USER EXPERIENCE (UX): Understanding User Research & Design
Lecture 1 – Understanding User Research & Design
I put together this course because I know there are a lot of workers out there who’ve never done UX, but are curious about the profession.
Becoming a UX professional is easier for some, then for others. UX is a field which developed out of the fields of usability and human factors, fields which are related to software development. Individuals with experience related to social science research or technology may have a big advantage. Anyone with a background in web development, software development, graphic design, research, psychology, engineering or business analysis: is especially well suited. My goal was to create a course that would be very quick to take, and would provide the core ideas essential to the profession.
UX is not just about designing something that looks visually and aesthetically stunning, but it is a profession with many components that contribute towards delivering an excellent experience. UX is a professional field which contains several disciplines. The main components are user experience design and user research. UX design refers to the interactions a user has with a product. User research refers to understanding users and their needs.
UX is essential to all kinds of products and services. The creation of a digital product should be overseen by someone who is familiar with the principles of user experience. Applying user experience fundamentals to the design process leads to the design of products which are more usable, pleasant and engaging to the end customer. Products designed with user experience in mind end up doing better in the marketplace, offering the brands which they represent with a competitive advantage. A bad user experience will ensure that people do not come back for another visit. A user experience which is not bad, but only acceptable, will not guarantee that the user does not go to a competitor. Though advanced features may be a good selling point, most users end up being loyal to the brands which have the better user experience rather than the most advanced functionality.
In this introductory course, we will look at the research process used to understand users and their needs, and we will discuss design principles as well.
- people new to UX
- people interested in UX basics
- workers who need to apply UX process
- students curious about UX
- UX practitioners
- web professionals
- team leads
Lecture 2 – User Experience
User experience is a discipline where professionals use research and design principles to create products that provide users with a great experience. The course will describe the essentials of user experience, specifically, it will describe user experience research that can be used during the product design process. The course will also discuss the design process and offer an overview of analysis principles relevant to UX.
We have all noticed at some point or another, that some brands, produce products which are consistently “better” than their competition. Most of the time, when we think of a product having a criteria which is superior, we are actually thinking about the experience which we’ve had with the product. Sometimes we purchase a product and the experience is great, and at other times, the experience is dreadful. So what is a good and what is a bad experience? A good experience occurs when we get a product that is perhaps pleasant to use, fun to use, easy to use, useful for our tasks and perhaps even looks like it has a good design. On the other hand, a bad experience is one that can be described as stressful, confusing, inefficient and perhaps with no visual aesthetic. Another interesting aspect that differentiates good experience from bad, deals with whether or not the product is flexible in that it allows the user to do the task as they wish. Is the product consistent within their understanding, or does it force the user to take a particular path which the designer sets. It can be a frustrating experience to deal with a unique product design that does not fit the norms of knowledge that a user may have. This could result in a bad experience. Lastly, a very important aspect to consider is whether or not the users experience success with the system while also allowing the company to achieve its objectives. After all, if the product or system does not solve the problem which the user has, why would the user come back for repeat business?
Let’s do a brief analysis of two websites in regards to user experience. A website which I frequently visit is called Best Buy. They are a large consumer electronics retailer. Seeing as though Best Buy competes in a tough online e-commerce retail space, it is important for the company to ensure that their web platform offers their customers a good user experience. If customers to the site do not succeed at buying the merchandise, then the company will not grow, and will not be competitive in the future. Best Buy wants customers to have success in shopping on their web platform, and this requires a design with a good experience. As part of the design, one can see there are things such as reviews, recommendations, tips, product descriptions and other useful features. The company’s goal is to provide all of the necessary information to the user, while also providing users with the necessary tools that make the experience more effective. The user experience they provide serves to encourage repeat business from the customers, as well as, referrals.
A second website which I frequently visit, is the website for the city of Victoria BC. This website was created so as to help the citizens and businesses within Victoria connect with the city, discover features of the city, and to access resources available in the city. The city provides users with information, and this helps the users access critical services they may need. The site optimizes the efficiency of city staff because it provides information and resource documentation that would otherwise typically consume the time of workers. Without the site, workers would be required to perform a lot of redundant tasks. The site offers a good experience, and this makes it more likely that it will be shared with other users.
