Understanding the continual change of what user experience means

Fastspot recently sent members of our strategy team to the User Experience Professional Association (UXPA) Conference. We were so lucky that the international conference happened in downtown Baltimore only miles away from our Hampden office. 

While there, our team had the opportunity to understand the continual change of what user experience means—both within a technology application and in the user’s context. A mix of researchers, designers, and strategists joined together in person to share information and knowledge.

It was an excellent time to step back in order to look forward. Here are the takeaways we gathered from the conference:

  1. Team alignment and inclusion is key for excellence in design 
  2. Empathy is wonderful, but is not itself enough for an ethical and inclusive design process
  3. Data requires context and a human-centered approach

1. Team alignment and inclusion is key for excellence in design

In our everyday work, there is an increasing demand for experiences that help reduce anxiety and ambiguity around major change. 

  • Higher education institutions continue to deal with uncertainty and change surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic including how to keep faculty and students safe. 
  • Healthcare professionals are facing an increasingly complex intake process that now accommodates remote options through a variety of contexts and devices. 
  • Our cultural clients have to continually shift how they market their programming and services. 

In our research and experience, getting the overall interactions to connect are imperative to giving audiences the help and assistance they need. 

COVID-19 has caused a massive change with how we interact with products and services. The increase in social distancing means our worlds revolve more around small bubbles of safe people while increasing screen time to interact with colleagues. For some folks, it means regular interactions with people they don’t know well, and the anxiety around staying safe in a public facing job. What this massive change can lead to is detachment, or feeling like you are just going through the motions to complete a task or imperative. 

If you are a designer or in a design adjacent role, that detachment can end up impacting your users in unintended ways. Since design is inherently human centered, one key takeaway from the session is:

" 'Going through the motions' in design, when there are people physically struggling with the experiences we create, is unacceptable"

- Justin Dauer, author of Cultivating a Creative Culture

Part of the imperative of the here and now is increasing that connection so people are rowing the same direction when it comes to product decisions and design. Designers, researchers, developers, project managers, and strategists often don’t make choices in a vacuum - and if they are, then those unilateral choices will likely become apparent after a site launches. 

Justin Dauer’s talk was a crowd favorite, and provided insights about increasing connection within a team. It is that team communication that Fastspot prides itself on to generate a final product that delights.

2. Empathy is wonderful, but is not itself enough for an ethical and inclusive Design Process

During Karen Bachman’s and Carol Smith’s session on Ethics in UX, discussions around the limits of data to convey the human experience emerged. Looking at a 2018 Amazon case study where an algorithm favored male candidates over female candidates for technical roles provided one of many examples where an untrained data approach that didn’t factor in a design process could cause unintended harm. 

How can this potential for bias be addressed? 

Empathy can be shown at the individual level, yet everyone has different morals and values based on their own perceptual gaze. Since perception is unique to every human and individual, designers need to know the limits to an individual approach towards design. Working through how ethics and norms generate between a larger grouping of people can only improve the outcomes of what your team releases into the world. No one wants to accidentally build an AI tool or website that inadvertently leaves out a group of people. 

Research and strategy can help to inform the product and service design process by ensuring the creative ideas meet the needs of the audience, and include a variety of perspectives within a larger use case. 

That is where a sound strategy comes into play - Fastspot holds in-person and remote discovery sessions to determine when and how to engage end users into the process. Our accessibility experts also play a role in ensuring that laws and norms around usability and accessibility are factored into the overall product.

3. Data requires context and a human-centered approach

Most designers and content folks did not get into the field to become data experts, or even data-informed. The data is...well, it is for the data folks, right?

Less so now. Many designers today have to have minimal fluency in strategy and data-driven design in order to meet the rapid delivery needs and expectations of business stakeholders and increasingly data-driven users. 

In addition, systems are interconnected. What that means is designers, strategists, and researchers often need to collaborate to understand the complexity of any data or content that pulls from large data storages. Services like Zillow, Google, and GrubHub drive on data algorithms that personalize content. What that means is concatenating the information in a structured format so delivery to the end-user is clean, seamless, and considers their needs.  

However, there is an increasing understanding that an ethical - and profitable - design comes from understanding what and why people would even want to bother with your product or service in the first place. After all, users spend 99% of their time on other websites. Knowing what a user needs in order to achieve a core goal helps. If you don’t have the research to back-up those core goals, then it can be costly during the production and build phase. 

In order to convince busy business executives who are increasingly adopting Agile techniques and frameworks to slow down and consider more methodical approaches to design means making a business case for research on their terms. How does research impact the bottom line? And is it a cost-cutting measure, or a revenue generating measure? 

Agile doesn’t inherently incorporate design and research within the sprint process unless modified. What that means is designers, content strategists, and researchers often have to take modified approaches to fit within the sprint cycles.  Business executives want both a profitable product or service that is also going to generate return customers. Designers, researchers, and strategists know the work that happens before development well; what that means is people in these roles need to tie that work into the impact into the bottom line more directly, as executives may not be experts in design processes.

Data-Driven Design 

Part of generating data-driven designs means breaking down the data, understanding what is available, and determining what information is actually useful to end users. Laura Chessman and Lisa Battle presented Guiding Users Toward Action: Empowering Decisions Through Effective Data Design. Getting 100,000+ rows of data in a spreadsheet can intimidate anyone who isn’t used to working with data, let alone end users who might have minimal expertise in large information sets. 

What decisions does the data need to inform? And what are the desired goals of your audiences to interact and adjust the data?  

Some key takeaways for improving data-driven design decision making are: 

  • Let users slice data, manipulate it, and sort rows and columns. 
  • It helps to provide tools to compare different data sets. 
  • Provide a clear indicator or signpost of where the data is coming from. 
  • Choose user interface controls - buttons, expanded lists, and overlays - that make sense to the end user. 

With a progressive and methodical approach, it is possible to take those hundreds of thousands of data points and make a meaningful interface. 

ROI and UX

During Christy Harper’s session on How to Quantify The ROI of UX research, 5 Methods to Demonstrate Impact, what also emerged was communicating why the up front investment in research and strategy increasingly matters to stakeholders. Executives are often wary of research due to the up front investment and lack of direct revenue generation opportunities. Making a case for research to inform strategy requires creativity. 

Here are ideas Christy shared: 

Cost-savings driven: 

  • Employee efficiency: Decreasing amounts of time employees have to spend on a given task if the employee is an end user. The method is also effective for consumer facing websites, so long as the employee workflow improvement doesn’t impact the end user (in cases where the end user is not an employee). 
  • Reducing product cost and building the wrong product: Fixing something early in the design process is 10x less costly than when the design lands in development. Using metrics during a research process to capture time spent, and then comparing that with the costs it would take developers to fix the items not captured during the research phase could help advance the need and case for research. 

Revenue-generating driven:  

  • Using the time to determine what content to optimize can help increase overarching revenue. It is possible to use A/B Testing or usability testing to see how minor changes can affect the bottom line. Once those changes are implemented, then seeing if the changes generated revenue can provide a solid case for return-on-investment. 

The options that show a direct path to revenue are likely going to appeal to executives more than the cost-savings path, but both are viable. 

Without research, there is the possibility of creating the wrong product for the wrong audience. Fastspot works closely with all of our clients to define audiences and determine the best next steps for creating content and design assets that delight end users.  

Whew, there were so many fun conversations, and interesting fellow designers, researchers, and strategists to speak with about best practices with user experience in 2021. I hope I see more people at the 2022 UXPA conference in San Diego! 

Share on Twitter or Facebook Published November 3rd 2021