At Something Digital (SD), we prioritize designing best-in-class User Experiences (UX). During our project discovery phase, we invite clients to tell us who they believe their users are — and who they want their ideal customers to be. Then we validate that perspective against quantifiable data. We start by zeroing in on two user types, and review analytics to determine their general demographics, like age range, socio-economic background, and geolocation.
However, we get that users aren’t numerical statistics; they are humans with real-life concerns, independent of what we tell them they want and need. We can’t know everything about each lifetime value (LTV) customer — it would be invasive to dig that deep — but based on their shopping patterns, we can glean their attitudes toward ecommerce, identify their habits, and anticipate how to best meet them where they are.
So, we create personas: illustrations of specific users, describing their daily routines, behaviors, values, hopes, and even anxieties. We paint a slice of life.
If we start out empathizing with well-defined primary and secondary personas, we design interactions that work for many people. Then, we track engagement over time, continually A/B test, and iterate on the experience so that ultimately, our designs work for as close to everyone as possible.
Having empathy means being vulnerable: opening ourselves up to possibilities outside of our own limited understanding and letting go of attachment to our personal preferences. We don’t have to completely abandon the design trends we’re into, typefaces we worship, and slick page transition animations we’re crushing on, but we do need to holistically consider how our design choices impact people who aren’t us.
Our job is to think big: we don’t design User Interfaces (UI) and interactions for only our clients, their stakeholders, or ourselves; we design for a sum of people who want to be heard, welcomed, and respected.
SD follows a strategic process when including and excluding design features.
Before proposing a feature, the answer must be ‘yes’ to at least one of the following questions:
1. Is it necessary?
2. Do we believe it will measurably improve the overall experience (and can we back that claim up in advance with research)?
If the feature passes this litmus test, we ask a series of questions guiding us to make conscientious decisions about how best to present and implement it.
To put our checklist into practice, let’s create a case study around a design feature. And to convey how even a simple feature can be controversial when it comes to user-centric design, we’ll refer to a no-frills homepage content block. The example we’ll asses is a static promotional block featuring three product categories.
Who does it serve (and does it, really)?
If we were to draw a Venn Diagram asking, ‘Who does a design serve?’, there would likely be three circles of varying size: ‘Stakeholders and Administrators’, ‘Designers and Developers’, and, finally, ‘End Users’. Initially, it probably looks something like this:
Our job is to radically reshape those circles, giving precedence to users and finding the sweet spot where our design expertise intersects client and user requirements. Practically, it should look more like this:
In the case study example:
— The block directly nods at the stakeholders — we see the parent company announced in the headline, subsidiary brand logos on product images, and buttons featuring those brand names.
— But it speaks to users, too. The headline copy purposefully welcomes users to ‘meet’ the subsidiary brands, the subheadlines casually address users with the familiar ‘you’, and the photography shows users what to expect.
— The content block follows the client’s brand guidelines and sparks the user’s curiosity.
What do we want the feature to do? What do users want the feature to do?
When I design a homepage, I personally want to be proud of it. I also want it to knock both the client’s socks off. I wonder, ‘what elements of this can I animate?’ and then scour inspiration and photography sites for the perfect image to perfectly crop and perfectly color-correct to account for any text that displays over top. But that’s ego getting in the way of business. We’re not designing sites for stakeholders or ourselves; we’re designing for everyone.
Take pesky pronouns out of the equation, let go of subjective ideas of perfection, and get to the bare bones. Our most basic objective is to design something useful and user-friendly. Even if we know, like us, our clients want magic, what users need matters first.
In the case study example:
— Target presumably required a straightforward content block that efficiently drives users to specific categories, and therefore drives conversions.
— As for users, let’s divide them into two types — new and returning — and ask, ‘what do they need?’ New users visiting a homepage might look for a range of the products or services being offered. Returning users might look for fresh content from a brand they trust. ALL users want to navigate to the content they need as quickly and frictionless as possible.