We can break down the UX process into several phases, including: evaluation, design, implementation. In the evaluation phase, we attempt to understand the problems that users have and we think about the requirements necessary to meet those needs. In the design phase, we generate many different ideas which could potentially solve the problem that was highlighted in the evaluation phase. Lastly, in the implementation phase, we select some of the best ideas and implement them into prototypes. The prototypes help us to get further feedback, which we can then use to narrow down the solution to the most optimum choice. We can apply methods such as user testing and formal inspection as well. This process will lead to the generation of insights, but we may need to repeat the whole process, or iterate, until we can be certain that we have created a product that has a good user experience.
Lecture 3 – User Experience Research
USER EXPERIENCE RESEARCH
When implementing a piece of code or designing an interface, it can be tempting for the developer to make the product for a type of user, which is exactly like them. However, people vary greatly in their approach to the use of a product, in their expectations, and in their needs. It is very important for a developer or designer to research who the users of the product will be, as well as what needs they have. Designing a product to meet the requirements and perspectives of others, is the key.
UX practitioners usually use three different methods in user experience research. Central to all methods, the researcher will need to figure out who they have to reach. First, the researcher will have to ask questions to the user about their thoughts. Researchers can conduct interviews and surveys. The interviews will involve discussions that will reveal the different experiences. And the surveys will involve questions that are shown to many different people, and will reveal the same kind of information. This research will provide the researcher with insights into user experiences. Second, the researcher will have to watch the behaviour of the users. Researchers can conduct observations, as these will reveal more than the interviews. Observations will involve watching users perform activities, such as watching people interact with prototypes. The researcher can set up user testing, where users can be observed performing scripted tasks on systems. Third, the researcher can inspect prototypes and other deliverables. The researcher can compare the system to guidelines and principles, in an attempt to find out what rules are violated and where the system is likely to fail. The researcher can also compare the system to other systems, in an attempt to figure out the strengths and weaknesses of the design. These types of research methods will assist the designer to guide the product towards a good user experience.
One of the main methods of UX research is User Testing. As part of User Testing, the researcher observes a representative set of users attempt to perform tasks on the system they are evaluating. Through observation, the researcher is able to learn what works about the system and what does not work. The researcher can observe where the users have difficulties and make note of incident areas. There are a lot of insights that can arise from observations, and this can lead to the design of a good product.
As part of the process of observing users attempt to use a system, it is important to ensure that they are not led in the tasks assigned. The researcher must avoid providing the users with clues or tips or insights on how to go about performing particular tasks. The users must struggle to perform tasks and figure them out on their own. The researcher must not lead the users on to how to perform tasks. If there are certain terms in the interface that are part of the task instructions, the researcher must be careful not to use such leading terms, as these will tip off the user on where to go and how to approach the problem. Another interesting point to note about user testing, is the “think aloud protocol”. Users should think aloud, or talk about what’s on their mind, or what they are thinking about, as they attempt to solve tasks. This provides the researcher with information as to the mental processes and the thoughts which users have, as they attempt to navigate the tasks. Otherwise, without having a running stream of consciousness as to the thought process, the observer cannot know exactly what the user is looking at, what they are looking for, what they are thinking, what is the source of confusion, how they are feeling, how they are understanding the presentation and so forth. Capturing and analyzing and evaluating a user’s thought is central to the user testing process. After the user completes the tasks assigned, the researcher should debrief the user. The researcher will have hunches on certain observations throughout the assignment, which can then be clarified during the debrief. Further, any areas where the user may have had difficulty, or may not have completed correctly, are important areas to go over and review. It is better to have a discussion about such difficulties after the task, rather than to interrupt the assignment in the middle. It is not a good idea to interrupt a user in the middle of an assignment. The researcher can probe for more information and resolve questions during the debrief.
