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The path to success is paved with… insight

The path to success is paved with… insight

You may have seen that image doing the rounds online, the one of a paved path labelled “design” with another worn into the grass, running off at a tangent, labelled “UX”. It grates with me every time I see it; yet another misinterpretation of how UX relates to good design (spoiler: they virtually overlap). 

The image should instead be captioned “How the designers intended users to behave, and how the users decided to behave in spite of them”. Which admittedly doesn’t make for such a catchy meme.

What it does convey quite well that perhaps some research would have gone a long way to predicting how behaviour in the space might play itself out, before going ahead and committing any concrete to the solution.

As it happens this does actually happen in the real world. A number of universities in the US are documented as deliberately not introducing any paved paths or designated walking areas until people first defined their own trails or ‘cow paths’ in the grass.

This isn’t the only way in which the built environment can be influenced by, and adapt to the people who live and work in it. In his 1994 book, “How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built”, author Stewart Brand states “after buildings are built, that’s when the people take over”.

Brand speaks of “adaptive” environments which react to the needs of people – its “users”. He laments the practice of what he calls “magazine architecture”, the desire for some architects to create buildings that look nice in photographs, but which fail on a functional level. “We concentrate on buildings’ exterior,” he says, “not the structure. This is wrong.”

The parallels with digital design could not be more pronounced. As an industry we are constantly creating veneers that aspire only to aesthetic standards, but fail on a fundamental level when it comes to delivering desirable outcomes.

In a former life as a junior designer, I worked on a way–finding system for a large public building. I would like tell you how the research phase of the project involved observation of how people were moving around the building, where they paused, what areas would be optimal for the placement signs. I would like to, but I can’t. The research didn’t happen, the project suffered for it, and the job of negotiating the rabbit warren of a building was left to the user to figure out. I learned a lot from that project. As the saying goes “Experience is what you have right after you really needed it”.

We do well to remember at all times that when we are busy creating websites, building apps, or writing software, what we are really trying to do is help people get around; to get them to where they need to go, to assist them in carrying out tasks and jobs that they may not have a particular desire to be doing at that point in time.

After websites and apps are built, that’s when the users take over. At that stage, you really don’t want to be met with any unexpected surprises. And yet the history of digital design is littered with casualties from the conflict between assumptions and realities of use. To paraphrase Mike Tyson’s famous line “Everyone has a plan until customers start trying to use their system”.

The last place you want to hear about friction between user goals and your app is in the reviews page on the App Stpre.

Inform with research. Design with insight. Validate through testing. See where the desire lines are. Then pave your path.


By Rick Monro

Rick was UX Director at Fathom from 2014 to 2017, when he left to take up a role as Principal UX Architect at Puppet.

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