As designers, we work in a trade that never seems to stay still for long. The trends and demands we cater for in our work are always evolving, and for many it’s important to keep updating our skills, even changing our job titles and working practices as the industry adopts new techniques, new language and new ideas.
User experience (UX) or interaction design has exploded over the last decade, with demand soaring across many industries as more and more customer interactions are done through digital means. Whichever industry you work in, from health to science to banking, there will be websites, apps and back-office software that are quickly becoming critical to your business, and require the skills of a designer or designers to realise their full potential.
UX designers tend not to have studied their field directly – it being fairly new – but instead arrive from a wide variety of related backgrounds. I see a lot who began as software developers, others from psychology or research, and increasingly, designers who began in an associated discipline such as product or graphic design, who have side-stepped into the world of software, myself included. I trained as product designer and for much of my career was designing physical products of plastic and metal – medical and lab equipment, smart energy meters, household appliances, even children’s toys.
The side-step into digital design is desirable because of the huge amount of opportunities right now, and possible because product and UX design have so much in common – they share the same core skill-set and much of the working process – at least the early stages – are near identical. For a product designer intrigued by this, the good news is it’s not too difficult and much of what you know will still apply. There are however a handful of key differences which it pays to be aware of up front. As I’m often approached by product designers considering the move and looking for advice from someone who’s done it successfully, here are the ten things you need to know before you leap.
1. The core process is mostly the same
The good news. Much like product design, your typical projects will follow a creative process you’re familiar with – starting with user research, building up a solid understanding of customers and their needs before you put pencil to paper. You’ll mostly likely sketch a range of concepts, prototyping, testing with users, iterating and eventually refining one which goes ahead to production. It’s at the prototyping stage that things start to deviate from product design, but more on that up ahead. Throughout, it’s your ability to empathise with real customers and craft designs and devise ways to meet their needs that will make you valuable. Read more on the UX design process in my recent article.
2. Software is never really finished
Here’s a key difference. With a physical product, there is a recognised ‘design freeze’ at which point mould tools are cut, production is setup and the product starts getting made on the factory floor. After that, changes are possible but are expensive and only occasional. With software however, changes can be made and rolled out as often as several times a day, and it’s commonplace to keep improving and updating your creations throughout their lifetime. In fact, it’s normal for your team to have a roadmap of updates and additions they’ll be building for months and even years after the initial launch, many of which will require design time. Software is a continually evolving thing, and is never really finished.
3. You’ll spend more time mapping user tasks and journeys
Whilst in product design you’ll consider user journeys and often map them out to guide the design effort, these maps often play an even bigger role in the digital world as they’re used directly in development. It’s commonplace to define what your digital product does in terms of ‘user stories‘ rather than features, which helps keep the team effort focused on customer needs down the line. User stories are arranged in user story maps, which helps the team understand scope in terms of customer goals and needs, and helps them decide which features to prioritise over others to better serve those needs. Whilst it’s a whole team effort to get stories right, it’s the designers’ research work that tends to inform and start things off.
4. Digital products can be much larger in scope
As you start your new project and begin to map out the various tasks users will do with your digital product, you’ll often find that the maps get much bigger than you’re used to with product design. There can be many more things a user can potentially do with a screen interface and features it could be made to include. Often one of the first big jobs for the team to do is to decide just what’s in and out of scope, and your knowledge of user needs will be key to getting this right. The term for this is ‘MVP‘ (Minimum viable product) which refers to the minimum scope and quality of digital product which can still be launched and provide value to customers and the business.
5. You’ll be swapping 3D CAD for interactive prototyping
Whilst user interface designs will typically start out as paper sketches or mockups in a simple package like Balsamiq, it’s the next step that is the first noticeable change for product designers. Rather than detailing a design as a 3D object in CAD applications like Solidworks or Pro Engineer, you’ll be detailing one as a series of interactive screens that can be clicked or tapped through to try out.
The simplest way to do this is use Invision or Marvel to stitch together scanned sketches of Photoshop mockups. It’s fast and slick, but it only allows for basic navigation between screens, so I usually recommend designers invest time in learning Axure, which allows you to create far more sophisticated prototypes and communicate your ideas more effectively.
6. Your design is going to shrink and grow
These days, any web-based digital experiences you create are going to be used on a wide variety of screen sizes – your customers could be using a large monitor at home, or holding their mobile on the Tube. As part of your design process, you’ll need to consider and prototype how your intended experience will work in a range of different formats, each with their own particular nuances. Axure allows you to define a range of layouts for different screen sizes, although I’ve yet to see a prototyping tool that really makes this as easy as it should be. The particulars will of course come with experience, but from the get-go it’s important to consider screen size as a fluid thing.
7. You’ll test and iterate more often
In software, testing prototypes with users is commonplace and typically happens several times over the course of a project. Particularly with web-based applications which might have millions of potential users, it’s vital to give your designs that reality check by getting them into the hands of real customers, ensuring your team are on the right track for a successful launch. This can be done remotely using sites like Whatusersdo.com or Loop11.com to get basic level results, or in face-to-face facilitated test sessions for greater depth. You’ll be using what you learn in these sessions to iterate your designs. Expect to be doing this often.
8. You need to read up on Agile, Scrum and Kanban
Whilst product designers are used to working with engineers to take products to manufacture, here it will be software developers and you’ll be taking your new (digital) product to launch. The working practices for building software are a little different to say, creating mould tools, however they will be partially familiar to those who’ve worked with Lean manufacturing as they emphasise efficiency, collaboration and constant measuring of the team’s productivity.
Agile is a software development philosophy that prioritises build and iteration of real code over documentation and specifications. It acknowledges that requirements will change, and allows the team to change direction mid-way through a project as they learn, rather than attempting to specify everything up-front. Whilst many companies still struggle to adopt a practice which embraces uncertainty so wholeheartedly, and which doesn’t write much down, done well it is enormously effective and so it is rapidly becoming the standard working method for most teams. Familiarise yourself with the terminology and daily working practises of Agile – such as the Scrum process and Kanban boards – to work more easily with the rest of your team. Learn more about designing with an Agile team in my 30 minute video, here.
9. Real, working features arrive in days, not months
One of the things I love most about software is how quickly we can go from a prototype to real, working code. In some cases it’s possible to sketch a design and see it built within hours. Unlike product design, where one typically has a wait of months or years before seeing one’s ideas manifest in the real world, the rewards here come more often and more quickly.
10. Your sketches are likely to impress
Perhaps the design of 3D objects requires a little more drawing skill, or perhaps it’s because it’s an industry that has been around much longer, but for whatever reason, product design education places greater emphasis on sketching skills than UX does. As a product designer, it’s very likely that you’ll already have stronger skills in this area than many of your peers, and that will come in very handy. Keep sketching, especially at the conceptual stage, and you’ll find it’s still the fastest way to visualise concepts, get feedback and progress towards your first prototype. For tips on this, see my UX sketching tutorials on paper and digital sketches.