Articles tagged user experience

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It’s 2018. You’re making software. That means you’re making user experiences. And that means you’re dealing with UI designers. Even if you’re used to dealing with creatives in general, user experience design is still a more complex and nuanced engagement due to how directly involved the user is with that end experience, as well as the technology backing that experience. The UI team you hire is bringing creative, problem solving, design, interaction, and technology expertise to your project. And you need to manage that team and those skillsets while incorporating your own subject matter and product strategy expertise in a way that yields the best possible experience for your users. Basically, you don’t want your design feedback blowing the product up.

But your input will be required at many different points in the software-making process. Some of those points involve looking at designed mockups of what your website or app might look like. That can be an overwhelming or an underestimated task. We’re talking colors, fonts, organization of elements, page flows, interactive states, branding, imagery, and more. Even one seemingly innocuous piece of feedback can cascade into a less than ideal experience. Here are some tips for how to avoid that issue and get the most from your UI team.

Strategy vs. Tactics

As a stakeholder, you know your business and the specific business goals for this experience better than anyone in the room. That makes you invaluable to the end product. But that also makes you invaluable in a very specific way.

Giving strategic feedback instead of tactical feedback to a creative team helps them understand where a design might not be aligning with the business. If we only discuss feedback in terms of changing colors or fonts we’re not getting at the why a color or font should change. How does that color support our business goals? Is this font appropriate for our audience? How do the interactions on our site fit into a user’s workflow? Asking these types of questions of your creative team can go a long way to getting your app designed in a way that maximizes their expertise for compelling experiences and combines it seamlessly with your business goals.

Hierarchy vs. Size

The cliché design criticism is “make the logo bigger.” Which, of course, can be valid feedback. But instead of thinking about how big the logo should be right away, consider if the logo is the most important element on the screen.

That’s design hierarchy. Are the elements that are most important to your business and most important to your customers getting the right amount of attention in the right order?

Sharing what information is the most important to your message with the UI team can help them design a screen to draw the viewer’s eyes to the most important element in your message and then on to the next most important element, and so on, guiding them through the experience and the story. Sometimes this is done by making a logo bigger, but more often it is achieved by adjusting elements according to common Gestalt principals like proximity—adjusting the space between elements—continuation—visually connecting elements together—or similarity—grouping like elements.

Advertising Branding vs. Interface Branding

Most companies have thorough brand guidelines for print and advertising. However, most companies do not extend those guidelines to branding their digital applications. Often, this means the creative team needs to make assumptions and judgment calls as to how the brand should translate to a digital design.

We see this happen all the time. The UI team comes up with an innovative design that wields the brand in new ways, and the stakeholders are forced to kibosh it, not because they don’t like it or think that it’s innovative, but because they have no context for judging it. They feel it’s not in brand because there’s nowhere in the brand for it to be. It’s a tragedy.

The answer to that, obviously, is to extend your brand guidelines to user experiences, but in lieu of that, here are some general guidelines to consider with your UI team when translating a brand:

Color

One of the easiest ways to bring a brand to a digital platform is by implementing the colors of the existing brand. However, often, in digital applications, more colors are needed than exist in the brand. Digital applications may require more colors for error feedback, warnings, colors for alerting the user to changes, or large sets of colors to display data in visualizations. In that case, you should ask your UI team about the new colors and how they keep the brand’s essence intact, as opposed to judging the colors themselves based on vague personal aesthetics.

Typography

Years ago, you couldn’t use any font on the web except Arial. Today, more and more type designers license web versions of their fonts to be used in software and websites. Talk to your UI team about using the same fonts you use in other branded materials and securing the proper license. It’s worth the investment. However, if that isn’t a possibility, engage with your team and give them the freedom to put some thought behind what fonts will work best on a screen and fit with your existing brand.

Imagery

If your company already has a strategy for creating branded images across your existing materials, your UI team should be considering how to bring that over to your digital applications. When looking at design mockups, consider how imagery is being used, how it’s unique compared to the competition, and—just like every other design decision—how it supports your brand and your business strategy.

It’s 2018. You want to make intuitive, branded, and visually engaging software, and your UI team can get you there. But the process requires everyone involved to contribute according to their expertise. Ultimately, though, it’s your input around the business’s goals that will help your UI team make a great software experience for you and your customers.

