There's a certain amount of terminology used on this site that assumes a reasonable level of previous exposure to the world of User Experience design (UX design) and Information Architecture (IA).
One of the key considerations in my role as a UX designer / IA is to try to make sure that the site or application I'm designing makes sense to the target audience, and phraseology and terminology form a large part of that.
With this in mind, the remainder of this page is my interpretation of some of the common terminology associated with the realm of UX design in the hope that it may help those getting acquainted with this field.
My interpretation of UX design / IA terminology
User Experience Designer (UX Designer)
User experience designer, UX designer, user experience architect, user experience consultant, information architect are all terms that you may see on job descriptions and CV's. They describe similar roles and in fact often it's just a question of who you speak to or what company you are working with that determines which of these (and other) titles are used.
The term User Experience designer is sometimes used as an all encompassing role title, incorporating all aspects of user focused design considerations including information architecture, user centred design, user testing, interaction design, user interface design and visual design.
So a user experience designer role often differs from an IA's role in that the former practitioner has a a wider focus that may include the creatively lead brand experience sometimes encompassing visual design, as opposed to an approach focused on the organisation and presentation of information in the most intuitive and usable manner.
As these roles are given more time to evolve it is likely that they will naturally come to be defined in a more consistent universal manner, however until that time comes I find that it's often best to keep an open mind when exploring a new role until I've had an opportunity to discuss the expectations and requirements of a new role in detail.
Information architect (IA)
An IA is responsible for ensuring that the digital entity (e.g. website, application etc) makes sense from a user's perspective. There's a lot that needs to be done behind the scenes to achieve this, however in a nutshell, the objective is to ensure that the right information is presented, in the right place, at the right time, in the right way.
If you've ever been on a website and felt frustrated because you can't seem to complete what you thought was a simple task because you just can't seem to find your way around the site (I guess most users of the internet have experienced this), then one of the main issues you were facing is likely to be that the site you were struggling with needs the attention of an experienced information architect who is well versed in the core aspects of the arrangement of information for optimum usability.
Conversely, consider those times where you may have visited a site or application and completed the task that you went there for quickly and easily. Such positive experiences are not so easy to remember, and it's a tough fact of life for information architects (and other usability related professionals), that if they've done their work well, users will never consider whether or not a user focused design professional has been involved.
User Centred Design (UCD)
User centred design is the application of a user focused methodology which incorporates activities (in any combination depending on the practitioner) such as focus groups, user/call center/stakeholder interviews, analysis of user data/demographics (often sourced via an organisation's marketing department), creation of user personas, creation of task based user journeys (see next point below), feature, functionality and content lists, creation of User Experience Specification documentation (site map and wireframes as a minimum).
Essentially, this approach aims to craft a solution base largely on key user goals (usually those belonging to the target or most common visitor types). UCD can be a very successful approach as focused attention on user needs is a healthy thing and helps to shift the focus away from potential client and agency design pre-conceptions and pressure to design what they 'think' would be effective such as ill-advised 'cool' features, visuals, or functionality that may in fact add noise and clutter to the design and so detract from the user experience overall.
As long as all elements identified during the UCD process are produced to form a united, well balanced, carefully implemented solution, then users are likely to enjoy a smooth streamlined user experience, greatly enhancing the chances of repeat visits and growth through positive word of mouth.
Personas, user journeys, and task based design
Personas, user journeys and task based design are important elements of user centred design (UCD). A persona is essentially a fictitious user, described in varying amounts of detail (my preference is to keep them light and to the point), created to represent the target or most common user types of a given digital entity (e.g. website or application). The majority of which is ideally based on marketing/demographic data, interviews with client interfacing staff members (and ideally real users themselves), experience from previous projects, and any other relevant insight gained during the earlier stages of the project.
A key aspect of a persona is the identification of their individual goals/objectives/tasks which allow the usability practitioner to work out the optimum user journey to allow the persona to achieve these goals. This helps drive the formulation of a suitable site map and eventually the features, functionality and content that will be defined in detail within the design documentation such as the user experience specification.
The number of personas developed for a given project depends on the complexity of the project and the amount of information available about a given organizations' user base. I have found that the application of between 2-6 personas is appropriate in most circumstances.
As the name suggests, user testing is about testing the web site/page/application with real life users. There are different ways that this can be achieved depending on project approach, testing time available, and budget.
Experienced user focused professionals have often seen the great benefits gained from user testing and will generally be in favor of a robust usability testing plan being factored into a web project as early as possible. Resistance to this approach can be a source of frustration to usability professionals as they try to convince project sponsors (who may be new to the concept) of the considerable merits of the early application of usability testing.
Some common types of user testing are:
- Clickable prototype - this is often made up of either static images which are made clickable via the application of clickable hotspots (to facilitate user interaction), or working html/flash web pages that are also made clickable (to a greater or lesser degree).
- Clickable wireframes which although generally devoid of colour and other core aspects of visual design, can be a quick way (depending on the software package being used), to quite quickly utilise wireframe documentation for the purposes of testing designs. Axure is a popular wireframing program that is designed to allow reasonably quick creation of clickable wireframes/prototypes.
