UX Design from a student for students – by Jenny Bremerich
Living in a world surrounded by things that were designed by an individual maybe multiple decades ago with intended purposes in mind, makes you wonder who these were designed for and how did the individual designer decide on which purpose to focus on. One thing is for certain, every single human being has needs and goals and the constant seeking of tools to meet those needs and goals to the best of their abilities, is a lifelong battle. Most people walk through their day-to-day life without realising that everything, from the car driving on the roads to the seemingly meaningless objects such as a teabag or a hair tie, has intended design purposes. Everything in between went through a process of prototyping and testing, most of the time for multiple rounds.
But how would you test a prototype to improve it further and how would you come up with an object design in the first place without knowing what is needed? User Experience (UX) Design and User-centred Design (UCD) might be term that gets thrown around between different types of people quite often. And yes, it seems straight forward: just design something your target audience will like. But in reality, it is a bit more complex than that. How do you determine your target audience in the first place? What is the best way to find out about their opinions? And how do you even make sure, that people want to talk to you about their behaviours and attitudes towards something?
What is UX Design?
First you might ask yourself what UX stands for and what type of process lies behind it. According to the Oxford Dictionary, User Experience (UX) describes “what it is like for somebody to use a particular product such as a website, for example how easy or pleasant it is to use”. UX describes the user’s attitude and behaviour towards a product or a service and the process of the discovery of these through thorough research. To determine your user’s needs, what drives them, how they do things, how and why they are likely to use your product or service, you would need to conduct research, which can be done in various different ways depending on the product or service, the target audience, the scale of the project and many more (Bowles & Box, 2011). To determine some of these variables early on, will save you valuable time when you get to the analysis stage of your research.
The most important thing is to keep yourself and your needs separate from your users and their needs. This is the most fatal mistake any researcher can do. Even if you might have certain similarities with your target audience, do not rely on your own opinions and experiences. That would not be considered good practice. As the name User Research might hint at, it is supposed to be focused on your users, your target audience, the people you are designing your product or service for. If the target audience includes you, great, that is just another incentive to motivate you throughout the user research journey, while you keep in mind that “User research seeks to understand people’s relationship to products or services in a real concept.” (Troeth, 2021).
Setting objectives (What do we want to achieve?), requirements (How should we do it?) and unrequirements, such as constraints and exclusions (How not to do it?), is a vital step in the beginning of the research process (Bowles & Box, 2011). It makes sure everyone on your team, if you are working with one, is on the same page. It is an important instrument to showcase a clear outcome, what you want to achieve (or not achieve) through your UX research. But this is considered tactic knowledge, which can never be stated and comprehended in full as it appears out of nowhere and has the potential of changing or disappearing without warning (Bowles & Box, 2011).
Additionally, objectives also help establish your methodology, which aid in guiding you through the process step by step. The process of UX research cannot be described as a very linear course of action, even though there are diagrams to give a quick overview on how to move through the different steps. There are different research methods depending on where you are in the research process.
The double diamond “[…] is a visual model to understand the process of design. Its near-universal appeal arises from its simple focus on both the problem and solution.” (Humble, n.d.) The Double Diamond walks you through the process step by step, picturing two diamonds, as the name suggests.
The first diamond symbolises the discovering and defining of the problem. This can be a quite a lengthy endeavour, as it is more than likely to not just discover one single problem, but multiple that would need fixing. It is important to narrow down on just one problem to focus on, as it can be too overwhelming to tackle multiple at once, as well as the danger of not producing good quality work for each. The methods you use during this phase tend to be qualitative; the results are open-ended and subject to interpretation, as they are not based on numbers but rather focus on words, descriptions, concepts or ideas (Jansen, 2021).Before moving on to the second diamond, make sure you fully understand the problem you are trying to solve, as “whoever is best able to describe the problem is the person most likely to solve it.” (Roam, 2009).
After this the process moves on to the second diamond which focuses on developing and delivering a solution to the designated problem. This can be started with another round of research which would in most instances be more narrowed down research through quantitative research methods, which produce hard facts and numbers (Jansen, 2021). These numbers can be used to confirm or tests earlier set hypothesis. At this stage you might also have a prototype which can be monitored and optimised through user research. Throughout this process, there are also methods which can be described to produce mixed results, to explore and then test a potential prototype. Before choosing you methodologies, make sure you know the scope of your project and the target audience, as “each methodological approach has a different purpose” (Jansen, 2021) and the research is going to produce better results, if different methods are mixed.
Major Project – A website surrounding the chapter University
Keeping all this information in mind, I divert my attention to my most recent project, which will include user research, there is no doubt about it. The project focuses on information surrounding University. This will include how to apply, what the application process is like, what students can expect from university life and also to shine a light on difficulties students might face for university staff. Therefore, the target audience can be broadly defined as prospects, applicants, current students as well as staff members.
As someone who has been through the process of university admissions twice for an undergraduate and a postgraduate degree, and who also has over three years of work experience within Student Recruitment and Admissions, I see myself capable of compiling enough content for the project to be viable. My previous experience from both ends will be beneficial, but I will still need to conduct user research, as especially when it comes to the broad spectrum of people of various ages, with different degrees, who are from all over the world it is crucial as not everyone had the same experiences.
