Dan Healy, User Experience (UX) Designer at Kallidus, shares insight into usability and user testing.

The terms ‘user experience’ and ‘user-centred design’ have been around for over 20 years now. But do we really know what they mean or how they came about? How does user-centred design differ from, say, visual design? In my latest post I’m going to share some of the secrets of designing products that your users love.

What’s user experience?

When cognitive psychologist Donald Norman joined Apple in the early 1990s, he became its first ever User Experience Architect, and supposedly the first person to have ‘user experience’ in his job title. His role, in his own words, was to look at ‘all aspects of the person’s experience with a system’ - simple when you think about it, but no one had really done this before.

Of course, systems and interfaces had been designed and delivered in the past, but without one essential ingredient: users. Norman’s new approach meant checking in with actual users to see what products were like to use. Before then, the test of whether or not something was easy to use was to launch it and hope for the best - a risky strategy!

So, what are the secrets of designing a great user experience? Lots of hard work is a given; and most importantly, stick firmly to a process that puts the user at the centre of everything. Oh, and here are a few things every UX designer should consider to create a truly user-centric experience…

1. What’s the problem?

As tempting as it might be to put finger to mouse or pen to paper (especially when the pressure’s on!) you should always start with the problem and not the solution. What’s the challenge that you’re trying to solve through design? Is it to hit a particular sales target? Reach a certain customer satisfaction score? Or is it something else? Looking at things in these terms will help to ensure the focus remains on designing a product that will meet your needs.

2. Who are you designing for?

I’m always surprised by the number of designers I meet who have never had the opportunity to meet or talk to the people that they’re designing for. If you haven’t met at least one person that you’re designing for, then you’re designing in a vacuum, and there’s no way of telling if your design will work for your users.

My advice? Get out there, meet your users, watch them use your products and find out about their experiences. You can then use what you’ve learned to create personas that you can stick up on the wall to remind you who you’re designing for.

3. Design doing, not thinking

The design of every product should always start with a healthy amount of thinking. How else will you know what problem your design will solve?

The challenge is that designers love to think, and the idea of ‘design thinking’ has become very fashionable in the design community. A good designer should always start with some thinking, but then start doing as soon as possible.

‘Design doing’ means creating sketches and prototypes that you can test with real people so that your thinking doesn’t lead you too far away from things that will resonate with them. Did you know that testing with just five users would uncover 85% of potential problems with a design? There really is no excuse not to test your designs.

4. Iterate, iterate, iterate…and then do it again

Early stage testing allows you to find out if what you’re designing has value for real people. It also means that you can iterate without too much fuss. After all, you shouldn't have started building yet, so changing things should be a simple matter of starting a new piece of paper or tweaking a prototype. If it’s more hassle than that, then you may have left things a bit too late.

5. A problem shared…

Unless you’re lucky enough to be working alongside a team of designers, the design process can be a bit lonely.  To some, this might seem ideal, but to design the best products you should always share your ideas with people and get them on board with what you’re doing. Some of the best ideas come from the unlikeliest of places, so don’t be afraid to share your designs with non-designers too. They have the luxury of objectivity and may just offer you the best idea you’ve never had.

6. There’s no such word as done

The focus of all projects is always the launch date. It makes sense when you think about it, but you should never stop designing. What you launch will start ageing as soon as it’s gone live, and so you need to be thinking ahead to what comes next. Think continuous improvement, not launch and leave.

So, that’s all there is to it. Follow those simple steps and you should be on your way to creating an experience that your users will love.

I'd welcome your thoughts on designing a user-centric experience. Please tweet me @danrhealy or @kallidus

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