Alex Carr is the Director of Creative Services at Maark, where he leads a team of illustrators and designers focused on marketing, branding, and product design for our clients.

The mobile web rots. Just does. It’s slow and clunky and ugly and just not a great experience in a world full of great digital experiences. All the annoying advertising and tracking mechanisms that we for some reason put up with on the stationary (???) web are intolerable on the mobile web.

That’s why Facebook created Instant Articles. And Google created Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP)—which they’ve recently announced are going to be expanded (and probably be prioritized) throughout their search results. Well, it’s one of the reasons, another being complete domination of the mobile web.

But basically, FB’s Instant Articles and Goog’s AMP strip down the content so that it loads fast. They pull out comment sections and most of the ads, and along with that all of the complex, chaotic stuff behind the scenes that happen when the user just taps on a link to read a simple article about the Gilmore Girls reboot. But Instant Articles and AMP aren’t filters. They’re different types of pages. On Facebook that’s due to where it’s hosted (on Facebook, natch) and for Google, even though it’s still html, it’s a different type of page, one that publishers have to specifically design for.

According to a recent piece on the Verge, this could be a problem, for three reasons.

One, is that it makes it harder for publishers by adding extra work for possibly less return. Now publishers need a regular responsive version of the article, an AMP version, and an Instant Articles version for each article (and those latter two versions might be less monetizable). That’s some serious, sweaty deja vu for publishers who just got a reprieve from multiple screen sizes with the adoption of responsive design.

Two, is that it makes it harder for publishers in that it lowers the feature set of the page. No more comments, it looks like, but mostly it means much fewer ads and certainly none of the more annoying ones that hijack screens and interrupt the content.

Third, is that it makes it harder for publishers because they must cede too much power and control to outside platforms in order to keep their readerships.

I mean, you see where this is going. The new mobile experience that Facebook and Google are offering is great for readers and a headache for publishers. But it’s a headache that publishers are kind of the cause of in the first place. In an attempt to create and then monetize a content experience for readers, they hurt the content experience for readers, and therefore their ability to monetize it. It’s a hard balance.

Possibly, publishers can hold out for technology to help, faster processors in phones, maybe, just like bigger screens helped them fit more content onto the phone. But that seems unlikely. And doesn’t solve the pressures that Facebook and Google are putting on them now.

Plus, I don’t really believe that the bad mobile web experience is just part of a set of transition pains for publishers. I think the regular Internet content experience is broken for many of the same reasons. Sure it’s faster, but in most cases it’s still a cluttered, annoying content experience that’s based on some faulty analytics assumptions.

But, back to the point, the mobile web is a problem that publishers haven’t fixed, so now somebody else is stepping in to do it…and to reap the rewards.

Photo credit: Lewis Meyer

In the previous Maark Blog post, we talked in general terms about how overlooked the software user experience is in the burgeoning world of the Internet of Things (or internet of things, according to the AP). I thought we should follow up on that and get more specific.

So let’s talk about stoves.

The one always setting off smoke alarms in my kitchen is a Maytag. For the rest of this post you’ll have to accept the hypothetical that I do a lot of cooking and care about what stove I use (when, in reality, I had to run into the kitchen before I started writing this post to see what brand it was).

I mean, I could have bought any stove. There are a lot of them out there and, as far as I know, they can all bake lasagna. So why did I buy a Maytag?

Because I like their stoves better than other company’s stoves that have the same basic feature set and cost range. More specifically, I liked the experience of their stoves better. The experience is what sets them apart from other stoves.

That experience includes everything from how well its adjustable-level self-cleaning works to the view through its extra large oven window to its cubic feet of capacity—all the features you see in its online listing.

But the experience is more than that. It’s the texture, shape, and give of the knobs, the configuration of the burners on the stove top, the sheen of the metal, all the elements that Maytag has industrially designed to try to make their stoves the easiest to use, the most enjoyable to use, and the most aesthetically appealing over, say, the jerks at Kenmore. Just kidding, I’m sure their stoves bake lasagna, too.

Again, these companies all sell stoves, but it’s the experience of their stoves that sets them apart (or doesn’t) from their competition. And now, in the nascent era of the Internet of Things, that experience is extended into the software interface on the stove, which makes software design as important a contributor to the user experience as the stove’s industrial design.

