Creating good digital experiences – whether they’re websites, apps, wearables, smart TVs, games consoles, or any other digital platforms – is a complex, often disorderly business.
Recently I have started thinking about the process of making these products, and how all the people and their different skills need to come together to deliver the final result.
These individuals or teams usually include: design, build, user experience (UX), project management, strategy, copywriting, even the client (especially the client).
Sometimes they whir away in complete harmony, sometimes disunity, but usually it’s somewhere in between. And I started wondering about two particular components whose boundaries and definitions can often be blurred.
UX and design.
Can they be better defined and thrown into sharper focus? How do they relate to each other? Do the fuzzy edges of these two disciplines lead to a crossover between them? And is there common ground that can help make the process of creating the best digital products run more smoothly?
What is UX?
Firstly, let’s look at UX.
If you’ve worked in this industry or had dealings with digital or integrated agencies, you’d probably expect to see skeleton diagrams in black and white that typify a UX designer’s output: sitemaps, wireframes, user journeys. And you’ll probably know that they lead to designs, which then lead to a fully functioning digital masterpiece.
These ‘diagrams’ are all important, and are often the tangible deliverables in the UX stage. But for me, UX represents a broader, all encompassing idea. It doesn’t just consist of the sitemap and wireframes, but takes in all the stages needed to create a digital product.
And this view of UX can be widened even further. Even though the term ‘UX’ is mostly used to refer to the digital realm, it actually exists in the physical world around us. If you think about it, we’re all users and we all experience and interact with our environment – a space in which almost everything we connect with on a day-to-day level is designed. And it’s both 2D, 3D, tangible and intangible; this can be anything from the clasp on a dress to a takeaway coffee cup, a wayfinding sign to a virtual telephone receptionist.
And part of the process of designing each item or experience is to think about its usability. How close are multiple switches to each other to avoid pressing the wrong one? Where is the clasp to allow it to be undone easily? What’s the sound and feeling of the door handle being closed that’ll give good enough feedback to the person closing the door? What size, distance and height does the sign need to be to be seen clearly? How wide and grippy does the protective sleeve on the coffee cup need to be to keep one’s fingers from burning?
The design of something is its usability. They are inextricably linked.
What is design?
So if UX and design are more closely connected than we think, it makes me wonder about the word ‘design’ and what that means too.
It has become a devalued term recently, often defined as applying a superficial level of gloss over something complex, strategic, meaningful; merely colouring in! But it is much more fundamental than that. Yes, it could be a decorative pattern, but it’s also the purpose or planning that exists behind an action, fact, or object1. All together, it’s how we shape the world around us.
10 principles of good design
One thing that exemplifies this broader definition is a particular set of principles that I always try to keep in mind when doing visual, conceptual or UX design. They were written by Dieter Rams2, the Chief Design Officer at Braun from the early 60s to the mid 90s. Although they were written over thirty years ago, they are still hugely relevant today, much like his designs. You just have to look at the many hugely successful Apple products over the last decade that have imitated been inspired by Braun products to see this!
His 10 principles of good design are that it:
- Is innovative
- Makes a product useful
- Is aesthetic
- Makes a product understandable
- Is unobtrusive
- Is honest
- Is long-lasting
- Is thorough down to the last detail
- Is environmentally friendly
- Is as little design as possible
We can see that ‘aesthetic’ is just one of a number of factors making up good design, rather than the current view among many that it is the sole definition of design. It’s massively important, but it’s not the complete picture.
My observation, in fact, is that you could describe all of those 10 principles as ‘a good user experience’. Much like UX, good design is good usability.
We’ve established that both design and user experience are much broader disciplines than people think, and largely overlap. We’ve also learned how fundamentally important user experience is in our designed world.
These ideas can have a practical, real-world impact, helping us create digital products in a more efficient, harmonious way. When designers, developers and UXers keep these thoughts front of mind, they – and the wider team – are more aware of the other moving parts of the process, allowing closer interaction and understanding between them.
And ultimately, they’ll create better, tighter, more holistic digital products because of that.