For me this has meant learning to trust my gut, being open to different viewpoints and being comfortable taking a stand based on what I believe in.

The Friction
As a designer you often work with multiple stakeholders with different priorities. While your priority maybe the user needs, an equally valid priority is maximizing profits or reducing development complexity. Add to that the subjective nature of our work and you have a recipe for constant friction. As a designer, I have come to accept and now even enjoy disagreements and debate. I believe as long as you remember that all the stakeholders are as commited to building a great product as you are, you actually gain a lot from the debates even along the lines of improving the user experience.

 I’d like to end with 2 lovely quotes that seem very appropiate in this context:

“ It’s about realizing that there isn’t always a right or a wrong way of doing things,
There’s not always a correct answer,
Only the answers we create.”

“…Try and drop the assumption that you know how to do things,
and already know the solution.
Stray away from the direct path.
Take risks.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes,
because it’s only from the mistakes that we learn,
and it’s from the mistakes that the really interesting things happen.
We may not always create or invent,
but we always learn when we try.”

 (Source of quote: http://bit.ly/dU8SdY)

How the failure to understand design contributed to Nokia’s downfall

A friend sent me a link to this very insightful blog post by Adam Greenfield, the former head of design direction for service and user experience design at Nokia. The post is titled (for some reason) ‘Nokia: Culture will out’  http://bit.ly/gfNIxV

I think it does a great job of articulating some of the problems that exist in many organizations today, including my own, where design is not given its due.

Quoting some particularly insightful points here, in the order that they occur in the post:

“This was that you could no longer think of mobile phones as communication devices. You had to conceive of them as interface objects through which users would experience content and command functionality that ultimately lived on the network.”

“Of course you still want to produce your offering for the lowest achievable cost — but that cost is bound up in intangible, nondeterministic dimensions of design, in ways that are only partially- at-best quantifiable.”

“It’s just not particularly wise to allow engineers to make decisions about things like product and service nomenclature, interface typography and the graphic design of icons: they’re, I daresay, not even neurocognitively equipped to do so.”

“My point is merely that, at Nokia, engineering has been allowed to displace what is properly the company’s design prerogative almost entirely.”

“It’s not that the NFC-based, phone-to-object interaction didn’t work. Of course it did: it had been engineered perfectly. But what it hadn’t been was designed.”

“A designer committed to the user and the quality of that user’s experience gets this in a way only the rarest engineer seems to.”

And this one I thought was a particularly brilliant insight for me, maybe because I am an engineer by education and a designer by passion:
“Designers are also, by training and predilection, inclined to design for the usual, where engineers are taught a kind of rigor that compels them to account for, and overweight, low-probability events.”

“I have to conclude that it’s this inability to even perceive the clear makings of an unacceptably bad user experience, let alone address them as profound obstacles to success in the marketplace, that leads to situations like this.”

The Value of Design to the Software Business

Why this now?
I believe today there is significant curiosity around design in part because of the need for innovation after the economic crisis and increased focus on environmental issues and in part thanks to the work of IDEO, Frog, Stanford d School, TED in evangelizing design and design thinking as a means to achieve that innovation.

At the same time today, I believe there is a poor understanding of how design adds value to business. Though IDEO and many other design firms have done a good job of talking about the design process and the results some organizations have enjoyed as a result of this, a lot of talk today is about design thinking being the magic solution to all your problems. I think this needs to change. I think it’s important for us to talk about the specific areas in which design adds value. What specific areas of business can design add value to. Why exactly should an organization adopt design and what specific benefits it can expect to reap from it.

In part my motivation to do this has also been the fact that while I feel that I and others in my team are adding a lot of value to the products we work on, when it comes to explaining what we do, I find it hard to explain.

This post is my attempt to articulate what I have gathered as the value add we provide as UX Designers. A lot of these points are generic and are true for other fields of design as well.

What value does user experience design add to business?

I believe design delivers value to business along the following 5 dimensions:

  1. Insight
  2. Innovation
  3. Visualization
  4. Simplification
  5. Beautification

1. Insight: A deeper understanding of the customer, his/her unmet needs and desires.
Design Research
One of the key values of design is human centeredness. Once designers have a problem statement for a product or interface to build, they start to understand who would be the potential users of their product, what is their level of understanding of the product and of the context in which the product exists. If similar or analogous products exist in the market (even if they exist in completely different domains), how do users use them, what are their good and bad experiences with those products.

