Why has so much human-centered design lost its humanity?
Maybe it was when we all stopped saying “user experience” in favor of less humanized “UX.” Or, maybe it’s that large web and application design projects are too often starved for time and/or budget. But in any case, across the web, and in the Google and Apple app stores, are examples of digital experiences, created by serious people, for major institutions, where those compromises were seemingly made with little thought of their impact on the user, let alone the user experience. On a more positive note, if you follow these five rules when evaluating your UX decisions, you just might create an experience more valuable to people than the sum of its parts.
1. Stop calling them “users.”
They’re people. I’ve mentioned these lyrics before in a previous post, but it bears repeating. In the song Give Me Back My Name, Talking Heads frontman David Byrne sings, “There’s a word for it, and words don’t mean a thing. There’s a name for it, and names make all the difference in the world…” The point being, the language we use to describe things, beyond the most basic categorization, can affect our perceptions and, more importantly, the inherent opportunities we see in them.
Calling the class of people we are designing for “users” can have a dehumanizing effect. “Users,” in English, is often associated with a negative intent. Try closing your eyes and note what imagery pops into your mind when you think “user.” Now do the same for the word “people.” Did the imagery conjured in your mind have any difference in clarity? Empathy? Humanity?
Speaking of names, if we’re going to call ourselves designers, the name implies acceptance of some responsibility to those who choose, or are forced, to engage with our designs. If you don’t feel any difference shifting your nomenclature from users to people, pick the one person in the world you’d feel terrible disappointing—your mother, significant other, or your favorite grade school teacher—and use them as a proxy. It doesn’t matter who they are, per se, only that you would be emotionally invested in them having a more positive or productive experience. Then, design for them.
2. If some folks don’t “get it” it’s just bad.
We’ve all heard (or said ourselves) the rationalization for a failed or abandoned user journey that goes something like “They just don’t get it.” The implication in that response is that the person struggling with the UX is either too lazy or stupid to properly embrace the genius splayed out before them. But the job of any UX is, in fact, to be “gotten.” And if the people engaging with the design don’t get it, it’s always incumbent on the designer(s) to fix the UX, not the other way around.
3. Designing for accessibility is designing for everyone.
Designing for accessibility requires adherence to established information hierarchies and forces a certain clarity of design. These hierarchies exist because they are more familiar, if not decidedly more intuitive, for users, particularly those users that have a visual impairment. Further, it forces the information designer to be conscious of how each navigation choice relates to every other choice.
Your code will be better organized, and that’s easier to maintain. Basic accessibility design requires a clear separation between the presentation layer and the data layer and something called “source order,” which means structuring the code to reflect the visual design of the layout. This overlaps with other best practice issues like mobile compatibility and device independence.
Case studies show that accessible websites have better search results, reduced maintenance costs, and increased audience reach, among other benefits. Because the designers have had to design the quickest way for an impaired user to get to content, it improves the online experience for all users. The added tagging and metadata required for accessibility makes more of your content available to search engines and other automatic data-mining applications. This can significantly increase the chance that people searching for particular content on your site can find it. And let’s face it, we all benefit from improved SEO.
As an added bonus, it’s been shown that because sites designed for accessibility use more widely accepted design and code standards, they perform better on wider variety of current and legacy browsers. Better yet, these sites should also perform better in any new browsers or devices introduced in the future.
4. It’s never done.
We have a saying at Magnani, “Everything is a prototype.” That doesn’t mean the end product is incomplete. It means that every experience can be improved. Even a well-thought-out UX that has been sufficiently user tested will reveal opportunities over time. Review your analytics and user feedback, always keeping an eye out for ways to improve the experience.
That could mean refining web forms to increase completion rates and improve lead generation. It could mean uncovering the most frequent points of exit on your user journey and making adjustments to your UX, your design, or simply the language involved.
5. Love is not too much to ask.
If we started these rules with David Byrne, who better to close them than Mary Poppins. More specifically, the song Anything Can Happen: “if you reach for the stars all you get are the stars… If you reach for the heavens, you get the stars thrown in.”
Love is a strong word. It’s also a high bar, design-wise. But when we go through UX design reviews at Magnani, after every designer presents their concepts, the first question asked is, “Do you love it?” If the answer is “no” or “not yet,” the discussion moves to answering questions around how far away the design is from something people love, and what it might take to bridge that gap.
Admittedly, it’s not always easy in every project to achieve something that goes beyond useful or acceptable to create an experience worthy of actual love. But when that is the goal, as Mary Poppins would surely agree, that’s when the magic happens.
Design is always an exercise in choosing where or when to compromise. Great design comes from not compromising your humanity in the process.
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