Danger, UXB. Why UX Matters

http://maltagc70.wordpress.com/2012/05/03/3-may-1942-bomb-disposal-squad-tackles-time-bomb-threat/The letters ‘UXB’ were used in the UK during the Blitz to denote unexploded ordnance, mainly 50kg to 500kg lumps of bad-tempered explosives left behind by the ‘highly civilized human beings‘ of the Luftwaffe who were trying to kill George Orwell, amongst others.

The photo to the left is UXB in reality as a soldier of the Royal Engineers is working to make safe a 500kg bomb. It was as unglamorous as it was dangerous and the many men who lost their lives playing this game of cat and mouse get scant mention and I can only think of one recent book on their work.

For many my age from the UK, the first I ever heard of UXB was from the eponymous 1979 TV series about WW2 bomb disposal: Danger UXB.

Today ‘UX‘ is now the realm of User Experience. Not belittling the work of the UXB teams on real bombs, the point of this post is to simply highlight that neglecting UX in your project can be devastating to your project and end product.

However, what exactly is User Experience, and why does it matter? In its simplest it is the human side of the application or product; if we’re building software to run on hardware, then UX is the interface to the wetware. To some it is about the User and the raw ergonomics of how they will use your application:

User Experience Design … refer to the judicious application of certain user-centered design practices, a highly contextual design mentality, and use of certain methods and techniques that are applied through process management to produce cohesive, predictable, and desirable effects in a specific person, or persona (archetype comprised of target audience habits and characteristics).
UX Design – UX Design Defined

To others it is more about the Experience and whether the users feel positive after a series of interactions with your application:

User Experience (UX) is a term for a user’s overall satisfaction level when using your product or system. If it’s a good experience, they’re happy. If it’s a bad experience, your customers don’t come back.
Fatdux – What is UX

Most UX designers (aka human-computer interaction specialists aka interaction designers etc.) balance the two needs. When done well they combine making an interface usable with the need to stop you getting lost, or wanting to launch your screen across the room. It is not simply replacing the buttons with prettier icons to make it feel new. Good UX flows and is intuitive. Want to see good UX? Give an iPad to a 3 year old (or 93 year old with no computer experience) and watch how quickly they start to find their way around. Apple have taken UX seriously for some time and it shows.

Like most things, when done well UX is almost invisible despite being the main thing in front of our eyes. And if your application is going to be in front of a lot of people then UX becomes important. And if they have different ideas about what functionality is important, then you’d better have thought that through. In a finance application traders will want a different set of functions than operations who have a separate function than risk. Each equally important, and each completely different.

And no matter how good your application, if the design sucks then as far as your customers care your application sucks. UX matters.

Good design has to baked into a product. From the very start of a project part of your quality management should consider usability. And don’t underestimate the effort needed for good UX, especially in Agile. Agile can be problematic for UX, as Traci Lepore put it:

By nature, designers are well-organized and linear people. Logical flow is something we can grasp easily. We work well within structure. We are perfectionists and want all the I’s dotted and the T’s crossed. We thrive on recognition and success. But being agile or lean goes against these tendencies and forces us to step into an uncomfortable zone.
Why Agile Is So Hard

Nevertheless, a well thought out interface can raise the profile and customer response to a product or application. A basic Mac laptop is 2 to 3 times the cost of a basic Windows laptop but they are not 2 or 3 times as good. For the same amount of coin you can get a Windows laptop that is technically head and shoulders above a Mac, but people pay a premium for the simplicity of a Mac (as long as you are happy to be corralled into what you can do) and because it just works. (And, of course, lots of great marketing combined with the Job’s Reality Distortion Field).

In short – good UX can lift a mediocre product, and can really enhance a great product … and poor UX can bury a great product into a sea of mediocrity.

Despite the double-edge of UX, it can be great fun to work out how best to flow through an interface and careful thought can pay dividends throughout the project.

After all, even real UXB teams know how to have fun…


Shhh! Heart attack in 5.. 4.. 3..

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2 Responses to Danger, UXB. Why UX Matters

  1. rdn32 says:

    There is a thorny problem at the heart of UX, which is hinted at by the quote from fatdux. It’s not always true that if the user has a bad experience of a product then the customer will walk away – the user and the customer may not be the same person (see my comment on https://quarterly.blog.gov.uk/2013/07/12/iconic-design-gov-uk-and-the-agile-working-revolution/ ) or the customer may find themselves contractually locked in to using a particular product.

    If a user has a bad experience of a product that they need to use in order to do their job, they may be trapped using it. This can be enormously stressful: an application that is difficult to use is one that will make mistakes more common. And it gets worse: I know from personal experience that applications used for maintaining safety-critical data can be awful from a usability perspective.

    So, UX matters – even more than you say. It’s not just about creating commercially successful products. Sometimes it can be a matter of life and death.

    • The idea that a life-critical application is so limiting as to invite an error is disturbing to say the least. So far I’ve not had to deal with a project with a real life-or-death consequence (except maybe for the careers of those involved), but ugly UI bother me.

      In some areas I’ve worked there are multiple providers and applications to the point that the applications are mere commodities and the best looking system can get the contract.

      As a PM I don’t really get much say in the UX except to bring it up early in the scoping process and ensure we get it on the table. Based on your comments here and on GDS I will keep the user vs. customer balance as something to bring up next time I cover this in a project.

      I like your comment that GDS is getting a lot right (I think their blanket statement that design starts with real users and not the Government process shows good fore-site, a bit like their demand for plain English). I really wish more public agencies would mandate something similar.

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