Getting started in interaction design

“I’m a software developer and I just started working on a project that needs a good UI. I don’t have a UI design background and nobody on my team does either, but I know enough to realize that our current design needs a lot of work. I’d like to help make it better. How should I get started?”

This is a popular question. While there are many things you could do, here’s what I recommend:

  1. Pay attention to design Design, both good and bad, is all around you so pay attention to your everyday experiences. If something works well or doesn’t work well, try to understand why. To develop your design thinking, make note of what is “intuitive,” what confuses you, what delights you, and why.
  2. Know where you are on the UX design skills ladder Understanding the ladder will help you develop a road map to get to the next skill level. It will also help you work more effectively with people with different skills by understanding where they are coming from.
  3. Design for your users, not yourself The most common trap for beginners is to design for themselves. It’s also common for intermediates to think that they are designing for their users but design for themselves instead. An easy way to tell the difference is to gather your team and write down all the known facts and assumptions about your target users, then validate your design decisions against the list. If, for example, you are targeting beginners but some features require advanced knowledge, you’ve got some work to do.
  4. Work with more than one design idea The second most common trap is to fall in love with your first idea and, as a result, fail to see other possibilities. Design is about making choices, but you can’t make a good choice unless you have options to choose from. Considering alternatives also helps you build confidence in your decisions. But if your first idea is so good that you can’t possibly think of anything better, at least design a simpler version of that solution. Chances are you’ll like it better (and prove to yourself that there are alternatives.)
  5. Think in terms of users and scenarios, not in terms of features and technologies A scenario is a description of a user’s goal, problem, or task in a specific environment. Great design focuses on nailing important scenarios. By contrast, weak design focuses on individual features and technologies, without much regard for the user’s goals, tasks, or environment.
  6. Make priorities It is literally impossible to focus on everything. Good design establishes clear targets and nails them. Poor design is undisciplined and tries to do everything for everybody. You can’t do everything, and you certainly can’t do everything well. Do less better instead.
  7. Learn to communicate to users effectively Great designs communicate their purpose well. This is what people really mean when they say a design is “intuitive.” Think of your UI as a conversation between you and your target users.
    Does your design communicate well? Here’s a simple test: suppose you are looking over a user’s shoulder and he or she asks, “What should I do here?” Think about the explanation you would give—the steps, their order, the language you’d use, and the way you explain things. Also think about what you wouldn’t say. That’s what your UI should be—like a conversation between friends—rather than something arcane that users have to decipher. If the UI feels like a natural conversation, your design communicates well.
    Many developers avoid thinking about UI text, and assume that any problems can be fixed by somebody else later. Wrong!  If the communication is poor, the design is poor—and quite often such problems can’t be fixed by just tweaking text. Effective communication is an essential element of good design, not an add-on.
  8. Look for design models What existing products or services have a similar experience? This is helpful question when brainstorming or identifying design alternatives. The design models don’t even have to be remotely related to what you are doing—a particular experience at Starbucks might be a great design model for purchasing your accounting product. The key is to understand that the goal isn’t to copy other people’s ideas but to inspire you to consider the full range of possibilities.
  9. But don’t design by copy Another trap for beginners is to design by copying features that you like. While at first this approach seems logical—if the design works and you like it, why not use it? The problem is that design is all about making good choices on behalf of your target users to create a product that satisfies their goals. Design-by-copy often fails because it short circuits this user-centered thinking by focusing on features—features that may have been designed for different users with different goals in different environments.
  10. Ask for feedback Ask people who represent your target users (or at least neutral observers) to review your design and provide feedback. Review their feedback, look for trends, and refine the design. If you design without getting feedback, there is a good chance that you’ll make many mistakes. I try to get feedback on everything.
  11. Learn how to receive critical feedback Critical feedback is required to do your best work, but not all feedback you receive is going to be encouraging or well presented. Regardless, smile, thank the person for helping you, take the feedback seriously, follow up on it, and encourage more.
  12. Learn to give good feedback—based on something other than personal opinion Feedback is a two-way street, so it’s important to learn how to give good feedback as well. If someone asks for your feedback about a design, it’s inevitable that at least some of it will be personal opinion. However, feedback based on scenarios, design principles, guidelines, and such are far more useful, especially when there is disagreement within a team. For example, think of the top tasks you can perform with a product, and present your feedback in terms of the issues you found while performing those tasks. While such feedback might still feel personal, it’s not just personal opinion anymore.
  13. Learn to appreciate good design It’s easy to criticize bad design—anybody can do that. A more useful talent is to understand what makes a good design good. When you see a good design, examine it carefully and try to understand why specifically it works so well. Think about the project management angle too—consider the team leadership and design process required to make that good design a reality. It didn’t just happen by itself.
  14. Learn to appreciate bad design It’s easy to sneer at bad design—look at how silly those people were…what were they thinking? Of course, we would do so much better, right?
    Not necessarily. There are many traps in the design process and we are all bound to fall into them eventually. When you see a bad design, examine it carefully and try to understand what went wrong behind the scenes. Did they try to do too much? Was it designed by non-designers? Was it designed by committee? By the boss? For the boss’s mom? Did they design around features and technology instead of users and scenarios? Did they not do any user testing? Was the schedule unrealistic? Did they rush to market? Bad design happens for a reason, and many of those reasons extend well beyond design skills.
  15. Continue to improve your skills Read books and blogs about UX design. Read up on interaction guidelines. Take a design course. Hire a design consultant to help you get started.

If you need professional help with any of these skills, please let us know. We’re here to help!

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