Monday, June 1, 2015

Still skeptical of Google's user experience

I wanted to be a huge fan of How Google Finally Got Design. I really did.

It started out so promising, talking about the experience a user has with notifications on their mobile devices, the comparisons between iOS and Android and the software trying to figure out what's more important to you and making your life easier.

And then, it made a hard right turn into talking about visual design as the huge thing that fixed Google. "Great design" became interchangeable with "having a cohesive design language" -- mostly visual, maybe a bit interactive. Okay sure, design cohesion is difficult to achieve at a behemoth such as Google. I remember Intuit flip-flopping between a centralized design team and "embedded" design teams every couple of years, trying to strike the right balance between cohesion and business understanding. But that's exactly what this article is missing: business understanding as an integral part of user experience design.

I had a conversation with a former co-worker, also a user experience designer by profession, about this very same topic over dinner a few nights ago. I was relaying to her some recent difficulties of explaining to a coworker what it was that I did. My story went somewhat like this:

Coworker: "So what exactly is it that you do?"

Me: "I'm a user experience designer. So, I start by figuring out what it is that users what to do [with this tool], distill it down into requirements, and then design the interfaces so you can do those things."

Coworker: "Oh, you gather requirements. So you're like a product manager."

Me: "...not exactly. I also write hi-fi specs, like this." (I pulled up an example). "So, I specify what it should look like, and what it should do. And what colors and fonts work well here."

Coworker: "You do colors and fonts? Can you help my team pick what colors and fonts to use?"

My former coworker laughed -- she knew exactly the struggle I was conveying, and followed it up with her own story about bringing UX design to the new startup she'd just joined, and how they don't factor in time for design in the development cycle.

Then she turned it around and asked, "How did we get here?"

Design has evolved. Rewind a few decades and the most prominent designers, the earth-shakers, are all about aesthetics. But where the profession of user experience design has arrived at today is more than just beauty and pixel perfection. It's about the user, why they need something, what they need to do, and how to help them accomplish those "jobs" as simply and intuitively as possible.

That's not just about visual design anymore. A cohesive visual language absolutely helps us get there: it sets standards and user expectations about hierarchy and how things probably will behave upon interaction. But it's not the entire picture. UX design today is about so much more than graphics, kerning, colors, and fonts.

My value as a designer is not just taking requirements from somebody and delivering a pretty package at the end of the day. I have to know the context, know the user, understanding what they're trying to do, and how, and why, before I can even begin on recommending a way to get them there. And that recommendation has to incorporate the business and technical aspects: what value does this provide the business, is it worth the cost, does it drive users to do what we want them; can we build it this way? If not, then how? What's the timeline? How do we break down a vision into digestible, developable, iterate-able, cohesive value-added projects?

All of this, my bread and butter, is completely glossed over in the article. It seems to imply that Google's struggle is with getting their culture to adopt Material Design. It seems to suggest that achieving great design can be boiled down to getting developers on board with a new visual and interactive style sheet. But let's be honest -- you can still have a beautiful product that still doesn't quite do what you need it to do. And that's where you need the entire user experience design package.

If Google really wants to deliver great design, they need to get UX designers involved in their products from the beginning of a project. That designer needs to have an equal seat at the table that's (typically) currently a dyad of business and tech. They should bring user empathy to the entire team from the outset so that everyone understands why they're trying to do whatever it is they're trying to do. And of course, the development process needs to leave enough time for multiple iterations, refined over time and usage, feedback and metrics, to really hone a great user experience.

1 comment:

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