My VBUG’08 talk – following up on the developer Q & A session

I’ve just got back from giving a talk at VBUG 2008 in Reading. It was a very friendly crowd of developers who showed a lot of interest in “this user experience thing”, and I ended up doing a solid half hour of Q&A after my talk! I’ll put my slides up on here soonish, but until then, here’s a list of extended answers to some of the questions I was asked yesterday…

Q: “What design tips do you have for tricky situation X”
A: I often get asked this question, and my standard reply is “Start with research, then do some low fi prototyping, then iteratively research & design until you’ve ironed out all the pain points”. On hearing this, the person asking the question almost always looks disappointed – they tend to want some guidelines so they can skip the research phase. The important thing to remember is that even when you stumble upon some suitable looking design guidelines, you have to adopt them tentatively. As I said in my talk, always treat your expectations as hypotheses – you can’t be sure if your interpretation of design guidelines is going to work for your context of use & user-base. Bear in mind that guidelines can easily be misinterpreted, and the authors may not have considered your particular context. For example, if you consider the tip “Ensure your UI is consistent so it is predictable for users” – this seems like a sensible guideline – but you can get carried away and create “foolish consistency” where you’ve gone beyond the point of usefulness. The good news is, with a spot of UI prototyping and lightweight user research, you can quickly establish whether you are on the right lines or not.

Q: “As an independent developer, I often have to design UIs. I have minimal time and budget for user research. What can I do?”
A: Well if you have zero time, then there is zero you can do. So, the first thing you need to find time and resources, and that means approaching your client and educating them about the value of user research in improving UI design, and how good UI design has various beneficial effects such as improved conversion rates (e.g. on e-commerce sites), reduced learning curves and reduced requirements for technical support (e.g. if writing enterprise software). There are various success stories you can refer to – try Googling around User Experience / Usability / ROI / success stories and you should be able to find a case study that’s appropriate to show your client.

If you can claw together a few days of time, but no budget beyond your day rate, then you’ve got a choice – (i) take the hit and get some real users in for some face to face usability testing, or (ii) opt for some less costly though potentially less effective desk research. If your users are cheap and easy to access, then (i) is clearly the best option. There are lots of guides out there on how to plan and run your usability research, so I wont repeat them here (links below).

If you are going for the desk research option then I’d recommend carrying out a competitor evaluation. Here’s a rough outline of what to do:

First, pick a few user journeys that you would like to evaluate. A “user journey” is essentially a well trodden route through your application, involving one of its primary features. Then you should pick two or three top competitors – bearing in mind that they don’t have to be operating in exactly the same space. For example, if you are designing a UI that allows users to download and install a piece of software, then you could happily look at, even if you aren’t doing VOIP. If you don’t know what sites to pick, ask people on a mailing list like uk usability or ixda, and I’m sure they’ll make some great suggestions.

Having picked your competitors, you should walk through one user journey, taking screen grabs as you go (don’t use printscreen – instead use an app like snagit or this firefox add-on that scrolls the entire page and grabs the whole lot). If you have the wall space, it’s very useful to tack these up on the walls and then cover them with post-it notes. Use one colour for “pitfalls to avoid” and another colour for “good practice”.

Having done all this, you should then come up with your own user journey, simply using paper and pens. Remember, your goal is to support user laziness, not developer laziness :-). This whole approach may seem ridiculously simplistic but believe me, it works.

Q: What are some good user experience resources?
A: If you are going to just read one book, I’d recommend Don’t make me think by Steve Krug. It’s clearly written and short enough for you to read in one sitting. If you want something more practical, then Luke Wroblewski’s Web Form Design is very good. If you read all of that and still want more, then just look at your Amazon recommendations. There are literally tons of UX books out there, and you need to find one that speaks to you. If you want just one site, then Jakob Nielsen’s is probably a good place to start. If you want more, there’s some more links here.