The ‘unhappy path’ – UX nirvana in 8 easy steps (Guardian masterclass report)

imgresHaving worked on a number of web development projects in recent months, the Speak Media team took the opportunity of sitting in on user experience guru Martin Belam’s recent Guardian Masterclass – ‘So you want to be a UXer?’

As well as being a fun (and, as you’d expect, highly interactive) evening, it was a good chance to compare notes with one of the industry’s leading lights. Although it might seem like an emerging discipline, UX has in fact been around for a long time in other guises, and best practice is pretty well defined – for those looking for some simple pointers (and some tips on how to get into the industry), we’ve summarised the highlights below, focusing on the points that best reflect our own thinking on this area.

1. Keep it simple
It’s incredibly easy to design complexity into things – all too often, the focus is on what the editor or commercial manager wants to do rather than solving problems for the user.

“I don’t agree with Nielsen NG on everything,” said our host, “but I do agree with their definition of user experience as an exercise in simplification”:

The first requirement for an exemplary user experience is to meet the exact needs of the customer, without fuss or bother

2. Start with a sketch*
Forget drawing tablets and fancy wireframe software – simple pen and paper are a UXer’s best tools for drafting new ideas. “I recommend you always start with sketches. It’s so much easier to throw away a sketch as a rubbish idea if you spent five minutes on it, rather than throwing away some wireframes you spent five hours creating in Omingraffle or Visio.”

3. Dig deep
The graphic UI is usually only “the tip of the iceberg of digital service”. You should also be able to help a business analyse and refine the model that underpins the service you are trying to build – and ensure that it’s relevant to the user. “Card sorting and tree tests are great to help model navigation and organise content.”

4. Be ‘T-shaped’
UX professionals can cover a wide range of skills, and come from varying backgrounds – from the ’nerdy’ end of the scale (content strategists and information architects) to the more ‘creative’ (visual design and copywriting). Often they are described as ‘T-shaped’ people, with skillsets across the range and an expertise in one particular area.

5. Soften up
If you want to be a successful UXer, you’ll also need to develop ‘soft skills’ –because you’ll need to interact with and ensure buy-in from a wide range of people throughout the business. The top three non-UX traits that mark out a UX master, are:

Empathy (being able to relate to end users and the various ‘stakeholders’ within the business you’re working with)
Understanding of the digital world (not just websites and apps – think also of in-store devices and mobile tablets)
Communication (the ability to “sell” the importance of good UX – and your ideas)

English: Apple director Steve Jobs shows iPhone
Steve Jobs did UX by feel – but you need research (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

6. Research is fundamental (unless you’re Steve Jobs)
You can’t underestimate the significance of research and evidence-based design. Or, as Martin put it, “unless your company has a Steve Jobs, you need research.” Everything should come from understanding what users are trying to do and doing what’s best for them – it’s the UXer’s job to be the voice of the user, to shout for what’s right.

7. Stay two steps ahead
“You should be reading about user experience and design all the time.” That means websites (such as – a Speak Media favourite) and books (Martin’s reading list included Simple and Usable Web, Mobile, and Interaction Design).

8. Explore the ’unhappy path’
Businesses are very good at mapping out the perfect user journey or ‘happy path’ (user visits site, registers, buys stuff, leaves great feedback, posts lots of social messages about the experience, comes back regularly and does it all again). What they’re not so good at – and what a UXer must ensure they look at, is what happens when any or all of those stages on the journey go pear-shaped.

What happens if something they’ve ordered on your e-commerce site doesn’t arrive? What if they start registering but the email address is already in the system? Drawing the ‘unhappy path’ – full of such negative possibilities – is often uncomfortable for businesses, but it’s vital to a robust design. As Martin said: “The true test of a good user experience is how your system copes when something goes wrong.”

* Speaking of sketches, here’s a lovely page of sketchnotes that Francis Rowland captured during a talk on blogging by Martin Belam the UXDo Writing Workshop:

Francis Rowland sketchnotes - Martin Belam on blogging
Francis Rowland sketchnotes – Martin Belam on blogging

Author: George Wright Theohari

Branding | Content | Design. We develop and deliver beautifully effective communications across print, digital and film.

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