Smooth UX: Designing with the User in Mind

9 min.

It has taken a few years of evolution for user experience strategy to shift from being based on what UI designers think users want, through listening to what users say, to the point where we actually observe users and let them show us what they want. Still, we haven’t yet reached the stage where the knowledge to create truly user-centric software is universal.

There is room for guidance from the leaders of the UX charge, and thanks to those enlightened experts, it is possible to present this short compendium of techniques and tips for creating a user experience strategy. If your enterprise aspires to launch applications that win users’ hearts and minds, it’s worth taking the following guidelines to heart—and keeping them perpetually in mind.

Your target audience has all the answers

The first thing to consider when developing a user experience strategy is how you will understand what’s needed from your application. Getting the answers is not simply a matter of putting yourself in the user’s shoes. If you want your application to harmonize with the user’s emotions, you must engage her in a way that gets the following questions answered from her perspective:

  • How will the solution deliver value?
  • How should you deliver the content?
  • Which design elements will make your application one that’s a delight to use?

How to involve target users in your user experience strategy

So how should you go about gathering information to answer these crucial questions? Of course, you could conduct user interviews, which are still among the most popular research techniques, as you can see from the graph below.

Most frequent UX research methods

NN/g UX Careers Survey

However, if you rely on interviews alone you will not get the entire picture. For example, interviews are not ideal when you want to:

  • Evaluate preferences among user groups
  • Determine the best design from a range of options
  • Gather information that makes sense logically
  • Determine users’ behavior patterns

At the same time, the information in the bullets above is all-important to the UX of your application, so in addition to interviews, it makes sense to incorporate a number of other research methods into your user experience strategy. If you need some ideas, you could consider any of the following methodologies, which many custom software development companies include in their UX research activity.

Card sorting exercises

Card sorting will help you design your application’s information architecture in a way that enhances UX. The process will help you develop a picture of users’ mental models, and of how they prefer information to be structured. By grouping cards into a tree structure, users can point you towards the optimal architecture of menus and other navigational elements of your application.

Product personification

Not to be confused with the use of personas to identify customer or user groups—although based on the same principle—product personification is a way of teasing information from application users by asking them to describe concepts and features of your proposed application as if they are discussing a person. The process involves first asking the users to give human characteristics to your application’s concepts and features, and then to relate their own feelings toward each characteristic as they interact with your prototype.

Usability testing

Formative usability testing can be conducted at this early stage in application design, although unlike card sorting, which can effectively take a “blank canvas” approach to capturing the user’s voice and emotions, you will at least need to have a paper-based prototype of your application to serve as a test subject.

This type of testing involves a facilitator asking a group of testers to run through projected scenarios. The testers work with an application prototype made up of hand-sketched interfaces. A “human computer” presents the sketches in response to the testers interactions.

Meanwhile, the facilitator or a team of observers captures key points from the commentary provided by the testers, along with their displayed emotions and visible issues during interaction with the application prototype.

A/B testing

At some point during the research phase, your designers will find themselves faced with dilemmas, for example, they may have to choose between two approaches to the design of a particular screen, menu, or function. At this point, A/B testing is an ideal way to present each of the two options to a selected number of users and gather data as to which has the most user-appeal.

A/B testing continues to offer benefits after the initial research phase of user experience strategy execution. Any time that you A/B test two or more design variants with live users and measure the reception afforded to each, you acquire a little more confidence that your design will meet users’ expectations.

Test early and often

Usability and A/B testing are proven methods of validating that you are designing your application in ways that best suit the users. This helps to improve the credibility of your solution, but that’s not all. Every issue found and rectified represents a time and cost saving for your development team and increases revenue generated by the application after launch.

If you consider the example of an ecommerce app, a recent shopping cart abandonment study by Baynard Institute found that 28% of shoppers will abandon a purchase if the checkout process is too long or complicated, and 23% will do so if the app doesn’t give them early visibility of the total purchase cost. That amounts to a lot of lost revenue, which user testing of the checkout process could easily prevent, by identifying issues and enabling the design to be improved in the way that users want.

The beauty of usability and A/B testing is that you can conduct tests early, using your initial hand-sketched ideas, again a little later as you progress to wireframe models and working prototypes, and even further in the cycle when you are close to going live with your application.

A/B testing

The more complex and interaction-intensive your solution will be, the more important it becomes to experiment and test early and often. The importance of testing throughout the development cycle cannot be overemphasized. After all, users expectations can and do change, however thoroughly you evaluate them at the start of a project.

Adjust user experience strategy to match budget

While financial decision-makers have warmed to the idea of investing in UX as part of business transformation—which should be no surprise given Forrester’s assertion that it returns at a rate of about 9,900%—clients can still be quite cagey about disclosing budget information. It’s essential therefore, to understand the importance of budget yourself, because you may find yourself convincing a client why she needs to share some financial information with you.