Actually, it becomes somewhat more so.

The software experience will subsume some of that industrial design. No more twisting nobs because you have screen buttons. No more bending over to look in the window because you have a camera relaying images to the screen (and your phone). In subsuming those elements, it will influence the industrial design. The ultimate smart ovens will look very different from conventional ones (they’re already starting to…see the above image).

Eventually, customers will interact more with the user interface on the stove and on their phone that is linked to the stove than they will with the physical stove itself. That’ll change the Thanksgiving dynamic a bit, I think.

And this idea doesn’t just apply in B2C settings. It will apply to B2B “things,” as well. Because it still comes down to the experience a person is having with your thing and how much better or worse it is than your competition’s.

The battle just moves to the screen.

The Internet of Things Has No Face

It’s fun to talk about the Internet of Things (IoT). Mostly because of, you know, the word “things.” But also because it has the potential to change every object we interact with in life and therefore the very way we interact with life itself. That’s a big topic, so it’s interesting to see where the current discussion around IoT hits and misses. I did a quick Google News search and, in the media, there are four basic discussion threads:

  1. What the hell is IoT?
  2. IoT is hard to accomplish/impossible to secure/transformative.
  3. Every company wants a slice of IoT, even when they’ve no execution strategy.
  4. Consumers are still slow in accepting proto-IoT devices in their home (Echo, Nest, Dax and Kristen’s refrigerator).

However, what was never mentioned in the pages and pages of Google News that I swiped through, was the fact that IoT needs a face. And that’s not good. See, just as important as figuring out the practicals of adoption and security and monetization is prioritizing the user experience (UX).

Because, in the end, what IoT is really doing is creating a massive influx of new experiences, whether that new experience is with your waffle maker or across a fleet of trucks or embedded in the infrastructure of a city. That means the most common and most important interaction your customers will have with your company (and its brand) will be through an interface.

That interface will be your brand.

So the opportunity is huge for shifting and tightening the relationship with your customer, but the risk is also as great, since the dangers of a bad experience grow exponentially with every connected device and could wipe out all the success companies are looking for with IoT in the first place.

UX just can’t be ignored in IoT. It’s vital for adoption, for expanding your brand, for engaging customers, and for differentiating among competition. IoT doesn’t merely offer the promise of some new, better remote control. It offers the promise of a new, better experience. So you better have one.

Since the Dawn of Marketing, companies have tried to get our attention. Tried to get in our homes. Tried to get in our heads. Intrusive bastards.

Then software came along, and suddenly we were living and working inside products in a way that we never really had before. I mean, sure you plough a field inside a John Deere tractor, but you’re relationship with that product is a bit more circumscribed than, say, your relationship with Microsoft Windows.

And then software became the portal to the Internet.

And then the Internet became the world.

And that made software our portal to the world.

Of course, there are uncountable interworking, siloed, and antagonistic software experiences for navigating this connected world. Apple is famous for attempting a high level of control of the connected experience with its products, but even that is pretty confined compared to how many software hoops must be jumped through in a connected world.

Lately, it seems as if companies want a little more, though.

Facebook Home wants to be our filter for the entire mobile experience, regardless of the device we use.

Xbox wants to be our filter for the entire home entertainment experience, regardless of our TV and set-top boxes.

And Google Glass, well, it wants to be the filter for our entire experience. Google was never one to think small.

There are a couple of ways you can cut this cake. Certainly, there’s something to be said for simplifying our interactions with an increasingly complex and connected world. But there is also something uncomfortable about everything we do reduced to data points for companies to sift and capitalize on. But we’ve always been willing to offer that for a certain level of returned value. Then there’s the whole danger of extreme parochialism where we can’t see outside the bounds of our own individual connected experiences. But we can be pretty parochial anyway without all that.

Maybe it’s just a matter of companies hitting that “right” balance between helpful doorman and manipulative creep…which I guess is to just give more than they take. Or at least seem to be giving more than they take.

But then again, when they are the filters for our experiences, “seem” takes on a whole new meaning.

I guess my mood today is “cynical” and “rambling.”

Photo credit: Brandon Cripps, Flickr