Through such open ended and qualitative research designers try to build a mental picture of the potential users of the product. This mental picture is then converted into artefacts like personas, tasks and prioritized usage scenarios. These give the product team of designers, developers/ manufacturers and business managers insights as to who are the users that they are building this product for and what really matters to them. This allows the team to make better decisions of which features are important and which are not, how to organize content, what is the relevant content at each step of the workflow.

2. Innovation: New or significantly improved solution to a problem.

  • Defining the problem right
    Given a problem to solve designers rarely take it at face value. They will keep asking ‘why?’ till they can find a way to state the core problem in its most abstract essence. They may also use their own user research to augment their understanding.

    E.g. In the documentary Objectified, a film about the industrial-design process, a group of designers charged with designing a new toothbrush asked the unobvious first question: Why does it have to be a toothbrush? With that starting point, they eventually redefined the problem as “creating the future of oral care.” Defining the problem in this way leads to a wider range of solutions, maybe an entire product line.

  • Divergence
    A prominent and unique feature of design education is that it stresses on divergence, the generation of multiple solutions to the same problem. In John Kolko’s talk at CMU, I heard him talk about assignments where they would be asked to make 50 different toasters in a short period of time, and select 3 of the best solutions and generate 50 more starting from there.

    This divergent approach is one I have seen good designers around me take for design problems that they are working on. This approach is taken for problems of all levels, starting from the overall idea of the solution down to finding the right button. No matter what the problem, after getting the problem definition right, they quickly start generating many solutions and then select the best one or create a new one integrating the best elements from the solutions generated. Not stopping at the first obvious solution is one of the main reasons that designers are so innovative.

    Tim Brown from IDEO says this often in his talks, quoting someone (I couldn’t find the original source), “The first step for having great ideas is to have a lot of ideas.”

  • Innate desire to do things differently
    Another observation I have about designers is that a lot of these folks just love doing things differently. Now just doing things differently is not innovation in itself but questioning the status quo and having the courage to try new solutions is a necessary step to innovation.

3. Visualization for Improved Communication
Businesses today rely heavily on verbal or textual communication which inherently leaves room for ambiguity. It often happens in the software services industry that what the customer tries to convey is different from what the business analyst understands, and what the business analyst tries to convey is different from what the developers understand and thus the final product often differs a lot from what the customer originally had in mind.
Designers are typically visual thinkers, they think by drawing. They continuously create visual models to aid their understanding. Bringing in designers into the team helps the team visualize and reach a common understanding at various stages in the development cycle. The use of visual models reduces the need for onerous documentation while improving clarity.

In the early stage of the project, while the team is grappling with understanding the domain, the requirements and various workflows, designers might create visual representations of the domain fundamentals, representing various entities and their interrelations, the various actors on a system and their roles. These serve as a means of quick interchange between the team and validation from the subject matter experts.

As the project proceeds and the user research begins, personas, comical/ photographic scenarios and user journeys help the entire team visualize why and for whom they are developing this product. A lot of times when the team is confused about how to proceed developing a particular feature, their questions get answered by thinking “how would Smitha (a persona) use this feature?”

As the requirements get clarified, designers start building visual prototypes, typically wireframes, and start testing them with real users to see what places they get stuck, how long it takes them to figure out how to complete their task and then complete it. These prototypes are also continuously validated with technical and business teams to ensure that the proposed interface is technically feasible while meeting the business objectives. Gathering feedback, designers refine these prototypes and repeat the cycle. The approach of continuous prototyping helps reduce risk through improved communication and continuous validation.

The prototype- test-refine-iterate cycle creates visual prototypes that are extremely useful in quickly getting all stakeholders on the same page about what exactly needs to be developed even before the dev team writes the first line of code.

4. Simplification: Make things only as complex as they are, no more.
When users come to a website or an application, they are trying to achieve an objective, for example booking an air ticket or finding articles on a particular topic.

The interface is just that, an interface, between them and their goal and thus it needs to help the users achieve their objectives as fast as possible based on what they already know.

Thus some of the key objectives of usability which is a subset of UX design are:

  • Increasing Speed
  • Reducing user errors
  • Making it as easy as possible to recover from error.
  • Reducing need for learning.

Aiming at the above objectives, there are many ways that designers use to achieve them. A small subset of possible ways is:

  • Understanding the capabilities, knowledge and domain specific terminologies of the target user group and aligning the interface with the same.
  • Trying to organize data the way users organize it in their head.
  • Asking for data only where and when it is necessary
  • Aligning with the established conventions in a field.
  • Use of colours, typography etc to draw the users’ attention to more important items and reduce visual distractions.