- Remote user testing - here a user can be tested from the comfort of their real life browsing environment (therefore potentially showing more true to life results) allowing their progress through the predefined tasks to be viewed/recorded using relevant software.
- Paper prototype - web pages/interfaces are simply sketched onto paper and then tested with suitable candidates. This approach is often used several times during the early stages of a project as a quick and low cost way to test, refine and re-test (known as an iterative process) to see if users can easily follow given design patterns and approaches through to task completion. However in my view this methodology needs to backed up later on in the project with a more robust user testing approach utilising more structured design work that is closer to the finished article.
It's critical that the user tasks to be tested as well as a moderators' guide are produced by an experienced usability testing practitioner. The role of testing moderator itself requires key skills in order to draw out the common patterns of comprehension and behavior from the testing candidates.
The key benefit of user testing is that testing design concepts on users prior to full technical build allows the design team to bring the usability of a new design from an initial point of "nice idea, but would it work for our customer base" to "proven idea which has been refined into a tried and tested design". The proposed design can then be refined and polished to as high a level as the projects' usability testing time constraints and budget allow.
The powerful business case is quite simply that it's much much cheaper to fix usability problems iteration by iteration before the final solution is built and launched (at which point it's sometimes passed the point of no return). Another compelling perspective is to ask the question, 'how valuable would it be if we knew prior to launch that the new/re-designed website/application would be very well received by the user base?". I suspect that most project managers/business owners would answer that this kind of certainty would be 'very useful indeed'.
User Experience Specification
This term is used to describe the documentation that a user experience designer / information architect produces as their key deliverable towards the end of a design phase (of which there could be many depending on the project size and methodology). As a minimum it is most commonly comprised of site map, annotated page/UI/component wireframes, user/interaction flows.
Other assets that can be included:
- Project/business objectives
- Design strategy summary
- Visual design work
- Logical system flows
- User journeys
- Accessibility checklist/guidelines
- Required operating environments (e.g. browser specifications/plug ins, target screen resolutions, page weights)
- Any other important information that needs to be communicated to the wider project team
Many products that require users to interact with them to carry out their tasks (e.g. buying a ticket online from a website, making a trade on a foreign exchange (FX) trading platform, photocopying an article, pre-recording a TV program) have not necessarily been designed with the users in mind. Typically, they have been engineered as systems to perform set functions. While they may work effectively from an engineering/development perspective, it is often at the expense of how the system will be used by real people.
The aim of interaction design is to redress this concern by bringing usability into the design process. In essence, it is about developing interactive products that are easy, effective, and enjoyable to use—from the users’ perspective.
As well a creating an initial impression that is easy on the eye, utilises and blends colours in an effect manner, and can carry a given branded identity, the essence of Visual design is to optimise the user's ability to interpret, engage and interact with a digit entity (e.g. website or application).
A key aspect is the creation of a clear visual hierarchy so that the user can see at a glance what is important and what is peripheral along with the clear definition of the functional regions of a digital interface.
The core principles of visual design can be defined as:
- White (or empty) space
- Levels of information (i.e. the title or theme, subtitles or bulleted points, text detail, calls to action)
User interface design
User interface design is the design of website or application pages/functional components (or a wide range of other things such as computers, appliances, machines, mobile communication devices etc) with the focus on the user's experience and interaction.
The goal of user interface design is to make the user's interaction as simple and efficient as possible, in terms of accomplishing user goals (often called user centered design). Good user interface design facilitates finishing the task at hand without drawing unnecessary attention to the wider aspects of the interface as a whole.
Removing (or at the very least de-emphasising) aspects on the interface that are not crucial to task completion is an important step to ensure that uneccessary clutter is stripped away from the interface, therefore helping the user to concentrate on the task at hand.
Usability is generally regarded as ensuring that interactive products are easy to learn, effective to use, and enjoyable from the user’s perspective.
It involves optimizing the interactions people have with interactive products to enable them to carry out their activities (whether it be related to digital products such as websites and applications, electronic equipment appliances, or many other items that we may encounter during everyday life) quickly and easily.
Usability can be broken down into the following aspects:
- Effective to use
- Efficient to use
- Safe to use (e.g. prevention of user errors)
- Have good utility (e.g. system provision of the right kind of functionality)
- Easy to learn
- Easy to remember how to use
Usability Expert review / Heuristic evaluation
With a usability expert review, an evaluator explores a product or web site in detail and assesses its usability against a set of principles (known as heuristics), best practice guidelines, and/or knowledge and experience gained over time.
There are many flavors of heuristic reviews including exhaustive, principled, and scenario-based. The review is best done by someone who is well-versed in usability issues and has some familiarity with the product domain.
The above definitions are just my take on what is clearly a set of constantly evolving terminology that you will find within the UX / IA arena. If you would like any more input / opinion re the above, or perhaps you'd like to put forward a alternative view, please don't hesitate to get in touch.
UX consulting online
Alternatively, if you'd like to consult with me re any UX design related matter then just click on the 'UX Consulting via Skype' button below to book some time and I will come back to you by email to set up a mutually convenient time.