Chosen research methods
However, the experience provides some advantages, as I can conduct some early undercover user research to develop some hypothesis, that can be validated through later user research.
Competitive analysis is a good place to start for a project that has not existed previously. During this process I will review competitor’s websites on their functionality, their content and their visual style, to figure out components they execute well, as well as ones they (or you) could improve on. I will not just focus on the competitor’s sites, but also take inspiration from well-designed websites, that do not necessarily create the same content as my project will display. To make the analysis stage of this methods more attainable, I will implement scores for certain points each website may or may not contain, this way each website can be compared by simply looking at the scores.
The next logical step will be to create user statements as hypothesis. These would assume, what each target audience group would say they need out of a website like mine. As this is only hypothetical at this stage, I need to treat these statements with caution and use my other chosen research methods, which will be people facing, to test and amend them where needed. However, even hypothetical, user statements are a good way to take on the perspective of your users towards their problems. They give important insight and are vital, as your design end goal should be hypothesis and evidence driven (Bowles & Box, 2011).
Based on my own experience, those of friends and clients at work, I can produce several user personas to make the process of design more personal and approachable, as designing for a person (even they are made up) is more tangible, than designing for numbers (Bowles & Box, 2011). User personas were first introduced in The Inmates Are Running the Asylum (Cooper, 2004) and are described as research-based documents, to portray a typical user of your website. In my case I created four different user personas, one for each of my main target groups. I would treat the combination of user personas and statements as hypotheses to sketch up and slowly refine my design ideas, as I will be using them as a pre-research approach, I will be basing them loosely on people I know and have encountered, they will function as a stand in until I can conduct more user research to check my personas validity.
Focusing on one my target users from my personas, I have also created a journey map. This illustration shows, the path my typical user takes, from having a question or encountering a problem, to searching on the web to finding the solution on my website. This is a valuable tool to establish an understanding of user’s experience (Joyce, 2021)
Beginning the research displayed in the first diamond, I will start testing and validating my hypothesis from my pre-research approaches, through a mixture of research methods. I will start off with conducting surveys, as they are a quick and inexpensive way to collect big numbers of data in short amount of time. This will be most beneficial in reaching current students, as I have access to a large pool of students through the University library as well as social media platforms. An online survey also has the advantage of being shared between individuals, that I would normally not be able to reach. With this I have be cautious, as it might result in non-target audiences to fill out my survey. This will be combatted through a quick identifying question at the beginning, from which I can conclude if they fit the target group.
Through one-on-one interviews I am planning to gather insights on my other target groups, which are not as easily accessible on university grounds. Through my work connections, I want to reach out to applicants who have yet to start university life. This might prove to be difficult, as I am dealing with a lot of confidential information, as well as a significant number of minors. This is something I will still have to explore further. An alternative would be to interview current students about their experiences in applying, but this would most likely date back several years, it would not represent current issues, applicants might be facing.
Following the first diamond research, I will go back and revise my user statements, personas and journey map and refine there where necessary. I will then start to build my first prototype of my website, which will be used during the process of the second diamond to conduct usability testing, which simulates scenarios the user has to work through (Troeth, 2021). I will invite selected participants to test run my protype unmoderated, while I observe them for any struggles or pain points. I am aware that this is a process I will have to repeat multiple times, while also implementing other research methods along the way, such as site analytics once the first version of my website has gone live. This is to monitor traffic on each page. I will be combining it with a content audit, simply a spreadsheet of every single page, which gives an overview of your sites inventory, that makes it easier to spot gaps, broken links and pain points.
Having chosen these methods to research my target audiences needs and goals, I also need to keep in mind, that each step is important and has significance. But it is still possible to learn more about your users later in the project process, at first it is important to get a grasp of what your users want and how they feel about your project can still be discovered and optimised at later stages Through this first initial research, it will make the stage of testing and optimising more linear, as it is more profitable to produce a prototype as quick as possible and get it tested by users as soon as you can before improving it through trial and error.
Bowles, C. and Box, J., 2011. Undercover user experience. Berkeley, CA: New Riders.
Cooper, A., 2004. Inmates Are Running the Asylum, The. Pearson Education Inc.
Humble, J., n.d. What is the Double Diamond Design Process? — The Fountain Institute. [online] The Fountain Institute. Available at: <https://www.thefountaininstitute.com/blog/what-is-the-double-diamond-design-process> [Accessed 13 January 2022].
Jansen, D., 2021. How To Choose The Right Research Methodology – Grad Coach. [online] Grad Coach. Available at: <https://gradcoach.com/choose-research-methodology/> [Accessed 13 January 2022].
Joyce, A., 2021. Journey-Mapping Impact: Research Findings. [online] Nielsen Norman Group. Available at: <https://www.nngroup.com/articles/journey-mapping-impact/> [Accessed 13 January 2022].
Oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com. n.d. user-experience noun – Definition, pictures, pronunciation and usage notes | Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary at OxfordLearnersDictionaries.com. [online] Available at: <https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/user-experience> [Accessed 13 January 2022].
Roam, D., 2009. Unfolding the napkin. New York: Portfolio.
Troeth, S., 2021. User Experience Research.
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