The good news is that in designing an application UI, it is possible to work with almost any budget. You simply have to adapt the planning approach to suit, but that’s also the main reason why you need to know what the budget will be.

Absent a budget, offer some options

If your client can’t be persuaded that it’s in her interest to let you know what funds you will be working with, an alternative approach is to use what you do know about the project to come up with two or three options, each assigned to a certain budgetary range.

Not only will this provide your client with some confidence that you are not simply out to spend as much as possible, but each option will also serve as a rough-cut initial UX design plan. Once your client selects an option, you will be able to carry on and add detail to the plan.

For example, your low-budget plan might include a limited research phase, comprising a round of informal “guerilla testing” and perhaps a short user workshop to gather verbal feedback.

At the other end of the spectrum, your plan might include a wide range of research activities including usability testing, competitor benchmarking, and regular stakeholder interviews, to get input at all design stages. One or two options in-between these extremes would also make sense. Once you have the budget information you need, or your client has selected one of the options you present, you’ll be able to flesh out your plan and begin your initial research.

3 tips for UI design with UX in mind

Now more than ever, in a world awash with content noise, users typically want information systems that are sufficient to fulfill their requirements, yet as simple as possible to use. Each of the following UX qualities is intended to fulfill that goal and while none of them should become objectives in their own right, each has a place in your user experience strategy—that’s if you intend your application to transcend the noisy ranks of the mediocre.

1.  Onboarding: let the UX be the welcome

The onboarding process for applications is one that often trips up new (and sometimes even experienced) UX designers. What tends to happen is that in the desire to welcome users, designers feel the need to create a comprehensive onboarding sequence that covers off every possible UI function. In reality, this is more likely to present a barrier than an aid to engagement.

In fact, the best onboarding experience of all is the one where a user feels no need even to glance at a tutorial. While such an experience may be equal to the holy grail of onboarding, if you follow the earlier tips for UX research and make user involvement the central element of your UX design strategy, it should be possible to come close. At its most complex, an onboarding process does little more than highlighting value and perhaps guiding users through the most important functions.

2.  The design: in praise of minimalism

The design in praise of minimalism

Flat design is popular in today’s applications for a good reason. By promoting only the most necessary interface elements and using basic shapes, minimalism goes a long way to balancing functionality with aesthetics. The flat-design approach offers uniformity across devices and ensures a clear and consistent user experience. It invites users into the experience and makes all interactions seem effortless.

Does this mean that there is no place for animations, parallax scrolling, slideouts, and pop-ups? That’s not necessarily the case.

When used judiciously, these features can add life to the look and feel of the app. The important thing is to ensure that every element of the experience, including aesthetics, adds value in some way for the user’s experience—but not for the developer’s ego.

3.  The user flow: familiarity does not breed contempt

Try to make sure your UX is founded on logical pathways. Each feature of your application needs to be self-explanatory and approachable. The user should feel that every step is a positive and productive use of her time and effort. If you must break with familiar patterns of navigation, be certain that doing so will create a rewarding, as opposed to frustrating, experience for the user.

If you can keep the following user-flow guidelines in mind during application design, you shouldn’t go too far wrong:

  • Avoid incorporating any features that don’t add value for the user
  • Make sure all elements are clearly labeled
  • Maintain a consistent design throughout the application
  • Use default settings
  • Personalize application functionality where possible
  • If your application must include lengthy forms for users to complete, try to chunk each one into several smaller forms

UX design post-launch

The release of an application should not signal the end of design activity. On the contrary, post-launch opportunities to enhance UX should be sought at every turn. To facilitate this, your user experience strategy should include measures to gather and analyze feedback from those at the sharp end.

The longevity of your application will depend upon how well you listen to what users tell you, and the steps you take to polish the UI and adjust it to evolving priorities and expectations. Depending on the nature of your product, the feedback strategy might include forms or short surveys to gather users’ views directly, or in the case of a web app, integration with analytics tools to monitor and evaluate user behavior.

Remember, it’s your strategy, but your users’ experience

To summarize the key messages offered in this article, designing for users requires that you:

  • Establish a clear budget specifically applicable to UX design
  • Apply a range of research methods to get the full picture of what your users want and expect
  • Test early and often (using a combination of usability and A/B tests)
  • Keep user experience in mind as you design the user interface
  • Continue to evaluate and refine your solution after launch

These are all components and principles of a solid user experience strategy. Their adoption should help you to avoid regression to the dark days of UX, in which the real users had little input and designer ego reigned supreme. An enlightened future awaits, and along with it, the promise of big returns for every $1 spent on real user experience.

By the way, you can find us on DesignRush.