I recently produced a logotype, branding and some art direction for Cheetahs Gym, Brighton. Cheetahs is a Brighton institution, established in 1962 and a firm favourite with Brighton’s body building types.
I’m not one to generalise, but let me do some generalising. My career in design has has been unplanned and random at best, and my life as a designer has been varied – there have been some common themes but the biggest shift was a couple of years ago when I joined Semantico, and the world of digital publishing.
Before Semantico I had a stint for a small agency that mostly made games with the purpose of selling stuff, and before that I had a longer stint at a strategic comms agency which made all sorts of different kinds of stuff with the purpose of selling stuff (Back then I was the creative lead for our publishing clients – Faber & Faber, Hachette Livre and Dorling Kindersley, one of the reasons I’m enjoying working with publishers again now). And before that I spent quite a few years freelancing at various advertising agencies large and small, making stuff with the purpose of selling stuff (Mother London and Mccann Erickson being two of note). So that’s knocking on 17 years designing to push product, shift units or somehow facilitate ‘engagement’ (because engagement somehow means stuff will sell).
‘Clickthroughs’ used to be the currency, soon followed by the zeitgeist of ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ – that was the ROI, the bottom line, how work was judged (I will avoid mentioning ‘awareness’ – unquantifiable but seemingly keeping the internet in banners).
So what’s changed? I still work for a paymaster, a business with clients to satisfy, clients that need to make a profit, have ‘brand values’ to communicate, who want a return of investment, and who need to sell product, shift units. But there is a difference.
In the main, the differences are in the product’s lifecycle, its longevity or life expectancy. Often (but not always) in the world of advertising the work is campaign work, and those campaigns can be short sharp affairs, designed to burn brightly but quickly, just like Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner. The emphasis is on the message, the comms, the impact.
I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.
Semantico make products that hang around for a while. They have to be robust. The product our users interact with isn’t just for a few three minute bursts but for hours and hours. They are not used for entertainment, distraction or sociality, but for work, for research and study.
And our clients don’t just sell stuff, they also have to do a ton of other stuff really well too. They need to add value around their content, find new relevant ways to get their content to new audiences. A student or researcher will use this product for years. A single purchase by one institution will serve a multitude of people. Not everyone has a bought the product they are using, or even directly paid for it.
In the world of advertising, knowing your demographic, your target audience is a huge part of the creative process. You need to speak the same language as your audience, communicate in the same way, resonate. Be their friend, part of the same pack, the same tribe.
Within publishing, understanding your audience is just as important, but there is a change of emphasis. I am now designing tools, and designing a service, for different wants and needs.
At Semantico we very user centric. Our whole design methodology and philosophy is based on user insight. So my design life has come a little circular in fashion – The agency where I learnt most of my game was, for the time, particularly user-centric. When I joined them in the early noughties it was standard process to produce wireframes and user journeys and use these as tools for insight and production. We actually had an information architect and producers who ‘got’ UX. And as I was reminded by my old strategy director the last time we hooked up in London, we often profiled archetypical users, and created stories and narratives around those archetypes – designed to get under our audiences skin and help us deliver effective solutions for our clients. We wanted to understand our users so we could offer them the aspirational experiences our clients expected us to deliver.
Now I have the need to understand our users so we can design a better service, better tools. User research is now a task absorbed into all our design activity and all our design choices are informed by real users and the user insight we gain from research.
I can’t say I miss working on stuff that just disappears into the internet abyss once a short term goal is reached (or not), but what I find most rewarding is that I am designing useful stuff – stuff to help people educate themselves, learn about new stuff and answer problems. And in the case of the online clinical procedures tool we launched earlier in the year, stuff that might help save lives too.
In my previous posts on User Experience (UX) methodology I have touched on sketching, wireframing and prototyping. I would be remiss not to discuss the most important factor in any user-centric design approach: user research.
Since the emergence of Participatory Design in the 60s and 70s design thinking has moved on from the physical to encompass the emotional and behavioural. Designers today create a context for experience* and user experience is an expertise that provides a user-centric and data driven approach, needed when designing appropriate and effective products in today’s digitally fragmented world.
UX is no new speciality, rather it is an umbrella term for processes and methodologies that have had their genesis in other specialities for a number of years. Human-computer interaction, behavioural and cognitive psychology, usability and user centered design: all influences on what we call UX, and all methodologies that have a focus on the user.
