Friday, March 10, 2017

Essential skills - user experience

I rediscovered all the delightful benefits of mockups all over again on the latest project I'm working on.

To put the story in context:
We're a large team of professionals with a range of different skills. One of our team members was a UX/visual designer person who's responsibility was to conduct workshops with the client to develop a UX story and visual designs for the product we're developing. Her participation on the project was time-boxed and limited by a budget. Of course - nobody has an endless budged for anything. If we did, we could keep tinkering with stuff. To cut the story short, we ran into a couple of issues:
  • The client didn't quite like the first cut of proposed visual designs
  • There was a lot of pushback on the details - don't like the colours, don't like this and that, don't like the icons etc.
  • The branding was kind of done but still a bit in the air when it comes to approval with 100% satisfaction
  • UX/visual designer person ran out of time & budget and we could not use any more of her skills
At the conclusion of the "discovery phase" of the project we ended up with some designs, not enough, and none were fully approved. Ooops, that can be a bit of a problem. The development team typically needs full approved designs for all key pages. Without them it's really difficult to commit to delivering what was promised with any degree of certainty.

There's a gap that the development team needs to fill. So how do we do that? Well none of us is a Photoshop magician and even if we were... producing high definition visual designs takes A LOT OF TIME. Time we never have, skills that take years to perfect. We're only technical people after all, we dream in lines of code, not in pretty pictures.

Mockups come to the rescue. To be more exact - Balsamiq! My god, if I ever loved a product it's got to be Balsamiq. I came across it quite a few years ago when the concept of mockups or lo-fi designs was still not very popular. You'd toss the word "mockup" in the ether and the client would look at you puzzled as to say - what the hell are you talking about? These days, lucky for us, the concept of mockups is firmly established or if the client is truly unfamiliar with mockups they're at least an easy sell. You explain what they are, show them an example and they usually give you the thumbs up without too much hesitation. I usually say they're like wireframes but really simple, they look like hand drawn sketches. If I have to sell the idea I say they're quick to whip up and prevent all the issues associated with subjective liking/disliking for the colours and nitpicking on pixel perfect details. And if they're still not sure I can say if they really want to see what the final product will look like we can ask The Designer to take the mockup and produce a high fidelity design. Sold!

Okay, back to Balsamiq. I could go on and on raving about all the reasons why I love this product. I'm sure there's many similar on the market and if I'm doing something for a hobby or a non-for-profit project I'll typically use Pencil Evolus. Balsamiq was really the first good web based mockup tool I came across and it was so damn good from the start that I never bothered looking for anything else. It is simply the best - it does what it's supposed to do and it does it so brilliantly well. It's web based and works on any web browser I used so far. You can invite your client stakeholders to view the mockups and comment on them and it's dead simple. Perfect, just perfect.

Now back to UX as a skill. As I mentioned earlier I'm a technologist - my bread and butter is to dream up and deliver technical solutions. It pays to be a multiskilled person but reality is that you can never be master of everything. The age old argument of what's better - to be a specialist or a jack of all trades. Well a bit of both is clearly best. Every developer should have the basic understanding of UX or user interface design, at least have a feel for it. There will always be gaps you need to fill. If I had to walk the UX talk I probably wouldn't be able to do so. If you asked me what's the difference between UX and user interface design the best answer I could come up with would be that the former is broader and deals with the big picture and the latter is more focused on the detail. But with years of experience I'm able to compare, understand and distinguish between what I see as bad design versus what I see as good design. I can try out ideas, mock them up and pick the better alternative. I can read up on good UX practices and further educate myself.

1 comment: