Five Things Every UX Designer Should Do Well

People give plenty of blah blah blah to failing these days, but I’ve met very few who have committed to it as completely as I have. I’ve been creating digital products for nearly two decades and I have screwed things up in just about every way things could be screwed up. So what follows isn’t some academic treatise; this is a practical list with scars nestled under each of its five heuristics.

Follow my advice and you will deliver design work of significance and influence. It has been my experience that striving to do these five things well can transform an organization’s approach to design without the tedium and frustration of ideological debate.

1. Separate The What from The How

Design is problem solving; the key to solving problems is to first clearly define them. When we intertwine thinking about WHAT needs to get accomplished with HOW it needs to get accomplished, we do a crap job of problem definition because the moment we start talking about The How, we stop talking about The What.

The designer must disentangle that mess, first for herself, and then, as best as she can, for others. Let “I need a button” go uncontested and you’ll soon be trapped in a room with a dozen other people arguing over what shade of blue to use. Instead, pick apart the request before responding. Explore what the problem is for which a button is the best solution to allow the more significant issues to emerge.

2. Think visually

Sketch the conversations inside your head, share your sketches with others and encourage them to create their own (and to revise yours.) Visual communication is all about our bald ape brains. When we sketch with others, it changes how we think in three powerful ways:

  • Talking and drawing stimulates more areas of the brain than talking alone and a more active brain can surprise you with the connections it makes.
  • Pictures spark emotional responses and we retain concepts better when they’re bonded with emotion.
  • Even when we don’t pick up the pen ourselves, we feel like co-creators as the ink spreads out before us on a dry erase board, flip chart or cocktail napkin.

3. Design conceptually

If you treat design as a tactical activity, you severely limit the size of the problems it can address. That’s why “make it look pretty” is such an awful definition for design, because there’s so little we can do to help users satisfy their goals when all we do is adjust what something looks like.

In reality, design is sometimes tactical, but it is ALWAYS strategic. The designer must skillfully address the major user experience issues of a product or service before tending to the supporting details of color, contrast and typography. She must create over-arching conceptual solutions that will allow the product’s most important users to satisfy their most important goals. Three examples of defining concepts:

  • Evernote is designed as a place you can carelessly toss stuff into that also includes sophisticated tools for organizing that stuff later.
  • Amazon Prime is designed to help you talk yourself into buying things.
  • LinkedIn is designed as a socially acceptable way to contact people who don’t remember you.

4. Move the furniture around

Treat content like furniture. You want to be able to get to a chair, but you also want to have the option of stepping past that chair to sit on the couch or even exit the room.

We must organize content in ways that maximize access to it without hindering people’s ability to navigate past it to get to other content.

5. Kill lorem ipsum

“Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet ...” and other for-placement-only nonsense text is the designer’s way of saying “I haven’t really thought through this content, so you know, whatever ...”

Some designers are self-conscious about their ability to string together relevant thoughts and they worry about being ridiculed if they try. But the point isn’t creating launch-ready text; The point is for the designer to think holistically about all elements of the user experience. Collecting, organizing and (as necessary) writing text forces a greater consideration that is never wasted effort for a designer.

Next week: Five Things Every Project Manager Should Do Well