Ignore users at your peril
I generally work with publishers, and I often encounter a quite complex user ecology. To make a generalisation we usually design for a specific task – research. But our user base is complex. Domain expertise varies between the undergraduate, the postgraduate, the academic and the professional. Differences in subject area throw up variations in behaviour, down to the favouring of a tatty notepad over using the latest digital tools. There is a vast difference between an undergraduate accessing textbook content through a desktop computer situated at their university library to an architect accessing building regulations whilst onsite, through a tablet on a 3G connection.
We have to understand this complexity of our user base. The differences and commonalities between user types, mental models, motivations and triggers – all areas that as designers and UX practitioners we need to fully comprehend before we can design the appropriate collateral that combined, make up the overall experience and impression of a product. This can only be achieved by talking and listening to our users and UX methodology gives us the tools to do just that.
Crafting experiences for online research
One of the most important factors in our approach to UX is that we are involved with a projects lifecycle from start to finish. We have an integrated and embedded approach – our front end development team encompasses developers, UX architects and designers – this integrated approach ensures UX is a consideration in every decision no matter at what point a project is at.
At the preliminary stage of any project our work is predominantly requirement gathering. We do a raft of exercises and workshops with client stakeholders designed to sanity check business requirements, aspirations and priorities, making sure a project brief is created that all parties involved believe to be feasible. We facilitate workshops around our clients data, the earliest stage of producing a sites taxonomy: the information architecture and interaction model. The output of these collaborative exercises and workshops are the beginnings of the documentation that make up the ‘blueprints’ of a particular project.
Following on from these early requirement-gathering workshops we move onto user research.
Once we identify the appropriate testing and research techniques we recruit a user group that we test on throughout the whole production process of a site build. At the beginning of a project we use our user group to create personas defining common user mental models and user tasks. The insight we gain from our user testing can point to the relevance of tools and features, and how those tools are used. What motivates our users to use our product, how social activity differs between user types and an idea of device usage. This research gives a shared view on the typical user(s) of a product, a view we can share with all stakeholders. When decisions are made, they can be made within the context of understanding users’ needs and motivations.
During a project build we use our user group for comparative testing and prototyping, giving us feedback and direction on our interface design. We also carry on this activity post launch, checking benchmarks have been met and making sure a product is being used as intended, and if not, why and how? It is important at this post-live launch to be especially active – feedback forms and surveys, a look at analytics and a further round of user testing all make sure that the solution we have provided performs as expected and intended.
The image below is a snapshot of a few desks at the studio where I work – everyone works on a Mac, but as individuals we have different roles, we use these machines for different tasks. We bring our idiosyncrasies into our working habits. Our personal life bleeds into our work environment. All these desks are different, but we all use the same tool.
If we speak the same language we could have different accents, different traditions and inclinations. Localisms change the cultural meaning of symbols and signifiers with a short hop across a border. This is what makes people interesting, the differences, the ability to surprise and be surprised. And this is why we cannot make assumptions about our users.
User Experience challenges
There are challenges in the adoption of UX methodologies. One such consideration is cost. Research and development in any field is not cheap, and with UX research it is no different. Time and resource defines the extent and scope of our research. Analytics alone, although cheap to obtain, can only take us so far. We believe in a lean methodology – we keep our UX overhead as low as we can get it, but when it comes to user insight we want to do as much as we can, and we firmly believe that any quantitative data needs to be paired with more in-depth qualitative data that could be more costly to obtain.
Combating bias can often be the hardest challenge to overcome. I mentioned the importance of keeping an open mind – this was no throwaway comment. We all have bias, a favoured interface, a way of interacting we are familiar with. A prefered aesthetic, a cultural association … all these factors add bias. Overcoming them is a matter of self awareness and by having the experience of being surprised one too many times. We all have our prefered solutions and outcomes usually for seemingly rational reasons but seeing your own expectations confounded and discovering insights previously hidden from you is the best antidote to adhering a little too much to your own predilections.
Keeping it real
I have been undertaking some user research in conjunction with the University of Sussex. Initially we have been conducting in-depth interviews with a cross section of student and academics. This research will hopefully point to areas of interest which we can investigate more thoroughly. Andrea Fallas, our UXA, will be publishing some insight from our research activity with the University on the Semantico blog soon.
This post first appeared (with some slight edits) on the Semantico blog.
*Hummels, Djajadiningrat and Overbeeke (2001)