flow map for app - user experience design

Dark sides of user experience design

Note: skip to point B is you know what a User Experience Designer is.

A. What’s exactly is a UX designer?

A user experience designer is supposedly enhancing user satisfaction with a product by improving the usability, accessibility, and pleasure provided in the interaction with the product. When, for example you interact with an app on your smartphone and is the second time you can’t figure out how things work, that is mostly designer’s fault, not yours. Briefly said, your understandings as a user depend on his ability to visually expose things.

Like doctors, plumbers, or teachers, there are different kinds of UX designers in software business and I personally split them into 2 main categories: macro and micro UXers. Both types are really important but the ones who usually make or break a business are macro UX designers. The exact difference between them is this:

Micro UX designers are improving and optimising in detail, add small transitional animation to increase attention, awareness, satisfaction etc. In some cases there is a fine line between a User Interface (UI) designer and micro UX designer since a well made visual cue can increase usability and conversion.

Macro UX designers are usually creating the big picture and are actually the ones that translate a business idea into layout flows. They build the application map, logical structure behind it, optimise steps to conversion and sometimes come up with radical UX innovation. Best of them have the heart of an entrepreneur because when a CEO is struggling to raise investments over and over again, this guy — just like the CEO — has his mind on the business as a whole, thinking long term and strategically. It’s like when leaving the office, you copy-paste that part of the brain who makes the product, plus some extra skills.

B. A few essential experiences I had

By now, seems quite obvious why macro UXers should be the choice when someone brings the first UXer into the team, but there is an extra layer of soft skills and aptitudes, really hard to grasp that not only can elevate a business but keeps the competition in wonder as in “why some choices have been made at all” or “what is the real purpose of them”. And believe me, if the competition doesn’t understand the strategy, it’s like winning half the battles without fighting.

1 — Hospital Issue

At some point I had to build an app for a hospital: nurses, patients, medication, shifts etc. Before jumping to that, I read numerous articles about what is going on inside hospitals, since I needed to mentally align myself to the daily struggle and build something in confidence. I talked to doctors, nurses and patients alike just to get that sense of familiarity and I ended up doing detective work because at some point I realised that a few nurses were stealing drugs from patients, either to sell them on the black market or use on themselves for stress relief. Coming back to my flow board, I figured that my app should be build for professionals on drugs! Bigger fonts, fewer decisions per screen on the expense of a longer scrolling, higher contrast, extremely clear micro-copywriting, undo actions as much as I could etc. The goal was to create an app with minimum cognitive friction and mistake proof oriented. Another extremely important thing: because the patients were receiving sometimes half of the prescribed dosage, next time, the doctors (especially young ones) were tempted to double it and therefore risking patients’ lives. How this app could possibly send hints to the right kind of people and literally save patients’ lives? Remember, it’s not easy to fire people at all and toxic or irresponsible ones have their way of growing strong roots inside an organisation. If you give them away just like that, the app will soon be banished because personnel will refuse to use it (at best use it at the minimum) or advocate for another one.

So what is the lesson learned? Social links and politics should be very well understood by macro UX designers because they’re not building just some blue prints for apps but rather nested social architectures. They influence real behaviours amongst real people. At this point, age is a very important factor. A young UX designer will not apprehend well enough the fabric of society simply because (s)he didn’t live enough to encounter the majority of social patterns and therefore to connect the dots and extrapolate experiences to different social environments.

2 — Education Issue

During my collaboration with HMH (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) I was part of a team of six UXers, that was meant to build an app for education industry and to be exact, for tens of millions of teachers and students in USA. Again, I interviewed a few teachers to understand their professional life. Also, I read two books about planning lessons and ways teachers can foster collaboration among kids. My first batch of conclusions was that we aren’t building something for the good teachers because they won’t ever need us. Actually we would have worsen things out by adding a supplementary bureaucratic like task and taking away from them a very precious time for having a lesson well prepared. We also weren’t targeting the worse kind of teachers because they didn’t care anyway or the lack of passion rendered them as irrelevant. No tool will help anyone bond with kids and give the thrills of nurturing future citizens. So we must be pushing our software towards mediocre ones, right? And what this category was suppose to do was clicking over hundreds of check boxes and radio buttons, accepting whatever incoming small tasks via notifications, browsing endless hours through thousands of educational materials, building quizzes and many more. The obvious outcome was that we were robbing them from eye contact with kids. Simple as that. My final conclusion was that most teachers don’t want to be bothered with new tools because there is no fantastic outcome to them. They have google docs, forms and sheets and the ability to add online collaborators. Most importantly, Google Classroom is a pretty decent piece of software to use now. Yes, here and there we were building slightly better modules but “slightly better” is not enough, in fact is never enough.

