Your day can be broken into two categories, inputs and outputs. It’s a cat and mouse game of stimulus and response that starts the instant your phone’s alarm wakes you up, to the moment you slip into sleep. Things happen, and it’s up to you to react — and hopefully in the best way possible. The unfortunate thing is that willpower is a finite resource. You see, everybody has a different amount of self control, and it replenishes at different rates.
So from the a user’s perspective, i.e, a living breathing person, it’s about managing the inputs so they have better outputs.
But you can’t play God and manage all the inbound traffic attacking our senses. It’s impossible. You can’t will things into existence. You can’t get extra hours in a day. And if you can do either of those things, let me know. But in the end, it’s all about the inputs and the outputs.
The Role of a Designer
It’s our job to design for great outputs — great experiences. Not just the aesthetic, but distilling the essence of what’s being conveyed to provide a concentrated dose of meaning. What we produce is destined to be used by other people, and it’s our duty to ensure that the time others spend with our creation is beneficial, not detrimental.
Everyone is an experience designer, it’s just that most people can find titles that are even more indictive of what kind of value they provide.
Musicians design landscapes of sound to invoke feelings, emotions, and memories. Athletes design themselves into well-oiled machines, pushing the boundaries of humanity, and inspiring entertaining others. Politicians design the laws of the land, creating an infrastructure to support people to do amazing things.
If you call yourself a designer, then your design decisions should be informed by all the relevant information you can possibly absorb, just like the jazz musician.
Your design decisions can't be arbitrary, they have to serve a purpose. Just like the athlete that's in competition, everything is calculated. Every step, every breathe, every head movement. The higher the stakes, the less room there is for error.
And like the politician, the designer must work with their constituents to create the infrastructure for future work to successfully build on top of.
The musician is nothing without anyone to hear them, the athlete can't compete if they're aren't competitors, and the politicians are useless without constituents. Design doesn't happen in a bubble.
Context is King
With user experience design, it’s about focusing on the person that will be using your work, within a context.
That last part, within a context, is of the utmost importance. Without that, you’ve got nothing.
Actually, it’s worse than nothing.
Without context, you lose all meaning to what you’re going towards.
When defining the contexts that people will be using your creation in, the level of detail is up to you. Just don't get too caught up in creating a fantasy universe — remember that the purpose is to uncover insights you might've not discovered otherwise.
User Personas as a Design Tool
One way to help identify users, their situations, and possible needs that your design hasn't met is with user personas. They're helpful at the start of projects, especially if you're designing something from scratch — as you might not have a user base to glean information from.
This does take a little creative writing ability, but not much, as everything should be centered around providing insights to help you towards your goal: designing for an amazing experience. Now, there are details I included in the beginning that didn't matter much as I filled out the persona, e.g., oldest of three, travelled to Europe, but it made this fake person more real in my mind.
So here’s an example of a user persona I made for a person that's considering downloading a photography application called VSCO cam.
Good at basics. Gets frustrated easily.
Full-time student, Part-time waitress
- Julia is the oldest of three, with two younger brothers — one of which was adopted
- Has been in Iceland her whole life, except when she traveled around Europe for two months when she was 21
- Is an INFJ that enjoys interacting with people mostly online through Twitter and Instagram
- Loves exploring nature and enjoys sharing great outdoor photos with Instagram from her white iPhone 5C
- Isn’t a trained photographer, doesn’t worry about editing too much, but is constantly trying to improve
- Currently studying communications at college, but has switched her major a couple of times already
- “Why do I need to spend money for a photo editing app if Instagram’s built-in stuff is fine?”
- “Lots of people I follow on Instagram use other apps to edit their photos, & I want to be as good as them!”
- “I see lots of other great photographers use Afterlight and VSCO, so they must know something I don’t.”
- “If I take photos with VSCO, where do they go?”
- “Will my photos be duplicated if I use another app? I hardly have enough room as is.”
- “I don’t want to take a lot of time messing with my phone. I’d rather look at a sunset than at a screen.”
- “The last time I downloaded a photo editing app, I lost some photos. I don’t want that happening again.”
Their Ideal Experience
- VSCO is free, with in-app purchases for more filters, so she won’t have to spend any money up front.
- With the VSCO Grid, Julia can explore more photos and photographers for inspiration online.
- VSCO’s copy and paste feature makes it easy to apply the same fine-tuned effects to photos, saving time.
- VSCO allows Julia to learn more about exposure and focus controls, something she hasn’t explored before.
“So VSCO was intimidating at first, and very artsy. I still feel like I don’t know exactly what I’m doing, but the Grid keeps me going. Still constantly running out of space!”
With that done, I can now look at the pain points the current design might not address, and also see what areas to improve upon. You want to do more than one to give you a wide range of perspectives to look from, and different demographics. There might be opportunities to work with whoever does the marketing (which might even be you) to see if it might just be a communication problem that creates false expectations, or doesn't clearly communicate what is actually happening.
Start creating your own user personas to uncover gaps in your design.
To make your life easier, I made a nice template you can use for your next project. It's easy to create multiple personas all in one file, share them with your team, and even print them out for your next meeting.
Let me know if you found them useful, or even have feedback as I'm always looking to improve my toolkit.