Good design is silent design. Design so user-driven it is 'invisible' - where the illusion of the interface, as the meeting point between a user and the tool they are using, is suspended.
Bad design breaks this suspension. Bad design leaves a user investing too much focus on operating the interface, rather than the tool through the interface. Bad design is frustrating.
This is our first in a series of blog articles that explore a philosophy of silent design and discuss how it can be achieved in digital - and especially web - interface builds.
It's too easy, and not very helpful, to just explain bad design as an oversight or poor execution, and these articles aim to provide a more powerful framework for thinking about how we, as UX designers, approach any given interface design.
Within this larger discussion, we'll examine key aesthetic principles and other design considerations, and how they should be applied; stakeholder management; prototyping and empirical testing; experiential branding; and other areas of interest to UXD.
But this article starts at the beginning, taking a closer look at the very building blocks of successful usability design: conceptualising your product use context.
The foundations for an optimised user path
'Product' is a broad term; and we should understand it here to mean any 'designed thing'. At any one time, we might be using a number of designed things. The chairs we sit on and desks we work at; keyboard, mouse, monitor and wide range of software, websites and applications we use - all designed things. All products.
The product use context is the description of the user, technical, physical, social and organisational environments wherein these products are used. An often glossed-over step in the design process, understanding the product use context is more than a reminder to 'remember your users' - it helps us gain a systematic understanding of the characteristics of our users, the tasks they will execute, and the circumstances of use.
To understand these components, detailed context analysis is necessary. Essentially, this investigation yields rich, holistic insight that illustrates how, when, where and why a given product is used, and by whom.
This level of contextual investigation gives us a good idea of our product's playing field, and thus strong design foundations going into the project, where we can tailor design to specified real-world usage. That is, it provides the basis for a strong user-centred approach to a given design, helping us guard against making unfounded usability assumptions, the encroachment of our own intuition as designers, or against shareholders overreaching in the design.
The role of the product use context in our design approach is as a useful input to the process of specifying usability requirements, providing a system-focused approach with a shared view among a design team.
So where do we start?
Once we've accumulated this dataset, we have the terms of reference for our user base, a basis for agreed user requirements. Knowledge of the product use context in itself should improve the design of a product, a raw 'handbook' if you will, but we can go further in turning this data into actionable information, a design rationale, that can be tested and/or directly incorporated into our design.
The first role of the usability analyst here is in considering each component of the product use context, using a Likert-type scale to assess the degree to which it could influence the usability of the product, where 1 is 'critical' and 5 'unimportant'. Once we've identified the important contextual factors, we need to produce design solutions that address each particular usability requirement.
We can also now identify the outliers of the user spectrum - the extremes of each criterion (e.g. age: youngest vs. oldest) - and thus refine our scope in building an interface that operates only within these markers. We want to build only to and for this use context, so we discount irrelevant demographic, technical, physical, social and organisational profiles. If a language is spoken or a software environment used by such a small number of users, is it worth investing time and resources in developing these additional functionalities? What's the cost vs. payback implications?
By taking a proactive approach to identifying and addressing real-world contextual factors, the way to achieving a high level of usability becomes clearer, and we can also minimise (though never totally eliminate) unforeseen uses, affordances and constraints that could present unnecessary developmental costs further down the line.
Designing user interfaces is a complex and highly creative process. If we neglect to conduct a detailed context analysis of product usage, it means we are not ideally placed to execute a user-centric approach to our interface development. And that's asking for trouble.
But with a firm understanding of our product use context in place, we can move on to the next step in building a successful interface...
Stay tuned for the next article on silent design!
Kieran Tavener-Smith, M.A summa cum laude (Media Studies), cert. UXD
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