5 things you should know about putting users first in UX design

At our latest Lunch and Learn in our Design Studio in Brussels, we invited Belfius, Proximus, VRT and the European Commission to come have lunch with us. Besides sandwiches, we shared some thoughts and ideas about being user-centric in a digital environment. We discussed challenging experiences, proposed interesting opportunities and articulated razor-sharp opinions. Curious for our five key takeaways?
  1. Ask what you don’t know
  2. Validate your ideas
  3. Go for (design) systems
  4. Show, don’t tell
  5. Nobody cares about your company (structure)

Ask what you don’t know

If you want to know what users think, simply… ask them. An age-old technique and proven time and again to be highly effective, yet so many brands still don’t apply this simple method. Why? They believe "they already know their audience". They don’t think customers know what they want, let alone articulate it properly. And even if they could, those results still wouldn’t be representative of the entire target group. Sigh.

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need 500 articulately crafted interviews conducted by highly professional (and highly expensive) market research agencies. A study by the Nielsen Norman Group, shows that you can get representative results with as little as 5 user test interviews (but they’d recommend 9, just to be sure).

Bottom line: you’re looking for the stuff that numbers won’t tell you. You want to understand the problem, not just validate your solution. Why do people interact with your product? Or why don’t they? In any discussion regarding customer research, Henry Ford’s quote inevitably pops up: "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses." With this infamous saying, two things instantly become clear: (1) Henry Ford might have been a little bit of a douchebag and (2) customer research is your inevitable first step. In this one sentence you are able to unravel people’s motivation (they use horses to get to places faster) and to spot opportunity (they want to get there even faster). A clear challenge that’s ready for a creative solution.

But most importantly: you have to do it yourself. Don’t rely on assumptions or put all your trust in market research results. Conduct your own interviews, organize thorough observations and get to actually know your audience. Spend time with the people you want to reach, and train yourself in understanding who they are and what it is that they want. Really, just do it. (Nike, please don’t sue us).


Validate your ideas

Maybe you’ve come up with a new feature on your app. Maybe you want to expand into a new and innovative industry. Maybe you’ve thought of a revolutionary new way of communicating digitally. Whatever it is you want to tackle next, you’d like to know if your audience’s actually interested before making such a huge investment. Makes sense.

It’s a well-known fact that people are bad at predicting what they want. Sure, they might say they’d love to interact with your new feature. But when it comes down to it, will they? Luckily, there’s an experimental technique to test if their well-meant intentions actually hold up.

Hello Fake Door Testing. Yes, maybe people aren’t all that great at future personal predictions. But, they are exceptionally good at reacting to things that already exist. Instagram has beat us to a use case example. When they were thinking of implementing voice recording into their DM’s, they didn’t start ringing up their developers asking them to cancel their upcoming weekend plans. No. They added a voice button next to their message screen that led to… nothing. Just to see if their users would click on their new feature before actually building it. Turns out, they did. And that’s how sliding into your DM’s just became a whole lot easier. Thank you, Instagram.

Want to predict if your audience is actually interested? Add a fake button, design a new pop-up banner, advertise something that does not yet exist or create a landing page explaining the purpose of your potential future service. Or, if you have the time, resources and are in the mood to go big, build a tiny 'beta' version. Why? Because this way, you’re only making things you’re (relatively) sure people are actually waiting for.


Go for (design) systems

Goodbye forever analog brand books with endless lists of design rules. You won’t be missed. The time is (almost) here and designers everywhere are cheering in unison. With everything shifting more and more towards digital, there’s a new player rising above it all: design systems.

A design system is a collection of reusable components guided by clear standards that can be assembled together to build any number of applications. In simple terms? It’s a digital guideline that dictates everything design-related (think typography, color schemes, photography rules, illustration styles …) in order to guide the brand’s style.

Not much of a difference with old-school brand books, you say? Correct, and also highly perceptive of you! Right now, it’s basically a different way of doing the exact same thing. But the future looks bright and wonderfully interesting. Design systems are, in sharp contrast with traditional brand books, adaptable, constantly evolving and always improving.

This implies that in an ideal world (fingers crossed!), when one designer changes something in the design system (let’s say: alters the logo), all other logos automatically change as well (On Facebook, on Instagram, on the website …). No more reinventing the wheel every time a new brief comes in. Working with design systems would mean a higher consistency for your users, and - in the case of all hardworking designers - being home in time for dinner.


Show, don’t tell

Jony Ive created 561 prototypes before debuting its final version of the Leica M camera model. He didn’t launch 561 minimum viable products. He created prototypes, drew rough sketches and did whatever he could to show his idea in a visual way.

As far as we’re concerned, that’s the way to do it. To determine and assess if your idea is worth pursuing, show it as quickly as possible to an audience. Ask if they understand it and adapt if necessary. If they come up with another solution or a general remark, quickly draw it again so you have a new starting point - even if it’s something as basic as a rough sketch. Because throughout the whole process, the work gets more tangible, less abstract and is instantly judged by its flaws or its strengths.


Nobody cares about your company (structure)

It doesn’t matter how big or how small your company is. The end goal is always the same: satisfying the client. Don’t let corporate structures hold you back. Create teams that transcend the corporate silo structure with members from all (relevant) business departments. Go through the company at high speed, ask permission afterwards.

A great tool to maintain a healthy collaborative spirit? Deciding on design principles on day one. Agree on all big things but allow discussions on the details. Draw up general high-level rules to abide by. Think: This is for everyone. Design with data. Build digital services, not websites. When there are discussions further down the line, go back to your initial design principles and make the design choice aligned with your philosophy. Trust us, you’ll thank us later.

Because, as is the case with all great things, good design is through teamwork.
Good luck out there.


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