— The designer introduces customers to new products and directs them shoppable categories not too far below the header navigation.
Think of a site that oozes ‘wow factor’. Sure, the designer eventually added the bells and whistles that make it exceptional, but they likely first aligned their clients’ and their users’ goals before asserting their own aspirations and inserting their own assumptions.
What does the feature do in practice?
Break the feature down into its fundamental ingredients. How does each UI element work within the design?
In the case study example, we see:
1. A Headline, which provides context.
2. Images with brand logos, which in addition to being contextual, help to distinguish the different categories.
3. Subheadlines, microcopy that expresses the voice of each subsidiary brand and specifies what kind of products the categories contain.
4. Buttons, which take users to the next phase of their journey.
— While the headline and subheadlines use persuasive marketing copy, these buttons would arguably benefit from actionable language (e.g., ‘Shop the Collection’ instead of ‘A New Day’).
— On the other hand, many bases are covered here. Because the brand logos are embedded in the images, they are large enough to be legible on small screens.
— Additionally, the buttons repeat the brand name in plain text for users with visual impairments who may not be able to see the images at all.
Now, let’s repeat this exercise, but with UI attributes like colors, fonts, and photo art direction. How do our design choices work for the design?
In the case study example, we see:
1. A gray background, which separates this content block from the ones surrounding it. Visually compartmentalizing the content makes it easier for users to digest.
2. A light-weight headline, which conveys elegance and doesn’t compete with the subsidiary brand logos.
3. Single-subject images with pastel backgrounds, which contribute to an approachable look-and-feel. While the compositions vary (left-aligned, centered, right-aligned) and the subjects differ, the selection feels intentional, unified, and balanced. The soft backgrounds make the products pop.
4. Rounded corner buttons, which, alongside the gray borders identify the content as clickable. The size is large enough that it can be easily tapped on a small device.
— Overall, the UI attributes grab attention, establish a content hierarchy, and express the brand. Our color, typography, and imagery choices work hard and often unperceptively to make it easier for users to accomplish tasks.
— We could further improve the design by assigning buttons a color background or border, instead of the gray and white, to better contrast with the gray outer container.
— Also, more closely pairing the buttons with their related content would help users select the correct category when shopping on a mobile device.
The more we assess the design choices we make, we are more likely to make thoughtful decisions over short-sighted ones, and the better equipped we are to defend our designs to clients and stakeholders.
Is it ready to ship? Is it ready to iterate on?
Are we ever really ready for anything? Is anything really ever finished? Continuously evaluating how a design performs for users — and tailoring it to their evolving needs — sets a good design on the path of becoming a design paradigm.
Have real people test a working prototype. Observe them and ask:
1. Is it intuitive?
2. Is it memorable?
3. Does it integrate with the overall experience?
If the answer is ‘no’ to any of the above, take a step back. Sometimes we fail to think of ways a design could be potentially harmful to users or, after multiple rounds of client feedback, we trim out something that made the design stand out in the first place.
When we design with empathy, we try to look at our work through many different lenses and if necessary, dismantle our hypotheses, however well-researched they were. Ask if a design can be simplified without stripping its personality and push back if a design decision negatively impacts the UX. Through deep inquiry, we can find meaningful solutions to the cracks in our design before they become craters.
Once we’ve workshopped a design and it meets the required criteria, we test it. SD recommends A/B testing, via experimentation platforms like Optimizely. Alongside usability testing, we compare A/B test results with analytics data over a controlled time to figure out if our target users understand what a feature does and they follow where our design choices are guiding them. Whether we decide the design is effective or defective, we incrementally test solutions to improve it.
Designing with users in mind is a job that is never over. User’s tastes, habits, and needs change over time, not unlike an ecommerce store’s inventory, branding, and profit goals. Being empathetic, critical, and flexible is essential. We weigh the variables, we wireframe the possibilities, we audit our work, and we test it over and over. Because the true testament of success is that we’ve done our due diligence to create user experiences that serve as many real people as possible.