But money had to be spend for the deals and promisees already made.

Lesson learned: gain wisdom in finding the best market niche and not settle for sugar coat answers. Be skeptical about surveys answers. Read between the lines, dig deeper. Maybe users will be glad at seeing an improvement in the music app but educational system is very different: people are stressed out, tired and pushed off in different directions all the time. Don’t have the energy for another “good” app. (Unless — I’m thinking now — they’re forced to, of course. And this is the cynical part: if they’re being forced to adopt something, then why bother make it better in the first place anyway?)

3 — Elections Issue

Recently I was involved in a behind the curtains kind of project. Let’s call it “The Election App” (EA). This is a such delicate matter that I don’t even know were to begin. It’s extremely easy to make a pool system, allow voters to enter into your system only by strictly verifying their identities and negotiating security levels with CTO because the better the security level is, the worse the user experience will unfold. Now, the interesting part is to understand which country you’re building that system for. If it’s for a country like Russia where corruption is visible with naked eye and rigged elections is the norm, believe me, it’s easy. You build an app for a small coalition, not for the people. And those rich handful people in power will laugh with champagne in their hands how easy is to push a button and voila, add another 20.000 pro voters from cemetery. Hell, even the regular citizens have a good sense of what is going on, but all they care is to eat and survive through the winter. Also, it’s easy to put up the pieces of an election app for big coalition countries (such as France, Sweden, Germany etc.) because of course, this app is for the entire mass of citizens. Groups of Interest are watching over each others’ shoulders and reciprocate accountability, so the app is politically agnostic and therefore the encouragement goes implicitly to build it the proper way, without dark corners.

But what gears should be added inside this Election App, demanded by a country who’s transitioning from a small coalition to a big one (as in going from an autocratic regime towards a more democratic one. Vice-versa will hardly occur and the reason why is a totally different topic.) In fact, let me put a simpler question: how do you know which kind of country is you’re building the app for? Our proposal was rejected and for a while we couldn’t figure out why. (It was about politics, of course, since we failed to add e few discretionary options. We were extremely naive to believe that the current political regime will abruptly jump towards democracy.)

As anyone can assume, hints to reveal the young regime scenery were all over the place. Since I started with hospitals, there you go, health system has a lot to say in coming up with a conclusion that a country is headed towards a big or small coalition. It is not the best clue though, if we think about Cuba during Fidel Castro’s presidency. So the correlation good-healthcare-system vs big-coalition (which is a better country to live in) isn’t always working. And after a while, it struck me: the roads, it’s the damn roads that offer the best clue. Tyrants have no interests in building roads since those economic arteries foster collaboration or trade between people, just the same as they don’t encourage ideas and knowledge to propagate throughout social networks. And besides, why making winding roads when they can have them line straight as long as topography permits and pocket the rest of the money? Also, tyrants and their small coalition tend to build only the essential roads so that in time of rebellion they can have full, fast control over them.

So, wrapping all up about the country issue, is the infrastructure about to be improved? Are there any public plans to do more for people so that we’re able to grasp a clear picture of political environment? This is the golden question.

What it is to be learned: no one ever can build a digital social architecture without showing interest in psychology, sociology, history, semiotics, anthropology and yes, philosophy (maybe somewhere in the future I will talk about digital ideology to emphasise its importance in tech world). I’m not saying those fields should be mastered but curiosity for them should be there.

Conclusion:

I think that guy who translates a business model into a flow map — should have a very broad view of the world and much more important than using any prototyping tool, knows how to debate and easily recognise sophism and paralogisms and put head to head threads of healthy reasoning. Sketch, Axure, Pidoco, Balsamiq, Invision and many other tools can go bankrupt in a year time and “unmake” a professional. But the ability to mentally build up a digital social architecture is the very essential skill that a good macro UX designer should possess.

Adrian Costea