Across all industries, companies are waking up to the power of design. They are realizing that a great design can differentiate a product in a field of competitors, reduce development churn, and sell more product. However, a number of companies are spending top dollar to hire designers and build a User Experience (UX) team, but are making frustratingly little progress.
One of the first questions we ask every new client is simply “Who’s in charge of your software design?” The most common answers are instantly revealing:
“Our software architect also designs our UI”
Most major universities now offer 3-4 year bachelor’s and graduate-level programs in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) or Interaction Design—disciplines that have almost no crossover with a Computer Science degree. Unless your software architect has had formal training, it is unlikely he or she will have the formal UX background required to create a usable, intuitive UI. Moreover, architects are an extremely valuable resource—their time should not be split owning the user interface as well as the system architecture.
“We have a designer who takes care of it.”
Most often when we probe more into this answer, we find out that what they really have is a graphic designer, who is in charge of making their product “look good”. Great graphic designers (also known as visual designers) are essential. Good ones know how to present visual information in a way your users immediately “get”. They help make the potentially confounding analytics graphs in your product easy to understand. They design icons that help your users instinctively understand what to do. But there is a lot more to creating a design users love than visual look and feel.
It Takes Three
There are, in fact, three disciplines involved in creating a great design that are as different from one another as marketing, sales and engineering.
- Design Research. Design researchers specialize in uncovering user needs. They train for years to learn how to interview and observe users. Their findings often yield fascinating insights that can be used to determine the exact point in the workflow where users are abandoning your e-commerce website or even help you uncover the next big innovation in your product line.
- Interaction Design. Interaction designers are the masters of intuitive layouts, workflows and content prioritization. They work with product management and design researchers to obtain market and user research and translate it into a draft of what the product will look like, how it will behave, and how it ties back to the user’s goals—usually in the form of sketches called “wireframes”.
- Visual Design. Visual designers are graphical experts that specializing in tools like Photoshop and Illustrator to add the right visual “wow” to software. Good visual designers can provide users with an instant emotional connection to a product even before they start using it.
Each discipline is so different from the other that companies are best served with even part-time help from a specialist in each area rather than one full-time jack of all trades.
Product Managers and Design Researchers— Partners in Strategy
Sometimes a great product strategy might not even make it to market if it is first intercepted by internal executives with their own perceptions and biases. When a product manager and design researcher form a strong partnership, they can make sure they get the organization’s buy-in by focusing on the facts rather than opinions and speculation. The “facts” are a combination of user data and market data.
Market data is crucial information about customer demographics, perceptions, market demand and market opportunities. User data provides specific and actionable information on your particular end user (who may be different from the person actually purchasing the product). This information offers insight into what customers and users actually need—not just what they say they want or what the company thinks they want.
What we've found works best is when a product manager and design researcher co-present the user and market data to all internal stakeholders along with the plan for product design and rollout, using storyboards, narratives, charts, and concept designs.
Once you have the right design competencies in place, it is equally critical to follow correct process within the software team. To find out more, read our new whitepaper How to get Amazing Software Out the Door Fast on modern software team integration, and how product managment, design and development teams are finding new ways to work together to beat the competition.
About the Author
Didier Thizy has been a software professional for 13 years, holding a variety of positions in Software R&D and Product Management.
At Macadamian, Didier is Macadamian's VP Consulting, responsible for a cross-functional unit of design and development consultants specializing in healthcare software. His focus areas include healthcare software, usability of complex systems, and modern mobile and web technologies.
Didier is an active member of HIMSS, the Toronto Product Management Association, Silicon Valley Product Management Association, and the Ottawa OCRI association for technology.
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