Switch off for better UX

Turn off your device, swtch off the TV and don’t listen to the radio! Seriously!

Okay, that does sound a bit more drastic than I want it to sound, but bare with me for a moment and hopefuly I can convince you how doing just that can better your UX work. Sometimes, just a few hours is enough, sometimes longer depending on the complexity of the problem.

A few weeks ago I read a great article online about self-defence where ex Navy Seal Dom Raso focuses on the fact that awareness of your surroundings is often the first step to successful self-defence. When I next travelled on the subway I decided to observe my fellow commuters and their habits and I realised that he was completely correct in his observations.

Most people had their eyes so glued to the screen of their smart phone, tablet or e-reader that many were utterly unaware of what was happening in their surroundings causing awkward encounters with strangers and ample possibilities for complicated situations. I even observed a young man sitting right next to a very good-looking young woman and he was so busy typing a message or updating his status that he didn’t even realise how striking the woman was. When the young woman stood up to get off at her stop and the young man finally looked up at her I could see the look of amazement on his face and could only think of how that might have been a missed opportunity for him.

I immediately began to analyse the UX part of this experience and how much we who work in digital are so often immersed in everything electronic in order to be always up to date, that we forget about natural human interaction that isn’t through a device. Don’t get me wrong, I am the first person to want to try out any new technology and am strong evangelist of everything smart, tech, etc. but also being an advocate for User Experience and making the user my number one priority when putting together any project, I felt I needed to understand the client as much as the device they use.

In this article I aim to explore this in more detail based on the 5 principal stages of UX as outlined on UXMastery and how using real life experience, we can make the user’s overall experience much more natural and intuitive.

1. Strategy

IA planning

We’ve all been told many times that planning or setting up your strategy is important and in any ux project it’s crucial to avoid wasting time and resources unnecessarily.

About seven years ago I had to make a trip to Paris with a group of friends for a conference. We were arriving Friday evening and leaving at the end of the day Sunday and were only given Saturday until dinner as free time. Most of the group had never been to Paris and wanted to see a little of what all the fuss is about.

One of my friends took it upon herself to organize our Saturday. She knew we only had about 10 hours and wanted to see as much as possible. Without the proper planning we would have wondered around Paris all day long, but instead we started at the Eiffel Tower and worked away down to Notre Dame cathedral taking in so many different places of interest along the way. She even planned for more in case we finished up earlier and she gave us various options at more than one spot on our trip. She had taken into account the amount of time we had, the amount of time it should take and the fact that we might have a different idea than she did. All of this was done with proper planning and strategy.

Applying this to app development is very easy. Let’s say we want to create a picture sharing app. We know we want to take a picture and share the picture. That’s our starting and finishing points. With that in mind we can start drawing a road map. For example, I can add an option to edit the image between the two points and I can now add various options that I might want to add each of the 3 points. You can also decide that you want to consider creating a social network of photographers.

The options are obviously endless, but with this planning you can decide the best way to approach the other 4 areas of the ux process and can avoid mistakes that might take you in the direction of a professional photo editing app instead of the social photo app you had initially thought of without you realising it.

The real world example helps us remember that planning is important and I’m not going to worry about the cost of a bus ride in Brazil if I’m planning a trip to Paris, so why should I make the same mistake when planning an application.

2. Research

Prasa na iPada

Before moving forward on any project, we need to know what we’re dealing with. It’s no use wasting months of work on an option to paste photos from your app into a google drive document when nobody will use that option.

Let’s take the example of how we might go about choosing our favourite coffee joint. Half of the research is already done, because you know your likes and dislikes, so you have a clear idea of the consumer in this case, but that knowledge is worth nothing without external research. You need to find coffee shops to try out, you need to decide which of your friends opinions you’re going to take and you’ll have to decide what out of your personal taste are the most important factors when deciding.

Do you want some place near your house, office or far away from both? Is it more important to have a larger variety of coffee or smaller variety of coffee but a lot of options when it comes to pastries? You will probably need to do a little A/B testing between a few places and you might need to factor in your friends opinions, especially if their company is important as opposed to your own personal coffee spot.

If we’re going to put together an online store we need to do extensive research into the competition, the market and the customers as well as our own numbers. When we think of a fashion store, our logic tells us that selling books or sound systems on that site would be ridiculous, but what if research tells us that the consumer actually likes to buy these products together? You may have just lost out an interesting mix that none of the competition has thought of yet. The proper research will give us indicators that will reduce mistakes or waste of revenue and in real life what happens when we don’t research? Most times it results in a big mess or going to coffee houses your friends hate.

3. Analysis

Web analytics framework

Even with all our planning and research, if we don’t know how to analyse the data, we’re once again going to waste resources and can take our project in the completely wrong direction. Reading all the data collected can be a daunting task and unless your strategy and research were well-directed you might have a lot of data that is completely useless, but at the end of the day we have to sift through the data and make decisions based on the picture that it presents.

In the real world we have to constantly analyse data. A simple example is when we go to a restaurant. From the moment we arrive we analyse the ambience, the decor and the service. The moment we sit down we are presented with the menu that gives us a list of different dishes to choose from and a price associated.