Improved usability has a strong impact in highly competitive spaces like ecommerce where if the user doesn’t find the product on your site, he will look for it somewhere else, places where safety is at stake like cockpits of aircrafts, places where speed is essential to the job at hand/ profitability like interfaces for customer support executives etc. For a more detailed analysis of where usability is important, please refer to my earlier post Who cares about Usability?

5. Beautification: All else being equal, the better looking product is a better product.
This is the most visible aspect of our work and we usually get requests where the customer already has the product ready but they need to make the interface more ‘jazzy’. Designers rebel against this image of mere stylists, because it devalues our thought process, our intellect and I agree with that view. But I would still say that making things look better is still a key value add that we provide, because of the sheer impact of this step.

So how do designers manage to make things look great? You might be tempted to say its talent, creativity, artistic ability etc. While all of those are quite true, there is a lot more science to it that you would imagine. Alignment, symmetry, visual hierarchy, proportion, proximity and many other such logical factors add up to basic visual hygiene. Then comes the layer of appeal, though it is more intuitive, there too there are patterns which can contribute to appeal. Designers know these rules and patterns, either explicitly or implicitly, and understand how and in which contexts to apply these.

The impact this makes on users is quite profound, purchase/ usage decisions of users are often quite subjective. Sensory appeal often plays a key role in these decisions. Thus and importantly, all else being equal, the better looking product is the better product.

This is a summarization of my evolving understanding of design and its implications on business. Over time this understanding has been aided and questioned by many of you and I thank you for that. With this post, I would love to hear feedback from both the business and design angles. Do let me know what you think, either through comments or on my email address lukwhostalking@gmail.com

As a personal aside though, I feel that I am spending too much time thinking about the value of the work I do and not enough doing it. Though this framework will help articulate the value of design but while designing, it’s probably best to just forget all frameworks and thoughts about value and just lose yourself in the work.

Bridging the gap between Design and Business

I have, for a while, been thinking about the value that design adds to a product/ service and how to articulate that value to the decision makers so we, designers, can get a chance to play a bigger role in the development cycle. I have come to realize that there are 2 ways to approach the problem.

1.      Designers talking the business language: As designers in the work we do, our processes, our reasoning etc is all quite qualitative and implicit. And this qualitative approach allows us to observe and value individual users, their experiences, their motivations, their ‘a-ha’ moments instead of relying on broad (and boring) statistics alone. This empathy is what drives our creative process.
But this puts us at a disadvantage while dealing with the decision makers because more often than not, they’re more interested in statistics and (to borrow from Roger Martin) reliability. I believe if we have to increase our impact in an organizational environment, we need to be able to articulate the value that we add in a language they are familiar with. This means measuring the impact of our work not just qualitatively, but with numbers and not just stopping at task completion times and error rates but articulating how improving these numbers impacts the bottom-line of the business. How many dollars of revenue did we add? How much did we reduce the support costs by? I dream of a day when we can base our fees on the impact of our work instead of an hourly rate.

2.      Exposing the decision makers to our style of work: This is an approach that firms like IDEO and Frog are propounding today. Bring in the managers, the engineers and involve them in our brainstorms, our prototyping. Do not restrict deliverables to just the end design but deliver the insights, the user stories, the personas etc.
Involving them in our processes helps in 2 ways:

a.       Demystifies our work: It helps them understand what we do, why we need the extra one week to observe shoppers in the supermarket, why we have all the post-its on the walls and how each of these things adds value to their end product.

b.       Improves buy-in on the final solution: If the key decision makers have been involved in conceptualizing the solution we are proposing, they will be much more inclined to go that extra mile to ensure it is executed the way we, together, envisioned it.

I think this is a really exciting time to be a designer because today we are at a point where a lot of people are beginning to look at us for innovation but to achieve that critical mass will take us that much more effort. And we have the responsibility to bring about this change because at the end of the day, we will gain the most out of it.

How good UX Design can reduce your Carbon Footprint

I am constantly in search for ways to articulate the value that design and more specifically UX design adds to an organisation. While discussing this with a product manager of a banking product, he explained this to me. This banking product is deployed in banks across the world with millions of transactions taking place through it daily. Consider one transaction which is repeated about 200,000 times every day. Now this transaction requires the teller to fill out a form. The average field filling time in this industry is 30s to 1 min. Considering even 30s… that means every field we reduce on a form improves productivity by 100,000 minutes and thus reduces energy usage. Every field we fail to reduce costs 100,000 more minutes of energy consumption. That’s a big responsiblitly!
It was an interesting perspective and one I’d never thought about.

