Advice for the Novice UX Designer

Monday, July 19, 2010

So. I am a user experience designer. It’s not the first thing I bill myself as these days, but once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away those two words did sit boldly on my business card. And, in fact, I have been doing some form of interaction design since 1996 and have been a student of the field since around 1999-2000. This is not to brag, just to make sure it’s clear that I’ve actually got some sort of credentials, here.

Over the years I have been lead developer on myriad projects. And I often find myself having to interpret and build from user experience design documents that you might call, well, novice. Now, UX is an art. There’s some science behind it, but it’s an art at its core — you have to feel it a bit. It’s like music. There’s a science and math behind the tones and structures, but to really make music you have to kind of know that stuff but, maybe more importantly, you just kind of have to feel the music. Novices can “feel the music” with UX and produce really great stuff. And there are a million ways to get creative with UX. Apple shows us this. Some of their little micro-UX innovations have similar cultural impact of pop songs — small user experience brainworms that you can’t get out of your head after you experience them once. Think of how well your iPhone has trained you. Pinch zoom. The home button.

And like any form of art, I think user experience design actually benefits from the participation of novices — people who haven’t been fully brought up to speed on the orthodoxy who will dig in and make new things, even if they’re kind of weird or “wrong” in the professional sense or whatever. The tools of UX are not hard — you can use a paper and pen (I do!). And anyone can look at something — a website, an app — and think about how it has been designed with the user in mind. I’m not at all elitist about music or writing and I’m certainly not going to get elitist on someone for experimenting with design. These things improve when the masses start creating and the technical vernacular becomes common language.

So I love when new people get involved with user experience design and I’m a complete advocate of new designers getting their hands messy with new ideas. But. I would like to offer one major suggestion to help bridge the gap from novice user experience designer to professional. It’s one idea that will improve the quality of your work if you’re new to the field. It will also help the developers who will implement your idea be able to do so efficiently and with as few headaches as possible.

Learn the “inherent nature” of the platform you are designing for. Let’s use iPhone as an example. Hold it. Play with it. Think about each action you take to do something and how each element looks and works. The tabs. How those tabs look and work. Navigation bars along the top (those bars with “page” titles and sometimes “back” buttons). Tables. Surely you’re very familiar with how those work on the iPhone, those things that slide up and down with a list of options and when you select one it slides out to the left and whatever you selected slides in from the right. Even real basic stuff. Helvetica. It’s everywhere. White backgrounds are very common. Buttons and icons. Notice the consistency (at least across Apple’s apps). That’s the “inherent nature” of the device. That’s what it was designed to be like. Bland, maybe. But. That is what you will be building from when you design your app. There’s no getting around it. Apple has gone out of their way to create solid solutions to common UX problems. And users have been well-trained. They know how tab bars along the bottom of the screen work. They know how tables work. They know what a button looks like. Etc.

I am a minimalist designer at heart. Every design element needs to have a reason for existing or else it’s noise. (“It looks better” can sometimes be a good reason — see below. “It looks better even though it confuses people” is a bad reason.) My advice to you, the novice UX designer, is to build on top of the “inherent nature” of the device. Be boring, but be crystal clear. Change things only when absolutely necessary. Establish the bare minimum difference between your UX design and the out-of-the-box UX design that the iPhone ships with — the bare minimum that still allows your app to do what it needs to do. Do not reinvent wheels. Do not succumb to the need to show off or do something differently just because you’re a badass. Reinventing some existing UX paradigm in a flashy way is generally the hallmark of an amateur. Amatuers do not understand UX with much depth and confuse wanton rearrangement with actual innovation. Don’t innovate! It’s okay. User experience design is not about innovation, it’s about creating clarity for your users. Don’t sacrifice the latter for the former.

If you start from the “inherent nature” of the platform and design your app (or website or whatever) from that starting point, deviating only when necessary, will accomplish two things right away:

  1. Users will not have to relearn how your app works! They’ll already know, because they already know how an iPhone works.

  2. Developers will have a much easier time building your creation. They will do it faster. Cheaper. And because you are being more clear, they will understand better what you’re after. Keep in mind, most development platforms have built into them very easy ways to do all of the basic building-block sorts of tasks. Let your developers use these! Do not make them rebuild something from the ground up for no good reason.


I know that you do not want a generic iPhone app or website that’s just black and white and full of boring Helvetica. Especially brands. They want their iPhone app to look like their branding! Which is great!

But here’s how that works. You do the above. Make the boring thing. Make it usable and easy for your developers. (Developer ease takes a backseat way, way behind usability, of course — but unless you’re very lucky, you probably don’t have an unlimited budget for your project, so developer effort can be important.) Do these things. Only then, as a last step, should you look at what you have and take a very critical look at how you might apply a visual theme to the user experience design without interrupting that design. You can do easy things like applying graphics or changing the colors of elements without interfering with their visibility or the overall visual hierarchy. (Interrupting the visual hierarchry would be, for example, making the brightest thing on the screen the least important thing to the user. Websites do this all the fucking time when they decide to make an article headline blend into the background while four million ads, a giant header graphic, and several dozen little “share this!” widgets jump around on screen. Apps do this, too! Here’s a fun little user experience game you can play at home! The next time you’re using some app (or website), stop for a second. Think of two things: 1) What’s the most important thing here? Why am I using this app or reading this page? 2) what’s the most visually striking thing? What gets my attention first? Are these two things the same thing? They usually should be. They’re often not.) Ahem. As I was saying, when making decisions about modifying the look of your initial UX design or applying a visual theme, you need to be aware of not diminishing the quality of the user experience. It’s amazing how often this happens.

Remember, also, that design elements like this are communication. Do what you need to communicate your brand clearly. Nothing more. Every single design element needs a reason for existing. Extra design is the same as extra UX: unnecessary noise.

One final point. Understanding the inherent nature of the platform you’re designing for will save you from making really amateur and obvious mistakes. Think text fields in iPhone apps. What always happens when a user selects a text field on an iPhone that might affect how you place that field on the screen? How does one type letters on a device with no hardware keyboard? Right. Plan for that. Text field on the bottom half of the screen? Is that the best place for that? Pay attention to this kind of stuff. It’s important.

So this is my rant. I’ve kind of focused on iPhone UX, here, but all of this goes for web UX, as well. Or any platform. iPad. Android. Desktop applications. Know the inherent nature of the platform! Really get in there. Think about how the designers of the core operating system or platform intended for it to be used. Stray from that, but intelligently. And not just for the sake of being weird or as a way to show your client what a rockstar you are. (Nobody cares if you’re a rockstar.) The user comes first. I know what I’m talking about. Pay attention to the above. You’ll get much better results all around.

Thank you. Goodnight.