What is ‘user experience’ and how can prototyping aid the design process?

05 August, 2014 by Lee Johnston | DesignMobile WebUser Experience

Depending on who you talk to, the term ‘user experience’ (UX) can be interpreted in many ways. The collective misconception is that it’s primarily superficial, encompassing merely interface and visual design; in reality it’s considerably more. Take a well-designed app or website, they aren’t just visual works of art; they are products that are both visually appealing as they are functional — an aspect that is often overlooked.

“Form follows function”, a principle closely linked with UX, implies the design should be inspired by the functionality of the product, expected user behaviour or user needs and motivations – and in reality often a combination of these. Therefore when designing, a question you may want to ask is ‘does the product achieve the user's needs or intentions?' Clicking a button doesn’t seem like much, but when it triggers an intended function, for example logging into online banking, the user has the expectation that they will be taken to their account where they will be able to access their details or perform an action.

 

The overall success of a website or app, in my opinion, is dependent on the overall design and execution of the UX. Looking back to the battle of the websites in the early 2000’s, while being first to market was the demonstration of success for many, 2014 has forced organisations to adapt and develop a more robust understanding of what UX means for business, how best to deliver it and the impact it has on customer retention.

Over the past few years more companies have been focusing on designing mobile first — addressing part of the UX conundrum — however, some of these experiences remain unsatisfying for the user or miss their needs completely. They’re also bad for business — if a user has a bad experience, don’t expect them to come back! According to a report by Compuware — 79% of people would only retry an app once or twice. Additionally, if the app failed to work first time, only 16% said they would give it more than two attempts before either deleting the app or finding an alternative.

Prototyping for UX

So before you begin plunging into any code it’s worthwhile to consider how prototyping can help pre-empt these poor experiences and how they facilitate both the design and thought process. Prototyping is an essential component in the UX toolbox as it provides early insight that may help you, or your client, to better understand the mechanics of your system and emphasise any immediate barriers or impediments that may exist. Prototypes assist in a variety of ways, they provide a clear vision for what the developers need to be build, help communicate the user journey (with you or your client) and they are the perfect vehicles for eliciting user feedback.

Within the digital domain there are many tools that enable us to rapidly construct working prototypes, each with varying levels of granularity. The quickest and easiest ones, known as low-fidelity prototypes, include sketching, storyboards and wireframes. Although these models are less accurate, by putting pen to paper and sketching out the solution early allows you to better consider the functionality (in and out of scope) and allow you to test multiple ideas in a quick and inexpensive way.  You can learn from your mistakes rapidly and not be afraid to discard ideas.

The more detailed ones are known as high-fidelity prototypes, these include clickable wireframes and interactive models. These high-fidelity prototypes emulate closely or almost exactly to the desired end state of the design. High-fidelity prototypes allow you to turn an idea, developed and refined through low-fidelity designs, into a tangible product and by doing so allows you to gain insight and validation from real end users through user testing which, in turn, may help you to further refine the design and identify any issues or pain points in the user journey before formal coding begins. The greater the fidelity, the greater the degree you can explore the interactions, transitions and overall candour of your product.

Conclusion

Developing a good user experience has become a critical component for many companies; they now understand that having a great site is not enough. A site that has the ability to build lasting relationships with their users is key, therefore it is paramount that the UX is not only implemented at the beginning of a project but continuously throughout development with considerations for the whole system and interaction - not just the design. Speed and agility are great assets in a development team, and by working with a prototype you can constantly operate in a concept-analysis-design process allowing ideas and designs to be user tested and refined as and when required. Any time spent up front working on the UX design will ultimately save time later.