Learning UX design: UX is like a text adventure

In the first part I emphasized how important it is to think for the user. Normally I tried to think like the user. The problem is: the users of my software have a totally different view point and experience. They are experts in their respective domain and have years of working knowledge in it. So I try a more naive approach: thinking with a beginner’s mind. Question everything. Get to the whys, the reasons. But how do I translate this information to a software interface?

zork

A text adventure

I remember playing (and programming) my first text adventures, later on with simple static images. Many of them had a rich and fascinating atmosphere in spite of having any graphic gizmos or sophisticated real time action.
One of the most important parts of your user interface is text and the words need to be carefully chosen from the user’s domain. But here I want to highlight another similarity between a text adventure and thinking for the user. A text adventure presents the user with a short but sufficient description. These small snippets of text is all the information the user needs at this step of his journey.
A user interface should be the same. Think about the crucial information the user needs at this step. But the description does not stop here: it highlights important parts which further the story. Think about the necessary information and the most important information. Think about a simple hierarchy of information.
For atmosphere and fun the text adventures add small sentences or even unusual phrasing. Besides highlighting things by contrast these parts help the user to get a sense where in the part of the journey he is. Where he came from and where he can go. It connects different rooms.
A business process from the user’s domain is like a journey through the software. He needs to know what the next steps are, what is expected and what is already accomplished. Furthermore the actions which can be done are of utmost importance. In text adventures objects which can be interacted with are emphasized by giving them an extra wording or sentence at the end of a paragraph. Actions are revealed by the domain (common wisdom or specific domain knowledge like fantasy).
For this we need to determine which actions can be done in this part of the process, on this screen.

Information and actions

After listening and reflecting on the information we collected from the user’s view point of their domain, we need to divide it up into steps of a process and form a consistent journey which resembles the imagination of the process the users have in mind. Ryan Singer uses a simple but effective notation for jotting down the needed information and the possible actions.
The information forms the base. Without it the user does not know where in the process he is, what process he works on and what are the next steps. In order to extract this information form the vast knowledge we already collected we need to abstract.
Imagine you have only the information present in this step and want to reach this goal. Is this possible? Is the information sufficient? What information is lacking? Is the missing information part of the common domain knowledge? Did you verify it is common domain knowledge? And if you have enough information: do you know what the expected actions are? What should be done to get further to the goal?

The big picture

Thinking about every step on the way to the goal helps designing each step. But it is also important to not lose sight of the big picture, the goal. Maybe some steps are not necessary or can be circumvented in special cases. Here you need the knowledge of the domain experts. But remember you need to question the assumptions behind their reasoning. Some steps may be mandated by law, some steps may be needed as a mental help. Do not try to cram everything into one step. The steps and their order need to resemble the mental image of the users. But you can help to remove cruft and maybe even delight them on their journey. But this is part of another post.

Learning UX design: where do I start?

Where do I start? A typical question when trying to step into a new field. So many resources, so many definitions, concepts, opinions. A needle in a haystack. Most of the beginner articles for UX are tailored for design students. Many of the resources for teaching design to developers aim at getting better at visual design or interaction design. But what if your goal is to make life better for users of the software you develop ?
A simple question. ‘It depends’ I hear a lot. I think there are two things everybody can do or learn to do that have a profound effect on the UX of your products.

Think

Increasingly – since beginning to focus on UX – I get the following feedback by our customers and users: “You surely put much thought into it.” Much thought. What does that even mean? Why do they say that?
Common wisdom says you should think like a user in order to create a better experience for him. In my view you should think for the user. Think about what he wants and what he needs. The goals he want to reach and the information and guidance he needs.
Don’t stop at the what. As developers we often only consider what needs to be done. The user stories. The functional specifications. What functionality needs to be implemented. Fixed scope. We do not need to create exactly what the spec says.
Remember our goal? Make life better for our users. We need to understand what this means. Besides understanding the processes, methods and concepts of our user’s domain, we need to find out what the goals are and why the user wants to reach it.
Nobody wants to use a writing application. Nobody wants to write a letter. We need to dig deeper. Maybe he wants to cancel a magazine subscription or a contract. Or he wants to express his feelings to a loved one. That’s better. But what is his goal? In case of the cancellation letter: To save money? To reduce waste?
The why is important to the user and therefore it should be important to us. Not only our focus is changed from the things we need to implement to the goals the user wants to reach, we also have more freedom and a guiding post at the same time. We can find solutions which are outside of the initial user story or even outside the computer. And on the other hand we can evaluate decisions we need to make against helping our users reach their goals.
Think of our work as a bridge. The user wants to reach the other side of the river. Our bridge should be the most efficient and pleasurable way to get there.

Pleasurable

This is where the feelings from the journey of our user comes in. As a developer we try to find a balance between the goals of the business and the technological constraints. When we consider making the lives of our users better, the goals and needs of the users add a new force to be weighted. This is the primary task of the UX designer. We need to find the underlying goals and intentions on the one side and the needs on the other. All of them need to be balanced with the goals of the business.
So how do I find these intentions and needs?

Listen

Really, really listen to your users. The notion that users do not know what they want is poisonous. They don’t need to tell you directly what they want. You need to listen. You need to observe. Start with a beginner’s mind. Let the user explain. Do not assume. I tend to think ahead, to formulate ideas and solutions while listening. Now I am rather naive. I ask why. Why is it this way. Why after why. Do not settle but also do not stress your users. Get to the goals. Discover the needs from the current office environment of the user or the difficulty of the task. Learn what is important for the user and what not. Learn to listen for specific naming and phrasing. Human needs stem from our basic nature, look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
After you collected all sorts of information you need to resolve conflicts, balance the trade offs, reach consensus. You need to construct a whole from the parts of your listening. Therefore you need to think. Prioritize. Sort out. Reflect. Again: you should not assume. Use your whys.

Start with thinking and listening

UX design is a broad field with a simple goal: making life better for our users. In order to reach this we need to think. We need to listen. We need to care. No tool or method will change that. As developers we like to learn tools, languages and have recipes and methods. We would love to have a top ten resources list. The books to read. The course to learn. But all that does not save us from thinking. UX design is even more so: thinking for the user is the core of UX design.