No one goes into work and says, 'You know what, I'll design a crap experience today.' Yet despite the greatest of intentions, many designers do just this because they overlook the needs and desires of that most idiosyncratic and enigmatic entity: the average user.
Engaging with the user at every stage of the design process is key to creating a positive user experience. It sounds obvious, and it sounds easy, but it's surprising how often this aspect is inadvertently ignored through a lack of humility. Respect the needs and concerns of your users from day one, and keep your own personal aesthetic instincts in check, and you're half way there.
Keep these tips in mind when you go to work and you should be able to consistently create experiences that keep the users coming back.
Tip 1: Profile your users
It's very easy to forget who your target market is when you've been cranking away on the same project for weeks. One way of keeping your end user at the heart of your thinking is to make a few highly visual fictional character boards, depicting the people you are designing for. These will help you develop a short-hand for talking about real people and their needs. Keep asking yourself, 'What does this character want?' and, 'Would this character like this?' Bring relevant artefacts into the studio to remind yourself about your audience's real lives and priorities. Have fun, try hanging out where they hang out - whether it's online or outside in the real world. Gain a real insight into their lives.
Tip 2: Remember the basics of usability at all times
Make sure the thing you make is actually usable. By 'usable' we mean easy to read, easy to understand, easy to explain, easy to navigate, and so on. And be inclusive in your scope: think about the breadth of your user population, and keep accessibility in the forefront of your mind. It's important to maintain consistency in navigation at all times. This doesn't mean everything has to look the same - far from it - but it's critical that your users never feel lost. Ignore this at your peril, as they will go somewhere else in a flash.
Create information architectures to map out how people might interact with your design, and identify any potential problems. Think creatively about the types of people you are designing for, and the places and circumstances under which your design will be used. How will people interact with it? What if English isn't their first language, they have poor eyesight, or are hearing-impaired? What if they don't have that much time? If you're designing a check-in service, then this matters a lot. And what if they are using your product or service in an unusual environment, such as on a train when it's moving, or at night when you can't see the keyboard so well?
Asking questions such as these will help you produce a successful design. Products and services that are created with accessibility in mind from the start work better for all users.
Fundamentally, if your digital product or service isn't usable, you won't have a market - or, rather, you won't have a market for long. In the digital realm 'catch up' is quick. Your competition will thank you for laying down the groundwork, copy your best ideas, do them better, and then steal your market right out from under your nose.
Tip 3: Adopt a user-centred approach to design
Take the time and effort to understand the usage contexts and motivations of your target users. Analysing their needs, desires and opportunities in the early stages of development is critical to ensuring your design is both useful and desirable, and will help you create a positive user experience. This approach can reveal needs, desires and opportunities that simply would have been missed if you had stayed in your studio and spoken only to other creatives.
Fight against the instinct to design for yourself. There's no doubt that designers can grow too close to the concepts and technologies they are developing - it's natural. But if you don't keep your users in the loop as part of the development process, you run a real danger of working with preconceptions and assumptions that just don't match those of the everyday users.
Don't, however, confuse user-centred design with usability trials: these occur at the end of the process, to determine whether the product or service is achieving its required performance. This isn't much help to you because, by this point in the development process, the bulk of the design work has been done.
Tip 4: Enjoy being a listener
When it comes to meeting the needs and aspirations of your target users, you need to be the listener. So much in design culture reinforces an ideology that we are in the explaining, persuading or enlightening business: "We tell, they listen." This may be true in some situations, but listening to what people are saying is at the heart of user-centred interactive design, and will prevent you from post-rationalising a solution that you always wanted to reach, or introducing bias into the process.
Tip 5: Get things out there
Share your ideas with as many people as possible, and encourage feedback. Send emails; post ideas on blogs and forums; talk to potential users; show people early prototypes. Interacting with people like this enables a cross-fertilisation of ideas and can lead to solutions you may not have otherwise thought of.
Tip 6: Encourage useful, meaningful feedback
Show people things that encourage meaningful conversations - props, storyboards, videos and working prototypes, for example. Finished-looking artefacts can make observers reluctant to comment, so show early designs as well, and help people to express themselves.
Ask thought-provoking questions to tease out 'hidden' needs. If you work in an office, try leaving Post-it notes around with a sign saying, 'Your opinion wanted'. This is a great way of enabling the cross-fertilisation of ideas.
It takes courage to show early ideas to potential users, partners, bosses or colleagues. Learn to take constructive feedback on the chin. Build, show, discover, reject and refine your ideas, both quickly and frequently. By taking this approach, you'll learn what's right and wrong early in the process when it's comparatively cheap to make adjustments.
Tip 7: Keep it intimate
Don't use camcorders or dictaphones to record user feedback in discussion groups. It can be intimidating to be watched while you're expressing your thoughts, and people will clam up about their controversial or irregular views - and that's just the sort of feedback you really want. Use photos and notes instead, and allow people to comment anonymously.
Tip 8: Collect multiple perspectives
Choose research participants carefully. Don't just target potential users for feedback - ask extremes of the user population too, as this is where the really useful 'workarounds' can appear. Frequently, the things that happen in an extreme situation will also be of great benefit to the majority of users.
Don't just rely on friends or colleagues, either. A recurring issue is that designers tend to talk to each other a lot. The result is often a tiny minority designing for a tiny minority.
And remember that user research is highly unpredictable. People can be tricky to deal with: they change their minds, and can be highly idiosyncratic in their behaviour. Beware of assuming these are 'cookie-cutter' findings that you can simply cut and paste into other, similar project - this won't work.
Tip 9: Give yourself enough time
Ensure you have enough time to recruit the right people for their opinions, collect and analyse their feedback, and reflect on your insights. You'll probably need to refine your ideas at various stages of the design process, so factor in time to test your ideas and make the necessary changes.
Tip 10: Test, test, and test again
Usability trials determine whether your design is performing as required, and how well it meets the needs of its users. Recruit as many different people as possible to test your design in different situations. Testing is a crucial stage in identifying any potential problems, and will help to ensure that you've created the most positive user experience possible, which in turn will build brand reputations and customer loyalties. Remember, with digital products and services in particular your competition is only a few clicks away - if you don't meet and respond to your users' needs, they will go somewhere else.
Matt Marsh is the founder of consultancy Firsthand, and specialises in user-centred design.