As a kid, I used to build model cars and boats with my grandpa in his workshop. I remember the careful planning that went into every cut we made. Even though he had a very reliable jigsaw, he knew better than to eyeball his cuts and hope for the best. He identified the shape of each piece we needed and measured out even the simplest details. And then, he would doublecheck his measurements. He made a special point of reminding me that the extra time and effort it took to do those things would help us avoid having to go back and start over again. That was my first lesson in investing time where it counts.
When creating a web product, it is worth taking the time and effort to understand owner and user goals. In a previous article, “The Power of User Experience (UX) Design,” I explained the basics about UX Design and why it is an important tool in designing experiences for users. To recap, UX Design is the art of identifying the intended users, learning about their needs, and coming up with a gameplan to best serve them. In this article, I want to explore the ways UX principles can help save time by identifying and outlining a clear path to design solutions.
Streamlining the Design Process
As explained in “UX and UI: Designing for Positive User Experience,” it is wise to apply UX design principles from the start of a web design project. While it’s tempting to avoid the extra time it will take to get to know users, having this information will save much more time in later phases of the process. When target users and their needs are identified up-front, it cuts out a lot of the guesswork for UI designers.
When I first start an interface design, I feel as though I’m diving into a dark cave. Even as a well-experienced “spelunker” of new design projects, I face a lot of challenges and questions. After all, each cave is unique. Knowledge about the target users is like turning on a flashlight with 100,000 lumens of brightness. It becomes much easier to navigate a project once I know who I am designing for. Very often, I avoid bumping into unexpected problems and getting stuck in a maze of guesses. More importantly, I can design with confidence, knowing that I am heading in the right direction.
If I am asked to design an interface without any background about who will be using it, I face a paradox of crippling freedom. It’s the same struggle that I would face if I decided to design without a grid. Technically, I could put anything I wanted anywhere. In reality, I would be second-guessing every design decision I made. I would likely design and re-design until got frustrated, prompting me go back to the drawing board and start all over again. When I finally arrived at a finished design, it would most likely suffer from a lot of inconsistencies and issues. In the same way, having knowledge about target users and their goals is like applying a grid. It informs my decision-making and I arrive at workable solutions faster and with more confidence.
Small Picture, Big Picture
When the first round of the website design process is completed, designs typically go through a series of critiques. During these critiques, the tendency is to focus on personal likes and dislikes. Having owner and user goals clearly outlined can help sift the critiques into small picture and big picture categories.
For instance, if someone doesn’t like an image or a color choice, that tends to be of little consequence to the effectiveness of the overall design. That makes it an easy correction. However, if someone doesn’t like the order of content on a page and wants to change it, there could be more at stake. Changes like these should be informed by both the owner’s and user’s goals. If making this change could harm these goals, it’s worth having a discussion and exploring other ways to solve the problem.
If these goals are not defined, everything in a design is expendable by default. That means that a design could go through numerous edit cycles before everyone is happy. And even after that happens, the design will likely not serve the target users effectively. This is because the owner’s goals are very often not the same as the user’s goals. Knowing the needs of both the owners and target users can protect the important components of a design and hone the focus of critiques.
The Pitfalls of Backtracking
When a design is approved and translated into a developed web product, the real value of UX and UI design principles becomes increasingly clear. On the surface, identifying owner and user goals may seem to require extra steps and a lot of time and effort. However, those steps are essential to avoid the biggest pitfall in web development: backtracking.
If a design is not tested and approved by both owners and users before it is developed, it is very likely that flaws in the design will bubble to the surface when the final product is launched. This will lead to user complaints, a drop-off of valued customers, and an inevitable need to go back to the drawing board.
Even before a product is launched, it is not uncommon for underproved designs to be heavily adjusted during development. This is due to a lack of confidence in the flow and function of the design. A well-tested, user-approved design carries a badge of integrity that is difficult to question. Without that, developers may very well find themselves forced to do the job of the UI designer while using development tools. This is where the most time can be lost. While design tools are intended to be flexible and produce design solutions quickly, designing with development tools is a bit like trying to sculpt with iron girders.
I think Jaguar and Land Rover CEO Dr. Ralf Speth said it best: “If you think good design is expensive, you should look at the cost of bad design.” Nine times out of ten, backtracking costs more time and produces less impressive results than careful planning upfront. For that reason, it is always worth investing in a good UX/UI strategy.
The Results Outweigh the Cost
Applying UX/UI principles to your web presence may seem new and daunting. In some ways, it feels simpler and cheaper to focus on the design and make corrections over time. But if we’re honest, we’ve all seen websites that feel “patched” with tacked-on features or “shuffled” by too many attempts at guessing the optimal order of information. Even though modern design and development tools allow for greater flexibility, it’s still difficult to achieve a seamless result without a lot careful planning and testing.
When making a wise investment, the results should be more valuable than the cost. Applying UX/UI principles to the design process will help…
- reduce design time,
- increase design confidence and accuracy,
- inform design critiques,
- reduce development and design backtracking,
- produce better overall product results,
- and increase the longevity and effectiveness of the product.
Without exception, UX/UI design principles are the key to a streamlined design and development process. It ensures a more enjoyable journey for owners, designers and developers alike, while producing polished, effective web experiences that outlast their patchwork competitors.