User experience versus design

My colleague Robin Gissing shared a really great photo recently (left), one that nicely illustrates the growing importance of the user experience against interface design.

For decades, computer interface design was broadly prescribed in nature. The applications and tools we were fortunate enough to have access to were built by large companies over slow development cycles, usually on platforms provided by companies, institutions or schools. With the advent of smartphones come user-driven apps, built by start-ups, kids in bedrooms or universities, and delivered under super-fast update cycles. Essentially, the demand profile has changed dramatically.

This change has led towards user centred design. I can recall working in a relatively large IT development team years ago, building a mixture of Windows services and user applications. There were no designers. We simply did the best job we could with our user interfaces, copying standard Windows design patterns and making sure everything lined up nicely, although perhaps for our own satisfaction than our end users.

I tried to take things a step further when building a desktop application from scratch, by borrowing web design trends for my UI. Instead of the standard Windows grey colours, I used a white background and mocked up images to act as hyperlinks. The explosion of the web had brought hoards of new users into web browsers, and I felt that imitating that experience in all applications might work. It received some positive feedback, but the lesson here is that it was without their collaboration.

And therein lies the challenge, and the reasonance from the photo. Designing software nowadays is much more than simply listening to your users before design; it’s also about watching, talking and sharing their experiences when using digital tools. The designers of those concrete footpaths probably felt they’d achieved aesthetic perfection, only for users of the space to literally find their own way.

True, some users don’t know what they like or need. Here, there is an opportunity to delight them. The innovation process I’ve discussed before paves the way for an evidence-based, iterative approach so you can get it right, and feel like your customers have been part of the design and user experience journey all along.

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