User Experience of a software product is an extremely integral and cross-discripline thing. They are many ways to ruin it — unusable content, wrong emotional tonality of graphics, unrealistic usage scenarios, suboptimal interaction design, technical compromises, you name it… Perhaps, security is the only other quality of software, which ubiquity is on par with UX Design. Hey, hacker scene has quite a lot in common with UX scene — isn’t that a coincidence? But I digress.
A cult UX design needs a single person who is both extremely talented in such different things as artistic and technical implementations; and has the absolute power over the software product.
In all other cases, a UX design process may help to achieve passable results. Now, as you know I’m not exactly fan of processes. A formal process is often just a way to solve personal problems — and I don’t believe personal problems should be solved in this way. So, even though I’m speaking about a process in this article, I’m not going to have others (or even myself for that matter) to follow it, but rather see it as a means to create a common coordinate system and terms.
The ultimate quality of software product is defined by how it sells (for commercial software) or how popular it is (for Web 2.0). For the purpose of this article, we factor marketing activities out of the equation, assuming that they can only put additional focus on product’s qualities, not replace them.
One quality factor are the hard facts. “Rendering a web page with IE9 takes x milliseconds, which is yy% quicker than any other browser”. Another factor influencing product quality is user experience, which is, how the user feels about the product.
For some products and markets, hard facts and UX would make 50/50, for some others 80/20 or 20/80. In any case, UX remains one of the main factors helping or preventing a software product to achieve its goals.
Watch with me a typical lifespan of software product UX design.
The software product starts with a rough idea, a small but powerful grain. In the conceiving phase, this idea is gradually defined with more and more detail, until it spawns leaves of “modules”, a rough architecture of the product. Let’s make a snapshot of this state and call it a vision document.
While it remains on the business level, the definition process continues, so that separate features starts to appear inside of modules. At this point of time, the most important decisions about who are our users and what are their main scenarios are already taken. The most important features even start to appear quite material. Take a picture again, and call it high level concept document.
But what it is? An unusual process begins to happen with features. They start to move and boil and jump between modules and change themselves quite a lot. Some features would die, just to see other features appear on their place. As a result, from the chaos of the proto-features, a clearly ordered and beautiful structure appears. At the same time, features gradually materialize so much that their wireframes become visible. Now, by looking at how stable the wireframes are attached to the overall structure, you can get an impression that this UX could be implementable. Push the button and save it as detailed concept document.
A stream of pure creative energy hits on the wireframes to remain in form of emotions expressed as graphics, sound, movement… Don’t miss the moment, make tons of pictures and call them comps.
The product is beautiful now, but it is still sleeping. Invisible for the eyes, life is being created inside of it. Sooner or later it will wake up, and gratify the product team with its first cry…
To make this fairy tale happen, several professionals (or better to say, roles) work on UX:
- Creatives: Artists, graphic designers, animation designers, sound FX designers, typography designers, industrial designers… Their main goal is to pick up users emotionally. The reason Apple fanboys are so forgiving about Apple products is that the products are so emotionally compelling. You don’t complain that the place of the “close” button is unpredictable from app to app, because this button is so crisply and carefully rendered, and because the screen where it is placed is so well balanced visually.
- Interaction designers, usability experts, information architects — people who care about the mental model users will get when using the software. Who are our users? What are their goals? In what scenarios are they going to use our software to achieve their goals? How can our software be helpful in these scenarios? How to remain flexible and support plenty of user scenarios, but not to overwhelm users with too many choices? While the Creatives target the right hemisphere of user’s brain, IX designers appeal to and care for his rational side.
- Developers. Not every UI concept can be implemented within reasonable time and money. Often, UI concepts have to be developed on verge of implementability (I remember the guys from Windows Media Center team were astonished when we’ve showed off our image coverflow implemented in MCML – something you’d need to bent your mind around for a couple of days, given existing technical limitations). Also, if we want product quality to remain high in the mid-term, software architecture must reflect the UX design.
- Business. Obtain or ensure compelling content. Ensure enough time, money, people, and hardware. Present UX design to stakeholders while controlling their desire to influence it. Otherwise, stay out of the way of the product team. Business as usual.
- Testers. They can be the first to smoke test the UX design decisions, before they will roll out to private beta. Their goal is to provide an outsider point of view.
How exactly these roles are mapped to real people, and where roles start and end, is often matter of discussions. Besides, the process doesn’t account for agility and iterations, as well as for parallel development that has sometimes to be done to hit a deadline, and, and, and…
But this is a topic for another story.