Tuesday, February 15, 2011

User-centred design and its process

Editor's note: This is the second in a 12-part series by Theresa Putkey that discusses the intersection of content strategy and user-centred design.

In the last post, Integrating Usability & Content Strategy: Series Kickoff, we briefly discussed what usability or user-centred design is. This post, the second in a series of posts, will give you an introduction to user-centred design and the process for approaching a user-centred design project. 

My approach is to educate those who don’t know a lot about the practice.

Clarify roles
When talking about usability, people can refer to it by many different names: usability, user-centred design (UX), user-experience design. In these posts, I use the words interchangeably and abbreviate the term with “UX”.

Those who work in UX may be known as information architects, interaction designers, visual designers, usability engineers, user-experience designers, user-experience architects, business analysts, user researchers, and content strategists. Wow, I’ve really lumped a big portion of roles into this one area. It’s important to think about what you need on the project and then find the right UX team with the right strengths. It can be confusing, but just as there are different construction contractors who focus on different types of buildings, so there are different UX experts who have different focuses.

Essentially, different roles can fulfill UX needs, depending on what you need. For example, if you need an interactive web application with some visual design, you might choose an interaction designer who can use Photoshop. If you have a content heavy site that needs some refreshing and an information layout, you might choose an information architect. If you have a content heavy site that just isn't meeting your objectives, a content strategist may be the right choice. Many UX professionals have multiple skill-sets, so you can cover multiple roles with a few people.

UX: One Part of an Overall Project
When talking about user-centred design, it’s important to know that this is a portion of a larger project. For example, a software company is trying to build a software product. There are a lot of stakeholders in this process and a lot of tasks. If we look at the project schedule, it would have such tasks as building a business case, doing market research, figuring out the business requirements, planning the features, doing user research and interface design, as well as lining up the developers, quality assurance, technical documentation, technical support, and sales.

Given all the tasks needed to product such a product, you can see that UX is one part of the overall puzzle. As a UX expert, it actually took me a long time to realize that my expert advice wasn’t the only aspect of the project!

The main differentiator is that the UX expert represents the user interests. In all of the tasks for producing a product, it's easy to overlook the user. While the user perspective may be considered, the project team has a lot of interests to balance. The UX expert represents the user interests throughout the project and has specialized experience or training to help them effectively understand and communicate user needs.

It can work in either a “waterfall” software development method or in an Agile environment. UX can make all aspects of the development process easier and it can also be a bottleneck!

UX: What's It Good For?
One of the best books I’ve read that presents the business value of UX is “Built for Use: Driving Profitability Through User Experience.” It was published in 2002, but I think everyone should read it. I’ll give you one quote:
Successful user experiences deliver a firm’s value proposition--the brand promise--to customers in the most effective and appropriate way. Usability is now linked to revenues--and profits--as never before: If customers can’t engage in the full brand experience because of usability issues, the value proposition is diminished in the customers’ mind.” (Donoghue, page xviii.)
In other words, the purpose of UX is to ensure people have a good experience with the developed product or service and to continue to refine the experience, from a user perspective.

All Well And Good, You Say, But What’s The Process?
User-centred design can take many forms, but there are some agreed-upon approaches. One of my favourite sites for introducing people to UX is the Usability.gov site. This site has a great explanation of the process and the tasks involved. Instead of reiterating process again here, I'm just going to let you check it out there. But here's one quote to whet your appetite! 

To create a user-centered Web site you must think about the needs of your users throughout each step in the development of your site, including:
  •  planning your site 
  • planning your site 
  • collecting data from users 
  • developing prototypes 
  • writing content  
  • conducting usability testing with users
The Usability.gov site doesn't specifically mention content strategy, since it's a relatively new specialty. On the Design a New Site page, a content strategist would typically be responsible for the content inventory, card sorting, and writing for the web portions. But a content strategist will also get involved wherever there are content considerations.
Once you look at this site, you can start searching the web for more information. I've provided some links at the bottom of this article to get you started.

I might have gone out on a limb earlier by saying there are “agreed-upon” approaches. The UX field is still “gelling” and establishing itself as a valuable service to an organization. As I mentioned, there are numerous roles able to represent the user interests on a project. When hiring a UX expert on a project, make sure you know what skills you need and that this person fits the bill.

There are almost as many UX job descriptions as there are usability experts. When thinking of becoming a UX expert (or if you are looking for a focus), market to your strengths. If you like information organization, move towards information architecture and content strategy. If you like design, move towards interaction design and visual design. If you like analysis, move towards business analysis.

Resources for Learning More
When I was first learning about usability, I read “Built for Use,” a great book on the business value of user-centred design. But there are a bunch of resources! Here are some of my favourites:


About the Author

Theresa Putkey is an information architect consultant living in Vancouver, BC. With a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California, Davis, she focuses on integrating user needs into website and software design projects. She's currently doing her online Masters of Library and Information Science at San Jose State University. You can find out more about Theresa at www.keypointe.ca, or follow her on twitter @tputkey.

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