Finally, I am a Designer!!

I guess I should have put this up sooner. About a month and a half ago, I finally got a job as a … wait for it… 😉 Senior User Interface Designer at Infosys. This is a great move because it allows me to think about design all day, learn from my peers and seniors and work on real projects. I love the debates I have with the folks around me about design, what we do, what we should do etc. I love the fact that when designers around me talk about design, they hold it up in such high regard. It’s not something to be taken lightly. It’s design!! There are books that talk about what it means to be a good designer, the way a good designer should conduct his business. It’s almost like a religion. 🙂

I have also been contemplating, what is the real value add that a designer brings to a project, since it seems to me (maybe prematurely) like design is something anyone can do with a bit of empathy, a keen observation and strong focus on customer satisfaction. I have come to think, that the role of a designer is to act as a bridge between the users and the team. To understand the users and ensure that the understanding is dispersed through the team. Our job is to make every one understand and think from the user’s perspective in addition to the technology and business perspectives.

Anyway, over time I have been pleasantly surprised some of you have told me that you have been reading my blog or have given me a perspective on a post. So if you have been, thank you for reading and aiding my understanding of design. Stay tuned for more, I’m just getting started!

Who cares about Usability?

This post has been in the making for many months. When I started to think about getting into usability and UxD, I started to think… Who really cares about good usability? I mean people learn to live with bad interfaces as long as they can achieve their goal. Think about IRCTC (the Indian Railways online ticketing website) or ICICI Bank’s online banking and trading portals. They have poor interfaces, lots and lots of poorly organized data on each page, and yet people use them because they can achieve their objectives. As another example, I love Cleartrip but when they started charging extra money for booking, I started booking on the airline websites, which are much worse in their usability. Given these, I thought, which business in their right mind, would spend a lot of money on usability? (which is essential, so I can get a lot of money doing it!) Or think about it this way, how much does good usability really impact business?

After many months and many conversations here is my list of some places where I think usability really matters.

1.      Highly competitive spaces
Think about e-Commerce. There are hundreds of online shopping websites out there. If the user can’t quickly find what he wants on your website, he’ll just find another one. If the product cannot be found on your website, as far as the user is concerned, it does not exist on your website.

2.      Places where usability has safety implications
Aircraft cockpits, car cabins, controls in say the office of a nuclear plant. In these places, if the user hits the wrong switch at the critical time or doesn’t get the right feedback or fails to recognize an alert, it could lead to a loss of many lives.

3.      Interfaces where speed is essential
The example I think about here is call centres. While an agent is on the phone with a customer, he/ she not only needs to have all the information that the customer might need, he/ she also needs to know where exactly to find it and fast! Consider a typical call centre, lots of customers call every hour with lots of different questions. The agents are under pressure to complete each call as fast as possible because the more calls they process the more money the call centre makes (directly or indirectly depending on the business model). Add to that, these places have very high attrition rates, 30-40% attrition is common, so the company can’t spend too much training their agents. Thus the agent needs to be able to find the data he/she needs in minimum time with minimum training.

4.      Self-help websites
Take the example of online banking or portals where a telecom operator puts up information like the current bill amount, schemes available etc. These help not just the customer do his work faster but also help the businesses save millions in customer support. The alternate to an online money transfer for example would be customers coming to the bank, which means the bank needs more agents and thus higher wage bills. The alternate to checking you bill, validity, offers etc online would be to call up customer support, which is a cost to the company. Thus self help websites need to allow the average customer find the information/ execute the tasks easily and intuitively.

5.      Not Facebook!
Well earlier I used to think that social networking is such a competitive space, you have to have a great user experience for the user to chose your product over another. I have come to realize, however, that people have already invested so much in Facebook (/ your favourite social networking site) with their contacts and conversations and photographs and groups that unless Facebook screws up really bad(Which is what happened/ is happening to Orkut in India), people are still going to use it despite Idiotic (!!) additions like Live Feed and News Feed!!

So that’s my list so far. What do you think? Where else does usability really matter? And where else does it not matter? Let me know…drop me a line. Ok gotta go.. Facebook calling 🙂