TESTING WITH USERS – Some companies are more successful at producing great products than others. Usually, the company with a design process that involves testing the product with users, releases the more successful product. The company which has insight into how the users think, and which knows what user needs are, has the advantage. UX designers know that user input is the key for successful product refinement and iteration. However, many team members and companies are not excited about this time and resource consuming process. It is the UX practitioners role to show the benefits of user involvement to the stakeholders, and to show that it will not be a resource intensive and time consuming process. The UX practitioner should invite the project stakeholders to view a few test sessions, and this will help to enlighten team members unfamiliar with the benefits of testing with users. Many team members are often shocked as to the big problems that are discovered throughout the testing session, which were not noticed ahead of time. The research that a UX practitioner accumulates through testing, will then carry more weight in the minds of stakeholders, and fewer design decisions will need to be justified.
Lecture 4 – Usability Testing
USABILITY TESTING – During a Usability Test, the UX practitioner observes a user interact with a prototype product. The practitioner observes users attempt to perform certain assigned tasks, a real world use scenario, and then collects data on the thoughts and actions of the user as they attempt to navigate towards task completion. This type of testing provides the practitioner with great qualitative and quantitative data into the design, and also user feedback. Further, the test session strengthens the case for user testing, as stakeholders are able to view and understand the importance of the testing process.
Usability testing can be broken down into two main types. Either the test is performed on an existing system that needs to be improved, or it will be performed on a system in development that requires more input on the evolving design. By involving users in the process, the designer is reducing risk in the decision making, as the users act as a safety in double checking the approach outlined towards solving the design problem identified. Most important, usability testing will lead to a report with a large number of design recommendations. All the best designs aren’t just created at random, but they are a result of iterative refinement with expert analysis and user involvement.
OBSERVATION TYPES – In order to make effective observations of a user, the user must be open to discuss and provide feedback about the problems and issues they encounter throughout the tasks. They can only do this if they are relaxed, so the UX practitioner must strive to create and maintain such an environment. The best way to do this, is to maintain an ongoing and easy going conversation with the user. When the user is relaxed and ready to go, the UX practitioner needs to make certain types of observations throughout the test. Here are some examples:
Was the product effective at detecting errors?
Was the product effective at recovering from errors?
Are conventions used in the product easy to remember?
How enjoyable was the task to accomplish?
How difficult was the task for the user?
Why was the user unsuccessful in any given step?
REDIRECTING USERS – While observing the users perform a task, there can come a step at which the user becomes confused and unable to proceed to the next step in the task. At such a point, the user may begin to ask questions, such as: Should I click this icon? Remember, it is important to not lead the user to task completion, so the solution is to attempt to redirect the user. An example of a redirection comment in which a host can use is: “What do you believe you should do?” or “What’s your best guess?”. The user might reply “I’m not really sure, but I think the icon makes most sense.. ? Redirection comments are important, because users attempt to get the researcher to answer the questions. Using redirection comments two or three times, will shift the focus back on the users, and steer the conversation towards having the users make the important decisions. Attempt to use different redirection comments, so as to not make it obvious that you are redirecting the conversation.
If the user still has difficulty, after redirecting to them 2 or 3 times, the researcher may have no choice but to “close the step”. Sometimes, it is important to help the user complete a step, in order to make sure that they are able to complete the task. It does not make sense to sit idly by for a long time, if a user is blocked on a step and cannot proceed further. The UX practitioner can intervene by making a statement such as “How about we stop working on this troublesome step, move forward in the process, and come back to review the problem after the test session?”.
CONDUCTING USABIILTY TESTS – Anything resembling an examination or a test can make some people uncomfortable or nervous. The UX practitioner should strive to create a calm and relaxing environment. To do this, the UX practitioner should converse with the user about the rules and expectations of the test session. By providing instructions, the users grasp of the situation will improve, and consequently, user confidence and overall comfort should increase as well. Users that are comfortable and calm, are more likely to act as they would in a real life situation. Users that are not comfortable, may show unusual behaviour within the exam environment, and that behaviour will certainly not provide realistic data. For this reason, the session will need to begin with an overview of the rules. Once the session begins, remember to ask the user to “think aloud” and then observe them quietly as they go on about the task. Attempt not to intervene, even if they have difficulties. The best response, is to attempt to use open ended questions to attempt to have the user think through the problem and figure out the correct path themselves. As a last resort, step in to help, but review the source of confusion at the end of the session. Some participants will fly through the tasks and have no issues. Others will talk a lot. Still others will have a very tough time. Some users will provide a wealth of information, whereas others will provide little useful information. Every user is different.
