UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 598 December 23, 2010

User Experience for Developers

UX shouldn't be the purview solely of UX specialists; a well-rounded developer can become a UX professional, too. The "T-shaped" professional, who has both the breadth of skills (the horizontal stroke in the "T") and the depth of a particular discipline (the vertical stroke), is a much more valuable team member than one who has but one skill and focus.

But how can a developer start learning about UX without formal education in UX concepts? I am an engineer by training but have transitioned into UX and product design, so I hope other developers can benefit from what I have learned.

"Read, read, read." - William Faulkner

There are so many great UX books out there nowadays. Here are a few that I would recommend for the developer who's serious about UX:

A good place to start is with sites like UX Magazine—but if you're reading this, you've already figured that out. As well, Jakob Nielsen's website, useit.com has results of some very helpful research and studies.

"Good artists copy, great artists steal." - Pablo Picasso

It's impossible to talk about great UX without someone bringing up Apple, but even Apple doesn't come up with their brilliant ideas in an ivory tower. If anything, they have a history of freely borrowing great ideas, wherever they may come from. Both the mouse and the WIMP (Windows, Icons, Menu, Pointing) device came from the Xerox Star workstation at Xerox PARC. Good ideas and examples come from everywhere, and it's up to us to know where to look.

I keep my eye on a few types of websites:

"Don't tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results" - General George Patton

Don't settle for the specs. If you are just handed a list of features to implement, don't take them at face value. Get to the why. What problem are they trying to solve? It may be that the features and requirements listed aren't the best way to go about solving the problem. How do these features help accomplish the user's goals easier or faster?

"I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." - Thomas A. Edison

You may think that once you've found a good design pattern, that task is done. However, I find that if I come up with a few different ways to solve a problem, I often find a better solution or I find justification of why the first approach was better. It's also important to prototype. It's hard to imagine if an experience is going to be great or compelling without having actually using it. Don't be afraid to develop different approaches and throw away the ones that don't work.

"Get outside the building" - Steve Blank

When was the last time you actually interacted with a customer face-to-face or on the phone? Sometimes at large organizations there are positions that deal exclusively with that. They are supposed to interact with the customers and "translate" what they want into functional specifications or user requirements. But sometimes you just need to cut the middleman and talk directly to the source. That way, you feel their pain and nothing gets lost in the translation. If you never talk to the customer or the user, then everything is just an assumption or a guess. You are essentially developing and designing in the dark.

"Usability testing is the killing field of cherished notions." - David Orr

Once I have a working iteration, it is time to test it in the wild. I often have someone who's not tech savvy try out things. I frequently find that what I thought was crystal clear is in fact not at all. Watching someone trying to use your application is a quick and easy way to get feedback.

There are also applications and services for usability testing. Silverback is a downloadable app that records screens and the users' faces while they test out an application. Watching someone going through your site with a confused look is priceless when trying to convince management that the site has issues. Usertesting.com lets you buy usability testers on demand. You select your target demographic and how many testers you want, and provide a script. The site sends back a video of users going through your site, complete with users' commentaries as they go through the process. UsabilityHub provides some simple tools to do quick testing for first impressions, flow, and more.

I believe that great UX is important and if your career is creating software, then UX is a part of that. Familiarity with the discipline can make you more customer-focused and improve your product. Deliberate thought and focus on UX can lead to some great products and is not hard. It is a matter of educating oneself, getting inspired, validating ideas, talking to users, and doing usability testing. There's no one thing you can do, but a whole host of things that add to the overall experience and ultimately produces a great user experience.

I'd like to end with a favorite quote that applies when thinking about designing interfaces.

"A well designed and humane interface does not need to be split into beginner and expert subsystems." - Jef Raskin

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Pek Pongpaet is the VP of Technology and Product for SpotOn Inc., and the award winning creator of ShelfLuv.com and BizTome iPad app. Pongpaet’s expertise ranges from product design and development, and martial arts. Prior to SpotOn, Pongpaet worked at Accenture Technology Labs in the research department coming up with next generation user interfaces. At Roundarch, a technology and strategy consulting firm, Pongpaet’s work included envisioning and designing the dashboard of the future for the Tesla Model S electric car.

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Comments

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I want to be positive about this article but I'm not convinced (and haven't been convinced) that developers can do this without specific training. I think the authors hope was to build developer's confidence by identifying actionable items that should be completed (or considered) when developing usable products. And while the breadth-wise approach is fine, I would not recommend developers attempt any of these tasks alone. Developers know their own domain, but shouldn't delve into methods and techniques with which they're not familiar. For instance, we can all perform cursory first aid but should not (and actually aren't allowed) to perform surgery or other procedures. Leave specialties to specialists and manage them during development. That may more sense and will yield better results.

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Hi Pek, Great article and equally great quotes! Thanks a million for all the linked resources. Everything here will become invaluable to me as I make my move from Software Test Engineer to UX Designer. Thank you very much.

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really awesome article , developers must take the approach of know something about everything in the design field

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Great read for developers focusing more on UX. Thanks!

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Good article , kick start for develoeprs how to come into UX. As a developer, I always suggest that UX should be understandable though out the development precess.

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Great Article! I'm a .NET Developer and think that everybody that is developing software should have some knowledge of Interface Design concepts.

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Thanks a lot for this article. As a 13-year web developer currently working on a lateral move into UX, this gave me some great resources to help me through the transition.

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Excellent article, and one which I'm going to share with the team I lead.

Two other books I might add to the reading list are 'The Design of Every Day Things' (http://amzn.to/EveryDayThings) -- which while originally penned in the 80's -- discusses the timeless psychology and impact design and learning have on user experience.

Also, and especially pertinent to programmers, is the 'The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less' (http://amzn.to/ChoiceParadox) -- which judging by some of the "everything but the kitchen sink" design I still see all too often -- would be a useful read.

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These are all fantastic books. I also recommend About Face 3 by Alan Cooper. It's a little dry to get through, but the material is fantastic.

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I've written about it briefly in a blog post
http://vikasvadlapatla.com/learn-usability-in-2-weeks-a-resource-guide

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I wish there were a site that would do for developers what A List Apart has done for people who work with CSS.

An article would take a particular UX and layout, talk briefly about the choices that were made, and detail how go from wire frame to pixel perfect layout. It would need to be specified in a way that was flow and grid based so that the principles of the layout and interaction would apply to multiple platforms.

For example, take some part of Photos on the iPad, deconstruct one part of its layout and interactions, then specify the white space, sizes of elements as they relate to font size, etc., very much how someone would take a web site template all they way through to actual CSS. It could never be complete, but it should capture the essence of the design in the same way an article from A List Apart does.

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Love this article.
Thank you for the recommendations.

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this was a spectacular read. it is definitely a simple standard we all should abide by.

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Don't Make Me Think is equivalent of "UX for Dummies".

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Your welcome Marco. It's very gratifying to know that others can benefit from what I've learned over the years. Glad to be of help.

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Amazing.

Thank you very much for this.

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Superb Article!

Thanks a lot and also I would like to add one more book "Rocket Surgery Made Easy" by the same Author of "Don't Make Me Think".

Ciao,

@mmudassir