10 Lessons learned over the last 20 years of working in UX Design

I was first introduced to User Experience design back in the year 2000, although it was referred to as Information Architecture back then. I was working as a senior web designer in a dotcom start-up in Sydney. What a crazy time that was! Start-ups everywhere. New millionaires being made each week (unfortunately I was not one of them!). Incredible hype about the world wide web and what was to come. Lots of lunches and after work parties. And “Information Architecture” was the new process that focused on placing the user at the centre of design.

While this is still the core of User Experience Design, there have been many design process evolutions and revolutions over the past 20 years.  Software tools, development processes and design trends have continually evolved, however, basic UX design ideologies still remain constant. After 20 years of working in the field of UX design, it’s a good time for me to reflect on what I have learnt.

From my own personal experience, here is my list of the top 10 UX lessons that I have learned over the past 20 years, focusing on those that I believe are key in helping anyone starting out today.

1. You never get it right first time.

No matter how much research you do, how much user input you analyse from user testing, and how many design iterations you go through, there are some things that you just simply won’t know about your users. And even after you launch a new product or service, it will take further tweaks and iterations based on post-launch testing and data analytics to see better results. Ultimately, a work flow and a user interface can always be enhanced, and this is the mindset that motivates experienced designers to strive for continual improvement.

Recommendation: Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, and don’t be afraid to make assumptions when you don’t know the answer. But call them for what they are. If you don’t have the time or resources to test properly before launching, make sure your team and stakeholders are aware of any risks.

2. Every design solution is a hypothesis.

In the vein of the first concept, any assumptions that you, or other stakeholders have about the users is a hypothesis until proven otherwise by solid data metrics. I have experienced many times firsthand when an all-knowing business stakeholder has pushed their own assumptions about the users, only to be proven wrong in the launching of a product or service. We all have to make assumptions based on missing information, but framing these assumptions in a culture of hypothesis led design is a much healthier way to evaluate the potential risks of delivering a product that could be damaging to your customer base.

Recommendation: Striving to create a “hypothesis driven design culture” is the answer. If you can start with getting key stakeholders on board with the idea of the hypothesis, it becomes easier to discard risky assumptions without hurting egos, and half the battle is won.

3. Designing in isolation doesn’t work well.

Back when I first started designing for user experience, we (the web design company I worked for) were given a client brief, and as a sole UX designer, I would go off and think of all the amazing ideas that I could to incorporate into my design. And after a week or so, I would present the idea firstly to one of the team members, get some feedback, iterate once, and then present to the client. Mostly the client was none the wiser and gave their input based on how the design appealed to them, not really focusing on the user.  We did carry out user testing after this point, and when we discovered that our hi-fi designs needed dramatic changes, there was much less time to re-imagine ways to fix the issues quickly and adapt new designs.

The bottom line is that if we had been collaborative right from the beginning, even just getting input from team members along the way, I would not only have saved a lot of time, but my designs would have been many times better. Times have changed now with a focus on Agile environments, so it’s harder for designers to go off on their own tangent without accountability.

Recommendation: Collaborate to get feedback and ideas as often as you need to along the design journey. Test your lo-fi ideas on paper if needed, bounce ideas around with others, be humble when your designs don’t make sense. Get in the habit of choosing to use “We” instead of “I”.

4. It’s all about telling a story.

Research shows that humans connect with storytelling, and this goes back to the cave people days – just look at the artwork. As a UX Designer, you need to be effectively conveying your information through stories constantly. You are not only telling the story from the user perspective, but you need to tell your story to team mates, developers, sales teams, marketers and business stakeholders

Recommendation: For me, I continually practise telling stories with lots of visuals that I might include in a presentation. Always make the effort to present your outcomes to the wider team so they are coming along the journey with you.

5. Creating large papers documenting user research don’t get read.

In the past I have spent long hours documenting amazing insights from user testing and user interviews, only to have the outcomes not understood or even read by key stakeholders.

Recommendation: If you have some insight to share with you stakeholder, present it in a way that you can “tell the story”. Best to organise a presentation that summarises the key outcomes of your research.

6. Being a great communicator is essential.

Oh wow! This one is big! Who would think that you need to have great UX design skills AND the ability to communicate well with your stakeholders? In my experience, if you are not communicating the validation for your designs, then you are in trouble. This ties directly into your story telling abilities. If you are not able to disseminate your ideas in a way that captivates your key stakeholders, no matter how good they are, then your ideas may be lost, or even doomed! You must keep in mind that they are also considering development costs and delivery dates.

Recommendation: Find efficient ways to tell you story (e.g. via Powerpoint slides or a video presentation) so that everyone understands the validation for your design approach. Do this on a regular basis as you progress through your design process.

7. Lean design processes are the best approach.

Spending too much time on a design without input from others is a disaster waiting to happen. Iterating at the earliest opportunity based on other’s input is the fastest way to improve your designs.

Recommendation: Get feedback daily if possible and iterate constantly. Workflows, paper mockups, and quick design collab workshops on a white board. User research done quickly using the outcomes to validate your design approach, and user journey mapping workshops are all lean, effective tools.

8. Everyone in your organisation contributes to UX outcomes.

Be grateful for this! You may have a number of people around you in your team or beyond that you can test your designs with. Depending on your target audience, this may be difficult, but you can definitely test for usability issues in your design. Your goal should be to create a collaborative environment where everyone is comfortable contributing ideas. I have often been surprised to see amazing design solutions from developers, marketing and sales people that provide a significant contribution to a brand new way to solve design problems.

Recommendation: Encourage feedback from within your organisation. Organise collaborative design workshops, send out online prototypes for feedback. Or take around lo-fi designs (hand drawn or digital printouts) for input, or even online surveys (e.g. Google) for comments. And don’t be afraid to recruit non-designers to help out with user interviews and guerrilla testing.

9. As a UX designer, educating others in your organisation is a continual process.

Every company that I have ever worked for has people that just don’t get UX design, more specifically in companies that are not design driven. They may give lip service to the importance of UX design, but unless you work in the field, many stakeholders just see UX design as UI design. As an analogy, UI design is the tip of the iceberg. The end result (UI design), is such a small part of the UX process, but that’s all the stakeholders really see! It makes sense when you put yourself in their shoes. Which as compassionate designers we need to do, so how do we educate others of all the other hard work that goes into the end results?

Recommendation: Constant education is the only answer. Create case studies of the work you have done to illustrate and tell the story of the processes involved in your outcomes. Engage team members in your process where you can. Capture benchmark metrics to demonstrate improvements over time.

10. UX design can be challenging and there will always be obstacles in your path.

Such an understatement! There are always reasons you will hear why they can’t deliver your carefully crafted design vision. Lack of resources, lack of funding, time constraints, features not believed to be important, “we’ll put it in the backlog”. I think I let go of the illusion that it was possible to have a near perfect delivery outcome a long time ago, although I still have passion and optimism in the idea that we get there with constant improvement cycles.

Recommendation: The best way to convey the roadblocks is perhaps to communicate the risks of not delivering the contextual help icons (for example) and how it may impact the support team.

As many challenges that we face as a UX designer, there are equally as many satisfying and rewarding moments that make our roles so fulfilling. What’s not to love about creating experiences that help people lives even in just the smallest way? I’m still as passionate about UX as I was when I started, but now a few more years experienced. And we never stop learning and growing.

What is your main challenge as a UX designer?


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