Here is a sample to do list of things to go over before, during, and after the test.
Before Test Session:
- Check that prototype is ready to be accessed.
- Check audio and/or screen recording equipment.
- Prepare the script.
- Clear any history from previous session.
During Test Session:
- Welcome the user.
- Request user to sign non-disclosure agreement and sign that they are ok with being filmed.
- Provide the incentive.
- Start recording device(s).
- Summarize the purpose, process and plan of the session.
- Tell user that they are not being tested, but the design is.
- Encourage honesty and state that it is ok to express criticism and negative thoughts.
- Encourage users to express their thoughts verbally as they interact with the prototype.
- Explain that the recordings are strictly for the purpose of product improvement.
- Ask the users whether or not they have any questions.
- State that there are no right or wrong answers.
- State that the user does not have to answer something they don’t want to answer.
- State that the user is free to leave at any point they wish.
- Follow the plan and script.
After Test Session:
- Stop recording devices and save recordings.
- Save the notes.
- Review information gathered.
Lecture 5 – Reviewing The Usability Test
DEBRIEF – The debrief allows one to generate new data through a discussion with the participant. If the participant had problems which were unresolved throughout the test session, the debrief provides the chance to explore the problem by going back and discussing the scenario which was unsuccessful. Going back and recreating the situation, and then asking the participant to describe the moments of confusion, can lead to new insights about what went wrong during the task assignment. Participants can try to re-do failed steps, which will focus the analysis to the problem areas within the design.
In addition, the debrief is also a chance to ask specific prepared questions about the product.
- What is your opinion of the product?
- Is there anything you think could be made better?
- What is your favourite aspect of this product?
- Would you use this product?
REVIEWING THE USABILITY TEST – The next phase of the process involves a review and assessment of the notes you have made during the test session. During the test, you will have made notes on data such as: whether the participant was successful at the different points within the assigned tasks and what errors were made. There is a lot of data to go through, so patterns need to be identified which can summarize the significance of the data. Numerical data will be easy to understand as it is easy to benchmark and compare such data. Qualitative data is a bit harder to benchmark, as it deals with unique insights and building up conclusions supported by evidence. Both types of data should be used when working to create a comprehensive and solid design report.
The notes made during the test session and the recordings made, will help in the review process. Human memory does not capture the sufficient level of details of events, and that is why we need to take notes and make recordings. As part of the review process, the researcher will need to review the notes and watch and/or listen to the recordings. The notes and recordings will cause recall and recognition memory to trigger the thoughts and feelings that were experienced during the test. Further, seeing as though the researcher no longer needs to focus on running the complex test session or on the participant, the researcher will be “mentally free” to concentrate on the actual analysis of the information. Look for the moments in the recordings where the user had difficulty accomplishing the assigned steps and/or tasks. Look for the reactions and interpret them. Attempt to understand why the errors occurred. Then rate their importance and severity. By severity, it is useful to know the level of problem the incident posed, so that we may know how to rank the incidents and prioritize them as part of the design report.
REPORTING – Finally, after in depth analysis and review of the usability tests, the researcher will need to write the usability test report. The report will include both the problems that the users encountered, as well as the ideas the researcher presents on how to solve those problems. Specifically, the report should include: a description of the test, a description of the users, findings and recommendations for redesign.
Lecture 6 – Design
So when we discuss the idea of design in the context of UX, what exactly does design mean. Well most people typically associate the idea of design with appearance or looks. But in the UX context, design is more than that, it’s how it functions. The design is a schematic which shows the arrangement of items such as buttons, forms, graphics and images. Further, it has a goal or a purpose which it attempts to achieve or a problem which it attempts to solve. And lastly, design refers to what something looks like.
Let’s look at an example. The Best Buy website, an e-commerce website that focuses mostly on consumer electronics products and services. What is the website trying to achieve? What problem are they helping the consumer to overcome? Well the most obvious answer is that it is trying to solve the problem that consumers need to use technology in their lives. However, only thinking about the website at such a high level avoids the real thinking that is required in this design problem. The problem is more complex than the original statement. Can the user not shop on a competing website? Does the user speak the language which the website uses? Does the user know which product or service which they need? Can the user research the products others chose by reading product reviews?
