Focus on UX, amazingly, can still get sidelined on a project where tastes and opinions dominate.
Short of attempting the impossible and appealing to everyone, satisfying project managers (or even the designers themselves) rules decision-making. As an afterthought, UX gets reduced to making sure the end product works, and leaves it at that.
So how can designers help reassert the importance of UX on projects where image rules?
The Burden of Taste
Designers can be cursed with good taste.
From color schemes to fonts, layouts to content organization, the science of getting the design “right” becomes an art in the hands of the right person. But while there may be no disputing tastes – even with those who apparently have none – there is still an important role for hard facts in putting good design to work for users.
UX is different. While subjective to a point, it is worth doing testing and trials to actually observe, measure, and evaluate what works and what doesn’t. Every project should be guided by real interaction with actual users, and careful attention paid to their needs, both spoken and unspoken.
Making assumptions about what constitutes positive, effective UX is worse than making personal judgments about what is attractive, or other matters of taste. After all, taste is ultimately subjective. User experience is quantifiable.
Observe and Report
Observant design means both listening to feedback from testers and users, as well as observing their actual behavior interacting with your design. For web designers, there are fortunately some great resources to help track and measure user behavior, like Google Analytics. Given time, money, and some amount of access, setting up trials can also be a possibility.
The important thing, though, is to ensure that protecting your design (or the assumptions guiding development) don’t interfere with getting honest, actionable feedback from users. It is harder to argue with a documented study of user performance, even in early stages of development. The best way to avoid appearing to only be serving some creative vision or matter of subjective intent, is to share the user data.
“…at least if you can demonstrate that you’ve actually gone out and you’re not just doing it based on your opinion or the product manager’s opinion, […] you’re actually doing [it] based on something that is evidence-driven, that’s your best shot.”
The important thing is not to be right or wrong, but to objectively measure how to best accommodate users.
Ask the Right Questions
Obviously, there is a connection between aesthetics and UX; the appearance of an interface does influence behavior, and the ultimate functionality experienced on the user end. But aesthetics acts like flypaper for opinions, and in turn, conflict during projects. Preconceived notions on the part of a project manager, client, or even a creatively-driven designer quickly escalate into contests of vanity.
That makes it doubly important that designers actively observe behavior, rather than simply soliciting feedback.
Before design can even begin, every project needs clear goals and set definitions of desirable user behavior. How will you measure outcomes? What can you identify as success or failure in how users approach your site? What are the metrics you really need to watch?
All aspects of design will serve the answers to such questions. Then, when users actually start interacting with your product, you have a basis for whatever changes need to be made.
Of course, you also have to ask the right people. Every company, every industry, every niche needs an online presence, and an element of design. This reflects a similar diversity of users, and you need to do your best to get a sufficient sampling to understand what all their needs are.
Libraries are going digital, but many patrons may still be thoroughly analog; asking some university students to test-drive an ebook rental system doesn’t really help retirees keep their new iPads loaded with their favorite novels. Recognizing and understanding your users’ needs means taking time to really identify the audience you are designing for.
Learn your audience early on, and then keep them in mind throughout the design process.
Man of the People
Users are often poor advocates for their own needs.
Either because they don’t know any better, or simply develop workarounds to cope with a sub-optimal design, users won’t always help themselves when it comes to improving their own experience.
Great designers aren’t just masters of tools and techniques that get projects done; they are the voice of the users who will interact with their products. To do this effectively, engaging with users needs to be an ongoing priority in any design effort.
Pleasing a client or project manager in the short term is not the same as creating a successful design. To an extent, designers must be willing to do some client education: that is, explaining how to measure UX metrics, what to look for in user behavior and feedback, and how to be responsive to their needs and challenges.
Creating the right set of expectations for a project increases the chances of it actually succeeding—not just looking good or fulfilling someone’s expectations. Instructing clients on the value of UX takes patience, certainly, as well as practical examples of what failure and success look like on the user side. Design opportunities often look like blank pallets, just waiting to be filled out. Keeping in mind that realizing a vision is no guarantee of serving users takes self-control—and research.
Ultimately, UX needs more than vocal promoters and heartfelt advocates; it needs data.
As Sherlock Holmes famously said, “Data! Data! Data! I cannot make bricks without clay.” The same holds for designers; even past experience holds limited value in any new project, because perfecting the user experience is less about making choices, and more about being observant and responsive.