Even when the tide is coming in you can still have fun.
I should start by saying that what I know is invariably the product of my work with teams. In my last design role I was VP of Product at Local Search Startup Krillion, before that I completed a six-year tour of duty with Ariba, and going further back, thirteen years at Vector, a design studio I started and owned in Toronto. It’s an interesting journey that’s taken me from fledgling designer/entrepreneur to veteran User Experience director/evangelist. From start to finish, the teams I’ve worked with, and those I’ve built have been stellar.
The narrative approach I’ve chosen appealed to me after culling through hundreds of resumes feeling “there has to be a more creative way to present this career history.” My LinkedIn profile is available of course but I hope you’ll take the time to read on. Scrolling is never an imposition on the user if the content is compelling 😉
In my Toronto studio feedback on our designs was anecdotal. Clients occasionally ran focus groups but for the most part our yardstick for success was whether we were given another paying assignment. As the web came to dominate our identity work, we looked at server logs and tried to divine user experience from rudimentary reports.
At Ariba I was introduced to User Research and began what has become a love affair with the discipline that informed all our design work and kept us honest. The impact of user studies is typically inescapable and critical to building usable applications/sites. Ariba’s labs saw a constant stream of participants, live and remote, internal and external during an iterative cycle of design and development.
In our UX advocacy role we had success bringing stakeholder groups into the light.
With respect to testing I tried to pilot all the studies we ran, reasoning there was no better way to stay informed and influence the functionality firehose we didn’t always have the bandwidth to direct with prototypes. Increasingly it became clear that field research paid huge dividends. Finding opportunities and budget to make that happen remained one of my principle goals.
In late 2000 I took responsibility for driving Ariba’s compliance with ADA 508 legislation. The June 2001 enforcement deadline loomed just over the horizon and we knew next to nothing about the standard. In truth, not many people did, least of all the government officials charged with interpreting it.
It was a sobering and emotional journey at times. It took me to Florida to work with the State Disability Office and a remarkable group of users: a blind agency director, a blind IT Manager, a quadriplegic lawyer and a 27-year veteran purchasing agent. Each day all of them overcame enormous challenges to lead productive lives and all they wanted us to do was make sites and web applications function reasonably so they could keep their jobs.
Hearing a blind user listening to a screen-reader at 300 words per minute or navigating around a page by remembering a complex series of tab clicks made an indelible impression.
Here especially there was no substitute for observing real users. It taught us that the technical standards themselves were only a means to an end, and that clean structural markup was more important than a collection of affordances like skip navigation links and proper alt attributes. Looking back we clearly made progress but it’s an area where web design can better partner with assistive technology to help users.
Great visual design is seldom the result of compromise, and yet it seems I’ve spent most of my professional career finding ways to bend but not break. Complex web projects are inherently collaborative – depending on the multi-disciplinary skills of dozens or hundreds of specialists most of whom are technical – so it’s no surprise that visual decisions can spark spirited debate.
Visual design is much more than making things look pretty, it’s about readable typography, appropriate information density, selective emphasis that balances initial and repeat usage, and information graphics that communicate rather than confuse. Generally I believe less is more and nowhere is there more need for restraint than in the design of web applications.
At Ariba I had some success in propagating a simpler visual treatment. The framework was basically monochromatic. Color highlights were reserved for key interactions and status. Branding was controlled by a single css file. The objective being to make the applications usable and attractive, and for the most part we achieved that goal.
My biggest failure at Ariba was my inability to control the proliferation of icons in the UI. If there was an international treaty governing their use, I’d sign it. Used selectively to represent clear concepts like error, warning or new, icons are a powerful, space-efficient visual device for the designer. When they’re sprinkled like confetti or used to encapsulate complex concepts like “approved negotiation task” they become tiny visual puzzles that distract and slow the user.
Training and various forms of help are a safety net I hope are always there for users, but they is no substitute for good design and it always pays real-world dividends.
Make it intuitive and usable from day one and user adoption barriers will fall away so your solution has a chance to deliver the ROI it promised. Good design creates advocates, not prisoners. Get it right initially and reduce change management down the road.
When the inevitable weight of usability issues finally drops it may be too late for users, and retrofitting an existing application is painful for developers already struggling to balance bug fixing and new functionality requirements.
If I distilled what I’ve learned into just three principles, they’d be these.
1. Do upfront user research; know the user, understand the domain, differentiate the roles and build task flow focused on the 80% use case.
2. Demonstrate that you know who the user is by personalizing the user experience, practice progressive disclosure and remember everything the user explicitly chooses to do in the way of UI customization.
3. Staff and empower your design team to make the ultimate decisions that shape the user experience.