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  • Writer's pictureGladwyn Lewis

Making User Experience go Viral

Warning - User Experience may very well be contagious

It's been years since I have executed a myriad of user experience projects, and I warn you, you very well risk the chance of being infected. Now if you are still reading, let's go on. But remember, I did warn you...

Do you remember the time you had your first drink? The first time you kissed someone you cared about? The first taste of a medium rare steak, or a great burger? The first time you got hired? Picture those various situations, visualize them, and remember that at no point were you able to get back to your original state after that momentous event. It quite simply changed you in irreparable ways.

Everything varies, and in this circumstance, so does the symptoms. Some (luckily) are immune to the infection of UX, and manage to go through life following the crowd. But some of us are infected, never to return to a state of normalcy again. Now I know you must be confused, after all its not like I am actually talking about an infection (like Covid-19), or am I? The infection I am talking about is the tainted lens that us UX professionals view our lives through. Think of it as an Instagram Filter. Only problem, it's always on and always working. I liken it to an invisible augmented reality screen, that shows me information and analyses even when I don't want it to.

And I realised this when I figured that UX (User Experience for you novices), plays a massive role in my purchase decisions. Add in a touch of nice design, branding, and I'm almost generally a converted customer. It's annoying. From the car I drive, to the laptop I use, to the headphones I wear, and even to the mobile I use on a daily basis, I tend to evaluate everything from a UX perspective. And I realised I was different, because I would go so neck deep in research, you'd think I was buying myself a house when in reality, all I was buying was a nice Faber Castell ink pen.

Most of my friends would purchase products just because the rest of the group had it. Or better yet, the majority would purchase products just to outclass the products that the rest of the group had. If one had an iPhone 10, the next would buy the iPhone 11 the moment it was released. Purchase decisions were so simple for them, it was all about who had the newest gadget. But for me, the unfortunate outlier, I wanted to know every detail of the product I was purchasing, and it had to have a definitive cost to benefit analysis before I even made a purchase.

How I got the bug that is UX

The year is 2004, I had just winded up an early startup, and exited from it due to some disputes with my partner. All my money had gone into the business, and I needed to find a job pronto. Plus I had a baby on the way, barely 4 months before she would come into the world and I didn't have the luxury of choice. A friend from a prayer group, recommended me to a senior IT manager in one of the largest multinational companies in Dubai, he liked me and he started me as a system administrator for the group. My job was simple, manage their gigantic server farms, networks and whatever else the job entailed.

2 months down the line I found myself working with Sun Microsystems Blade Servers and Cisco networking products, and I remember thinking for something as complicated as a Blade Server, the instructions and videos on the website (remember it was 2004), were so comprehensive that they simplified the process immensely. Here I was used to fixing and installing desktop computers and all of a sudden I was installing large servers and it was actually easier than building a desktop computer from scratch. But not only that, while the servers were so easy and seamless to work with, in contrast the Cisco systems (both edge switches and the core switches) were a nightmare to work with. The GUI for the management console was cumbersome and very, very annoying. A job that shouldn't have taken more than an hour stretched to 5 hours, and even then it was never done in a single day. And this was not only a problem that I faced, it was a problem that every system administrator faced in the 78 locations we had around the world.

And so began my first foray into User Experience. By that time I was the Assistant IT Director for the whole group, and we commissioned a project to simplify the overall deployment process and management of the Cisco switches. I was hooked immediately. Working with the Software Developers, I quickly realised that the tech part was not so much the problem, but it was the layout and the interface that needed to be completely revamped to work for our organization.

Now remember I was a virgin in the User Experience world, and at that time UX was yet a fairly nascent field. I had absolutely no clue about terms such as usability, heuristics, user centered design and so on and so forth. But eventually like all things good, it ended up being a rabbit hole and I went down through the deep end. Now you might be thinking, this 'disease' is actually quite harmless. I didn't hear about UX from some guru, but I learned about it's application through a problem, and from then on nothing ever truly stayed the same.

But I understood how UX could impact every moment of everyone's lives. And how important it is. From the microwave you use, to the elevator buttons, to the car interfaces when you drive. And many professions are just like that. I know copywriters who can't read a newspaper without pointing out copy errors, or film makers who can't enjoy a film without being critical (I do fall in that category too). The fact is you start noticing things that other people just don't see, and it's infectious and it starts colouring your daily lives.

That is very normal. But with UX it's different. We get frustrated not with ourselves, but instinctively put blame on the manufacturers, when a washing machine is overly complicated to use, and our patience or threshold for poorly designed interfaces is so much less than your average populace. Having to use something that is poorly designed especially when there aren't a multitude of options, gets even more frustrating. It was so much easier when I was clueless about UX and it's applications, it made my life so much simpler.

Why are there so many buttons?

Like take my microwave for example. For something that is literally made to quickly heat up food, you would expect it to be already optimized for that very application.

Wrong, most microwaves have a plethora of buttons, and this all could be solved by just two buttons. Instead almost all microwave manufacturers place so many buttons that the average consumer would rarely use. And especially in the age of the swipe and multitouch interface, the microwave interfaces have not changed since they've been invented in 1955.

So how can we solve these problems?

We have to make User Experience more accessible to the masses, so much so that it has to become a part of our everyday vernacular. User Experience makes it sound so technical, I mean it is a lot better than its previous iteration (HCI, which is Human Computer Interaction). I think maybe a rebrand is in order, how about Human Experiences?

But maybe its not a branding problem, maybe we need to make Design Thinking a part and parcel of our education system. To me Design Thinking is a solution based approach, and it challenges all assumptions made. Design Thinking is an iterative process in which we seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding. The simple way to explain it is that we the designers, or the manufacturers have to completely remove ourselves from the equation. The end user is front and center, and it involves a deep understanding of the motivations of the user that we are designing the product for.

Now remember earlier that I said UX is like a disease? Well like any disease it needs to spread rampantly. It needs to be so common, that the push back from frustrated end users make manufacturers take User Experience seriously.

Simply because they should stop designing such crap. And maybe, just maybe I can finally stop being frustrated about the smallest things because good and practical design might just become commonplace.

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