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Bringing UX & Design to the Forefront of Product Development

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We’ve often seen how user experience (UX) can be a strategic differentiator and drive real business results for companies. One definitive UX example you see everyday without realizing it is iPhone – the device that changed the technology industry. Phone makers like Blackberry (and, in an earlier era, Palm) are hardly seen now.

Other successful UX examples are Pinterest – a social network which made “endless scrolling” popular. And consider Flipboard – one of the most popular iPad apps of all time (and which really does make reading on iPad fun).

Google Maps is another great UX example that changed the way we browse maps. MapQuest and other similar services have since struggled to keep up with the experience provided by Google Maps since it first launched.

All of these examples, ultimately, are about improving usability. The great thing is that developing a web/mobile app today has become increasingly easier and complex at the same time. What this means is that it’s more important than ever to pay attention to UX and bring it to the forefront of your own product design and development efforts.

One of our client’s products, an app designed for K-12 and college/university students to enhance their learning, received some feedback from a group of students that the app is very useful but not very cool (or cool-looking to be more accurate). The app has great functionality that appeals to the students, but it doesn’t delight or inspire them. We saw that we had to throw out the app’s old look in order to court (and keep) this tech and design-savvy younger generation of students. Rather than rework and refine the existing app’s UX and design, we decided to create an entirely new app for students.

So how did we go about this? What was our process? The first step is to involve a professional UX and mobile app designer. We have seen many apps (web and mobile) produced by engineers that are often not appealing when it comes to design. Design is a rare skill and good designers are hard to find. Get one. And keep in mind your graphic designer may not be the best option. Look for someone who understands the platform you’re building on or considering for your build.

Now our second step. Design for each target platform separately. Mobile devices come in all shapes and sizes. They also come with different platform design standards and guidelines – such as iOS, Android, Windows – making things even more complicated.

A common challenge in supporting different mobile platforms is how to best design native applications that are optimized for the interaction design standards and user expectations unique to each platform. So it’s important to identify the similarities and differences between these platforms and tailor your app design specific to each platform. All the same, I understand this approach may be overkill for some applications that have standard functionality.

Also consider using different designs and layouts for designing apps for tablets. Tablet devices offer more real estate on the screens, which could be very useful to make your app more user friendly.

Third, understand your target end users (e.g., knowing their needs and demands) and get their feedback. Try to learn why, how and when they would ever use your app. For example, with our client’s app (discussed above), users were required to log-in every time the app started for security. But our users told us they hated that requirement. So, with the new app we’ve built, we moved not to require users to log-in each time.

Fourth, try to tap into your core competency/key differentiating feature. Our client’s app, for example, has a gamification module within its overall structure (a very important component to engage our users). As part of our rebuild of this app, we kept the same gaming functionality, but made it look more attractive and fun with animation.

Fifth, apply best practices. Your designer should already be doing this, but make sure you’re doing so. For example, if you’re designing for iOS, make sure you’re designing for iOS 7. In addition, one part of conventional wisdom is that users’ thumbs are the primary means of accessing and controlling mobile interfaces. While this works best for smartphone devices, this is not entirely the case with tablets.

It also depends on how and when your users are using the app. If you’re creating a news reader app or a photo browser, for example, it may make sense to keep it thumb-optimized. When designing an app which requires data entry, make it easy for users to use their fingers whenever possible.

Sixth, test your ideas – and test your new designs. Our client took early versions of the app’s new design and used them in various presentations and demos he did. He was then able to get feedback that validated improvements made in the app’s UX.

Seventh, while designing something innovative is inherently good, it should be consistent with other apps and easy for people to understand and learn. How often do you use software or a particular application for which you need to use a “F1” for help? Hardly ever. For most of us, we install new applications everyday and begin using them without any user manuals or help.

Eighth, be sure to design for more easy memorability – don’t give a lot of different options or multiple ways to do the same thing. It should be easy for your users to remember how to get around in and use the app. In one related example, another client app we’ve worked on gives users many customization options.  Based on our target audience’s user testing and feedback, we learned it was very important to make the same customization available on each of their devices using a cloud-based sync. We also made it easy for users to back-up and restore their customization in case something goes wrong.

My ninth point is about marketing. Once you’ve finalized your app’s new design, incorporate this design into your marketing and all of the other relevant places your target audience may be hanging out. Use your marketing to help bring in cheerleaders for your app.

To sum up, these stories about our experiences in app dev and design are in no way relevant just for startups. Enterprises need to pay close attention to UX and design as well. Just as with startups, enterprise companies need to institutionalize and fund UX as a key part of their technology initiatives.

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