Design deals a lot with figuring out what problems exist. Further, the problems must be documented in a detailed and sufficient enough manner, such that it becomes possible to come up with solutions.
The detailed documentation allows one to fully understand the problem, and then it is possible to generate ideas or possible solutions. The key is to generate multiple possible solutions, and then to systematically analyze the candidate solutions, looking for the one solution that most fully solves the problem. The most promising solution should then be converted into a prototype for further assessment. While assessing the prototype, new problems may be come apparent, which were not originally defined or noticed at the onset of the process. An iteration is then required, whereby the designer goes back to the beginning. The designer then attempts to outline in a fuller scope the details of the problem, to generate new solutions, and to continue through the same process once again.
In UX design, the design process involves several processes. First, it involves understanding the problem, which means doing research to understand the tasks which users attempt to accomplish. Second, it involves generating possible solutions, through sketching different ideas. Third, it involves analyzing the proposed solutions, through the application of UX principles. Fourth, it involves the creation of a prototype. And lastly, for any new problems that have been discovered, the process should iterate from the beginning to take these new problems into account.
Lecture 7.- Sketches, Wireframes and Prototypes
SKETCHES – UX Designers create different types of deliverables, which they then share with different stakeholders. Some of these deliverables include things such as: sketches, wireframes and prototypes. UX designers are often judged by the quality of their deliverables.
In UX design, the designer often has to draw a lot of sketches. Sketching is a way in which a user experience designer can describe their ideas in visual form. It is more efficient to sketch an idea, than to use a digital tool to design the idea. One does not necessarily need to be a great visual illustrator. As long as the sketches can communicate the right ideas, even in a rough and crude way, then they will be sufficient. Sketches are only meant to quickly show an idea.
There are a number of advantages to sketching, including: One, multiple sketches are easy to make, and as such, the designer can refine many different sketches easily. By contrast, a digital design package would be very time consuming to use for the creation of many different sketches. By not spending too much time on any one version, the designer can instead focus on creating numerous concepts. This increases the likelihood of finding innovative solutions. However, if the designer were to use a design software early on, they may improve on the design of the wrong solution, rather than finding the right solution to begin with. Two, sketches usually don’t have a lot of detail. By not focusing on creating too much detail for any one idea, sketches allow the designer to generate many different ideas in an efficient manner. Coming up with lots of different sketches is much more important than illustrating one idea into a detailed masterpiece. Three, sketching allows for independence. It is important to avoid the trap of getting focused on any one individual concept. Sketching is so easy that it allows one to conceptually be disconnected to any particular concept, and to easily traverse to different concepts through the exploratory phase. Four, it is easy to get feedback on sketches. Sketches are a natural deterrent to becoming too connected to one particular idea too early.
Sketches allow the designer to take an initial step towards prototyping. Sketches allow one to think about the problem. By contrast, prototypes allow one to focus on the fine details of the best solution.
WIRE-FRAMES and PROTOTYPES – A wire-frame is a sketch which shows information structure, functions and the content. It allows one to visualize the “changes of state” or “transitions” within the design, using a very basic black and white sketch. Wire-frames focus on the basics, such as: What information should be present? What is the layout? How does one transition from one item to another? How does one transition through different levels within the structure? The wire-frame will also have annotations, which will be notes on the behaviour of the product. The wire-frame can be made into a prototype.
So what is a prototype? A prototype is an interim deliverable between the design and the final product. Prototypes have several functions. By embodying a design into a prototype, we are able to test the design. By making a design “more real”, it makes it easier to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the design and whether or not the design meets the objectives required. Prototypes also allow the team to refer to and share ideas about the design, as well as to provide one another with feedback. In addition, one can do user testing or inspection.
The wire-frame can be made interactive, in the form of prototype, which can be tested with the users. The interactive prototype will allow the team to test how users will interact with the site. In addition, it helps developers to understand the required behaviour of the design. Developers often have a tough time imagining how a design should behave from supplementary documentation or annotations added to a wire-frame. By providing an interactive prototype, the developers can more readily and easily make the mental leap as to what programming models are required to implement the design. Communication is made easier, and consequently, so is implementation.
