Real-life user experience design

My talk at UX London this year was about the iPad app that Paul Lloyd and I designed for The Week magazine. It’s been doing rather well in the App Store (The majority of ratings are 4-5 star and it’s held the number 1 spot in the UK newsstand category a good few times), but my talk was about the mistakes we made behind closed doors in the early stage design process – the stuff that people would normally skip over when giving a conference presentation.

One of the things that bothers me about the UX scene is the fact that there’s so much showmanship and self-promotion involved. People always talk about the importance of allowing for mistakes in the design process, but they rarely share real life stories about those mistakes.

It seems to me that there are two reasons for this. Firstly, design mistakes are always painfully obvious in retrospect. Think of all the usability test reports you’ve seen in your career. I’ll bet you reacted to every single issue with the thought “Duh, of course!” Funnily enough, this is also the reaction we give when we see a radically well designed product for the first time: our reaction is also “Duh, of course!”. The point is, when something is brought into perspective in your mind, it’s hard to consider it any other way. This is actually a well-researched cognitive bias (i.e. something we can’t help because of the way our brains are wired) called the hindsight bias.

Moving onto the second reason: embarrassment. People don’t like to look stupid in front of their peers. Why focus on the rocky road to achievement, when you can focus on the achievement itself? That’s the thing to be proud of, right? There’s a certain logic here, but it means that graduates and new practitioners don’t get to see the full story. They learn the methods and the outputs, but this is a bit like trying to learn to become a professional chef from a recipe book and practicing at home with some friends.

With it, we have the herd mentality. Nobody else is doing it, so why stick your neck out? It’s easy to feel that your own daily working life is an anomaly – that there are “real designers” out there who don’t make mistakes, don’t feel the pain of political pressure and don’t find that sometimes a day has passed and nothing productive has happened. It’s bullshit. We’re human and we’re all on a learning curve. Feeling a bit dumb is a productive state to be in, because it means you’ve recognised your weaknesses and you’re hungry to fix them. It’s when you don’t feel stupid that you should be worried.

There’s nothing to be ashamed about making good mistakes that take place within the safety of your design process and help you towards a better product.

Mistakes are fascinating. The social, organisational and psychological issues that lead to design mistakes are fundamentally important to understanding how to be a good designer and how to run an effective design team.