Sifting through this data can be confusing, but if we have our strategy set out, we know our end objective. In this case it might be whether I want a entrée or to go directly to the main course, whether I want fish or meat. These are our base facts, then we have our adaptive data that depends on the direction taken in the first tier, for example, will I drink red or white wine or just water, which plate in the selection will I try etc.

Sometimes the menu doesn’t have all the data we need and so we ask the waiter for his suggestions/opinions and even with all that information we might feel that we are not completely sure if we’re going to enjoy a specific plate, so we decide to make a deal with our dinner companion, each one asks for a plate and we try each other’s dish (A/B testing at it’s simplest).

At the end of the meal we might decide to have dessert and go through a similar process as the main course and once completed we ask for the check, pay and leave. Now we have most of the data we need to decide whether we want to go back to that restaurant or not.

Was the general feel of the place to our liking?

Was the meal any good and were we left with a craving to try more of the dishes?

How was the service and were the prices reasonable?

Analysing the data for any kind of application is very much the same, we have base indicators and then we go in the direction that makes sense for our objective and sometimes we have unexpected surprises like the incredible Salmon that you only tried because the waiter suggested and now you swear it’s your favourite dish.

4. Design

design on iPad

The design process works to bring together everything we’ve done up until now to present it to the public in a way that will be either intuitive or simplistic for the best experience possible.

Sure, we’ve all seen hundreds if not thousands of websites and mobile apps. Your Instapaper, Feedly or Pinterest are packed with great references for every situation you could think of and you can always resort to Google, Dribbble or Behance. So you’re set and nothing could go wrong… or could it? How often have we found that we’re missing all the right references for our new project and searching for it could take you forever. Alternatively, let’s imagine that you have been asked to design something that is truly innovative and cutting edge and that there just aren’t products on the market that you can get inspiration from.

Once again, let’s turn to real world examples to help us get through our creative block. What we realise is that often, using a tried and tested pattern to build upon can be enough, much like a men’s suit. Let’s be honest, the basic design changes very little and yet when we see a well-tailored suit by a well-known designer… well, even we men have to admit it looks damn fine. Sometimes the basic layout might be similar to a suite you saw at your local store, but the material, stitching and even little changes in the cut just make it high quality. Something you would be scared to ruin. But even designers get it wrong and we’ve seen some bad failures so we also learn that sometimes we’re going to fail and have to rethink the design to turn it around. That doesn’t mean that the original pattern is broken, because a simple black suit will always work, it’s what was added to that pattern that broke it.

So when do we know whether to break and invent a chair that hangs from the ceiling as opposed to one that rests on 4 legs? Well in truth we can never truly know that, but if we ask these simple questions I believe we have a greater chance at success:

  1. Will it cost more than a similar product on the market right now? How much more?
  2. Will it make the user’s life easier?
  3. Is it simpler or more complicated to operate than what the market already offers?
  4. Does it bear resemblance to some pattern already adopted by the general public even in a way that’s not completely related? (ex. Smartphones almost seem like we’re shuffling through cards when we swipe through screens)

Incredibly these questions are usually very hard to answer and many developers believe that they have the right answers because they’re only seeing their side of the story and not the end user’s.

At the end of the day, sometimes we have to rely on tried and tested patterns and then build on that as we get feedback and experience with the product.

5. Production

Desktop mockup #dribbble

It’s the big day, we’ve done all of the work, but now we have to present it to the general public much like a play on Broadway.

The actors have practiced their lines thousands of times, the director has directed until he was blue in the face, all the technical team has been working endless hours into the night trying to set up all the lights, pullys, backdrops etc. while publicists have been raving about how incredible the piece is, “Shakespeare of the 21st Century”.

The curtain goes up and the play begins…

Nobody involved in the play knows exactly what the audience will think, even if you have multi-award winning team of actors and a cutting edge director. Having all the right elements does not always spell success, so why present your play to the world? Because we have to take a gamble on what we believe in and hold our breath until the first time the audience claps or doesn’t. Does the audience laugh at all your jokes, especially that one that had the whole cast and crew in stitches? Even then, we might have to wait for the first reviews before breaking open the champagne even though we all celebrated opening night.

This is where it gets interesting and we see the level of our cast and crew, because bad reviews may come in, audience members might not clap much etc. but if the team is a good one, they’ll take that criticism and work on the play for the next show and if the results are better they’ll work on that or work another angle if this one didn’t work.

Much like product design, not getting it a 100% right is always a possibility, but if the team work together and analyze the data received and work through the process again, generally the results can be turned around and incredible products can be “evolved” from mediocre beginnings.

Some plays/projects might not make it past the first weeks because the team didn’t realise that it would probably take hard work and some misses before a complete hit.


Switching off your device and observing your fellow man and surroundings can put you more in tune with your users and their needs than any group of analytics or focus group, because you’re seeing people in their natural habitat and much like a wildlife photographer, getting to know your subject can bring you closer to them for that perfect shot. It can also give you new ways of looking at a problem and finding a solutions that might even seem innovative.

However, I ask that you consider this as just one part of your arsenal of User Experience tools, because sometimes even the most logical way of going about something isn’t always the best and sometimes our users don’t have certain habits because they don’t know they exist yet, so we need to present it to them and this is where A/B testing is very important and will still surprise us at every turn.

Just be aware of the data that exists in the real world.

Suggested reading:

UX Crash Course: 31 Fundamentals 

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