INFORMATION ARCHITECTURE – Information Architecture refers to the organization or categorization of navigation and content, in an efficient and understandable manner, for the purpose of enabling the users to efficiently and easily navigate the site. Without good information architecture, the users may not find what they are looking for and may leave the site believing that it does not contain what they need. Further, some of the most effective models of information architecture attempt to parallel how a user thinks, by attempting to parallel the design of the site to the user’s mental model, allowing the user an easier time to more naturally navigate through the site. An example of an information architecture exercise which aims to do this, is called Card Sort. A card sort is a way to examine how users think information and content should be organized. The method is easy to understand. To start off with, write down different topics and site areas on small cards. Then ask participants to group items which they think are related. Further, there are two main types of card sort; open card sort and closed card sort. In an open card sort, participants may group cards as they wish and then attach labels to different groupings. In a closed card sort, cards that are grouped must be associated with categories that have already been established. These kind of sorting activities can reveal hidden insights into the expectations of content organization, and also, into the internal mental relationships people have between different concepts.
Lecture 8 – Expert Research – Heuristic Analysis
EXPERT RESEARCH – Some developers make websites and apps directly, without performing any preliminary research. This strategy can be dangerous, as it can lead to the creation of a bad product, a product which will not succeed in the marketplace. It is the role of the UX practitioner to think about research. So what is research? Research is a study that is conducted to gain insight into a subject area or into a problem area. There are many ways to conduct research, which can include things such as surveys, experiments, interviews and observations. Though there are many tools of research, at the top level one can think of it in terms of, whether or not the research is with users or whether it is without. The product that is to be designed needs to have research with users. However, before involving users, there is some research that you can perform without users, and this will give you a more focused insight into the project at hand. One example of this type of “expert driven research” is a “Heuristic Analysis”.
HEURISTIC ANALYSIS – Heuristic Analysis is an expert UX method in which a practitioner analyses and assesses an interface according to a set of heuristics. Heuristics can be thought of as “professional principles”. If we have a way to analyze interfaces with a set of principles, then it may be tempting to some practitioners to avoid testing the interfaces with users. This is not a good idea! An expert analysis by a UX practitioner will not find the majority of the problems that exist within an interface. Only insight gained through research with users will uncover the majority and hidden usability problems within an interface. However, the heuristics will uncover many problems. Further, the “heuristic analysis” technique can be shared with other team members. Ideally, if a few people on a team were to perform the heuristic analysis on the same interface, many more issues will be uncovered than with only one individual doing the analysis.
There are a few indicators which a UX practitioner should pay attention to as part of the analysis.
- Related Heuristic – The heuristic(s) that are related to the observation should be noted.
- Description – A description of the issue/observation.
- Location – Where the observation occurs within the product or interface.
- Frequency – The number of times the problem occurs should be noted.
- Severity – The degree of seriousness of the problem from minor to severe.
The most often cited heuristics were developed by Jakob Nielsen and Rolf Molich . They are:
Visibility Of System Status: Websites need to give a visual feedback about the current state or status. Users need to know where they are within the website, as well as the path which they took to get there so that they are able to backtrack.
Match Between System And Real World: The website messaging should be in natural real world language rather than programming terms which are context specific to the site. Only developers would understand the technical language.
User Control And Freedom: Users should be provided with the ability to fix information and undo actions they’ve taken. Users need to feel that they are in control.
Consistency And Standards: Standards must be followed. There must be consistency with the presentation of different services.
Error Prevention: The design should try to detect error conditions, and to attempt to prevent the user from entering into those error conditions, so as to assist the user to not enter into problems.
Recognition Rather Than Recall: The human memory cannot keep track of too many different items. As such, the design should reduce the cognitive load on the users by making as many options and items as visible as possible.
Flexibility And Efficiency Of Use: Users need the ability to customize their experience, especially for frequently performed actions.
Aesthetic And Minimalistic Design: There should be no visual clutter within the interface. There needs to be a purpose for every element within the interface.
Help Users Recognize, Diagnose, and Recover From Errors: Error messages should be in natural and non-technical language, and with a clear explanation as to the fault, and how to rectify the issue.
Help And Documentation: Help information can reduce difficulties that some users may experience.
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