Post by Kate Hansen, UX Designer at Rocket Jones
Years ago, I sat in a conference with one of my favorite English teachers. She was brilliant and kind, and she’d agreed to help me with a paper before I turned in my final draft that week. After we finished going through the paper, I stayed a little longer to chat. At the time, I was a junior, I wanted to be a writer, and I was frustrated. I told her I wanted to be a great writer, but I just didn’t seem to be getting any better.
She gave me advice I’ve never forgotten:
“Kate, you are a good writer. But if you want to get better, you need to go farther. Don’t be satisfied with your first idea. Go past it and look deeper, look harder. Often you’ll find better things to say. It’s okay to come back to your first idea, but only after you’ve gone past it.”
That advice changed my writing, and it’s stayed with me as I’ve moved into my career as a UX designer. Designing custom software is remarkably similar to writing, and my teacher’s great advice is just as applicable. In order to improve my design, I have to get past my first idea. When I’m wireframing an interface, the temptation is to jump immediately on my first concept. I get a great idea, and all I want to do is start creating. But good design is a series of decisions, and it’s literally impossible to make a decision if there’s only one option. Only by pushing yourself to create multiple versions will you have options to choose from and therefore a real decision. I’ve found a few exercises help me move past my first idea and come up with some potential options.
My Process: Gather, Sketch, Refine
I typically follow the same loose process on each project. Gathering allows me to get perspective and background, sketching is where I create my options, and refining is making decisions.
My UX process always begins with research. I gather information about the user, context, and tasks. I also look for examples of similar functionality. If I’m designing an interactive bus schedule, I’ll look at the online bus schedules in other cities, but I’ll also look at the interfaces of common spreadsheet software. Usually, there will be some similarities across all examples.
The temptation after doing all this research is to immediately start sketching, but I noticed that when I sketched on the same day that I did research, my sketches were accidental copycats. The interfaces that I had seen were too fresh in my brain, and I consciously or unconsciously started to draw close replicas. Borrowing pieces or responses of great interfaces is a smart move, but the point of custom software is the custom part. So I borrow deliberately and lightly. And I wait a day.
Now, it’s a fresh day and time to start sketching. I always start on paper. Something about the screen feels too permanent, and the lines are too straight and too clean to be sketches. The back side of an old set of printed wireframes is my favorite scratch paper. I use a Sharpie, a smooth black pen, or a pencil. I don’t care as long as it’s fast and won’t die on me in the middle of my session.
Warning: When you sketch, DO NOT be deceived by the 12 pack of Sharpies sitting in the supply closet that you’ve been dying for a reason to open. If you desperately need color, you are allowed one blue pen or one green pen. No red and no multiple or crazy colors. Why am I so mean? Because good design is a series of decisions, and humans only have so much decision-making power. (It’s true! It’s called decision fatigue.) So don’t waste your decision power deliberating over fuchsia or lime in the middle of your sketching session. Also, color doesn’t matter. A good sketch should be so obvious that it doesn’t need color to signal action or hierarchy.
Then I start sketching. I usually fold a piece of paper in fourths and unfold it to mark quarters on the page. Then I sketch one screen four ways on that sheet. And then I do the same thing with another sheet. And another sheet. Sketching usually brings out some good initial concepts.
Once I’ve got some concepts sketched out, I’ll choose my top two favorites (there’s that decision). Then I refine those sketches even more. I take the screen that I’ve sketched and build out a work flow. Starting with a fresh piece of paper, I fold it into eighths and unfold it. Then, just like a comic book, I sketch a series of actions or screens in the squares I’ve created. This helps me refine and test an idea. A template may work on one key screen, but if it doesn’t make sense in a workflow, I throw it out. Once I’ve done all this, I should end up with a few solid concepts and workflows. Now, having explored many options, I can make decisions. Instead of jumping on the first concept that came to mind, I looked around the neighborhood. I saw my options and the possibilities. My decisions can be better informed at this point than they ever would have been without going through the process.
Do I do this for every single task and screen in the software? No, of course not. But in gathering, I find the most important tasks for the user, so I’ll do this exercise for those key places. I’ve found that testing rough ideas out leads to better design decisions and better software interfaces. It’s a low cost/high reward exercise. Even though my career path has changed several times since that day with my teacher, the advice she gave me has helped me with every project since.