About this Tutorial
Not long ago, a designer friend of mine tweeted, “Boundaries are pretty interesting places” and it got me thinking.
In the field of ecology, boundaries are known as ecotones - areas of transition between 2 relatively homogeneous areas. Literally, ecotone means, 'a place where ecologies are in tension'.
It struck me that this is where we, as UX professionals, should be earning our keep - identifying, understanding and resolving areas of tension. I say 'should' because I see this not being done far too often. There are, I think, 3 reasons why many UX professionals are unable to see beyond the immediate, person-interface problem and allow rich boundary areas to drive their designs:
- It’s an advanced skill.
- You have to know you should.
- Clients are satisfied with less.
While none of these reasons absolves us from blame (insert grumpy old man yelling, “Hey you kids! Get off my lawn!” here), they prevent good UX folks from becoming great UX folks.
What UX should be
I’d like to focus on what user experience design should be - the process of uncovering, coordinating and creating innovative and useful solutions that go beyond what users are able to describe or request.
With regard to business systems, this means focusing our research methods and observational skills on understanding the spaces between. The true value of our work rests with our ability to understand the nuances that underlie larger areas of business tension…workplace ecotones. To be able to do this well, there are 3 levels of expertise required by user experience professionals.
First is the set of tactical skills focused specifically around the interface itself. These skills require a firm understanding of international standards, best practices and general guidelines. Being able to critique an existing interface (or create a new one) means that you need to know things like:
- the minimum font size needed to ensure readability on different resolution displays
- how the labels should be aligned on a form
- what the different levels of help typically required by users are and how they should they be implemented in the design, to name only a few
Second, as we expand our focus to include the user, the skills required expand to include both the tactical and the strategic. This is where UX professionals typically spend their careers - conducting contextual enquiries, user interviews and usability tests, determining mental models and information architectures, defining interaction models and page flows. These traditional, interaction-focused tasks are what clients and managers typically ask of us (if we’re lucky).
Finally, there is a third level of expertise to master in order to create truly innovative, useful designs. I call it the 'interaction ecosystem' and it requires that we look beyond the specific user-application interactions. The focus here is to explore the areas of business tension that exist at almost every user-system-process-environment confluence.
Spend time examining the point at which Application B meets Business Process C, where User A meets Physical Work Environment D, and how User A plays the role of information conduit between Application B and Application E. This is where things get interesting. This is where UX makes a difference.
The goal of UX should be to improve the human condition through innovative design. By looking beyond the immediate and the traditional, we open ourselves, our clients and users to new possibilities. These enable us to reframe their original questions and suggest new and more unifying solutions. Anything less and we’re just not doing our job.
About the Speaker
Kevin has been working as a user experience professional for more than 25 years. With a PhD in cognitive psychology, he has researched, evaluated, designed, mentored and managed teams as they create innovative, user-centered solutions to complex business problems.
Kevin’s experience crosses business verticals focusing on enterprise software and custom business applications. As an advocate for the practical application of UX design, Kevin is a manager, hands-on practitioner, author and speaker.
Outside of work, Kevin tempts fate, risks long-term disability and tests his wife’s patience by racing motorcycles.