User Experience: What is it and when should UX designers get involved?

Recently, I’ve bumped up against people asking me what user experience is and what it really means in the development process. These questions surprised me a little, as from my perspective, UX is well-established discipline within the software development industry, with a proven track record of improving the product quality based on user feedback.

There are many definitions out there to draw on when attempting to explain “user experience”. According to, user experience is “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”. In the same article, former Vice President of the Advanced Technology Group at Apple Don Norman is quoted, explaining user experience as “all aspects of the person’s experience with the system”. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) defines user experience in ISO 9241-210:2010: Ergonomics of human-system interaction, as “person’s perceptions and responses resulting from the use and/or anticipated use of a product, system or service”.

The common thread in all of these definitions is the interaction between a human being, a person, and a given system, inclusive of that person’s perceptions about the product. From a practical standpoint, what I’ve found over my years of experience as a user, as a developer, and as a business analyst, is that it’s a good idea to kick off scope definition and requirements gathering with a deep understanding of the product’s audience, or expected user base. If a team doesn’t start with that understanding, it makes it harder to scope the product correctly and target the highest priority features to achieve a shippable product increment.

Typically, one of the first steps in requirements gathering or in a Joint Application Design (JAD) session involves defining all of the expected users of the product or system. Once the expected users are well understood, a business analyst is able to categorize the general functions that those users might want to access in the system, and drill down to specific features that will allow those users to accomplish what they need to accomplish by using the system. Once each category of functionality is understood and the specific features start to crystallize, technical resources can start applying their expertise as to how those features can best be built and a coherent system design starts to emerge.

What does this mean for involving UX resources?

In my opinion, UX should be involved as early as possible, even as early as preliminary scope definition, even if your user experience expert is only sitting at the table to absorb the feedback coming out of product owners and business stakeholders. Business analysts should always process the input from stakeholders to generate a solid set of use cases and workflow diagrams to inform the job of the UX expert. However, developing a cohesive experience for different users is a highly organic process that depends on gaining insight into different users’ perceptions and expectations. When UX isn’t at the table early on, they have to play catch up at a later date, and try to rapidly absorb user needs so they can generate designs for the team to implement. The materials a business analyst generates to support that function are critical, but awareness early on in the process is just as key to providing the UX designer with the necessary context to not just design something within the desired timeframe, but design the system well.

Project managers and business analysts should bring UX designers in early and often and work very closely together in a collaborative and iterative way to ensure a common understanding of what the users need, so that the chances of delivering a successful first increment are as high as possible.

Adventures In Vintage Mac

For the past few weeks, I’ve been working on transferring papers I wrote in college 15+ years ago from my collection of Mac-format backup disks to a modern format that I can use to transmit electronically to apply for graduate school.

The adventure began with a visit to my parents’ basement to rescue my first Mac from a non-life of quiet, damp darkness and being used as a litter box for mice. After some mild cussing and digging through a box of parts, I left my parents’ place armed with the LCII, the monitor that went with it, a chunky 1990s Apple keyboard, two mice (the electronic kind, not the fuzzies that so kindly left their excrement behind) and a Color StyleWriter 4100 with a power brick.

Usability: Google+ Interface

Whether you think Google can topple Facebook or not, one thing is undeniable about the field test of Google’s new social networking platform, Google +: the interface is clean, simple and straightforward. It’s a relief for anyone who is sick and tired of Facebook’s overly cluttered interface and less-than-intuitive menus for handling privacy.

Technology: The iPad Buzz, Usability and the Health Care Industry

Yesterday, Apple unveiled the iPad to the world in San Francisco and the online ‘verse promptly went nuts with the blogging, tweeting etc. about the device and whether or not it was as cool as everyone expected or if it fell short. One of the most common things I’ve heard people saying over and over again, in many cases in a highly disparaging tone is: “Oh it’s just a big iTouch. Why would you want to use something of that size when you can just stick your iPhone or similar device in your pocket?”

I have an answer for that: many pocket devices are too small to actually provide many users with a comfortable user experience for consuming the type of media that we want to be able to consume.

Usability: Computer Systems Can Save Hospitals Money If Done Right

An article on SlashDot today references a study at Harvard that claims that electronic systems in hospitals are not in fact, saving them any money. The post on SlashDot is short and doesn’t really delve into the issues. The actual article that reviews the study in ComputerWorld does however hit the real problem right on the nose: most systems are not designed with health care practitioners in mind.

WordPress Project: It’s Time For Business, the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce

The Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce needed a quick turnaround on a social networking and information-driven site focusing on regional economic recovery for the Seattle area. Key to this project was providing a large group of users with the ability to contribute to the site without needing to register for access, while allowing Chamber staff to moderate submissions and keep tabs on what was being posted.

BK Consulting held several brief discussions with the Chamber, analyzed the pre-purchased design template and designed a solution that allowed the It’s Time For Business website to reach its intended audience very quickly and before the hard and fast deadline of noon on Friday, September 25th, 2009 for the Seattle Chamber of Commerce annual meeting and presentation of the “It’s Time For Business” campaign. From start to finish, the set up of the website and all dynamic features was completed in six days.

Collaboration: GoogleDocs for Proposal Writing

In an August 28th article, eWeek covers some of the recent changes and upcoming challenges facing Google Apps including Google Docs.

One of the most exciting statements from the lead product manager for collaboration states that: “…Google wants to make sure that Apps users can not only pull into Docs and Sites any document created in Office, but that they can also push those documents from Apps back to Office, all without losing formatting fidelity.”

Usability: AFHCAN Telemedicine Carts

AFHCAN » ATA 2009.

I’m currently enrolled in a Master’s of Health Administration, Informatics program with the University of Phoenix. Our assignment this week was to analyze a trend in healthcare and given my specialization within the degree, I chose telemedicine as my topic.

Through the course of my research for the paper, I found an article referencing AFHCAN and the implementation of mobile telemedicine carts for widespread use in Alaska outside of urban centers. What I found most interesting in this article, was the creativity of the networking solution that was put into place to provide remote locations with large volumes of information, including x-rays and graphics.

Article: JavaScript MVC – A List Apart

Jonathan Snooks writes about how to apply and  use the MVC (Model-View-Controler) model for Javascript; to  make it easier to maintain and re-used scripts over time. The explanation of MVC is straightforward and simple and was a great refresher since I haven’t done any object-oriented coding in a while. I also appreciated the insight into applying MVC to Javascript as I step back into doing hands-on code after a 3 year absence.

A List Apart: Articles: JavaScript MVC.