In 2010, I left the world of traditional advertising and took a sabbatical to reflect upon what I was doing with my life, what new things I could learn and to know more about this ‘digital’ thing the ad world is obsessed with, and to see if I could play a part in it.
My work-break lasted for about a month, while my academic break lasted for about three years. In that time, I transitioned from being a Graphic Designer and a Creative Director to being a Usability & User Experience Analyst and Designer. I got myself certified in both disciplines (the former is really a part of the latter) from Human Factors International. Now I have the distinction of being one of about 200 people in the world to have both CUA and CXA certification.
Why? Because my advertising credentials were of no use anymore. Or so I thought.
Most of what I learnt and read about User Experience Design was inevitably internalized from an advertising designer’s perspective. Whatever I saw, I tried to equate it with a discipline I already knew. Following are a few of my observations from those 3 years.
It’s all about interfaces, really.
Advertising, traditionally, was the face of the advertiser (creator of products and services) to the consumer. But it was a monologue and not a dialogue, with little regard to what the consumer had to say. If the consumer felt favourably towards the product or service being advertised, it was seen at the cash registers. The craft of communication itself, the proxy for the advertiser, got much of the time and attention of the experts of the trade – designers, writers, filmmakers, media planners and the like. The advertisers needed reassurance that their advertising dollars were spent effectively, so the experts of this interface proclaimed that they, with all their gut-feel and expertise represented the last word when it came to developing effective communication. Understanding the consumer and studying their behaviour remained an optional exercise. Mainly because the consumer did not have a voice.
The world of Human Computer Interaction was distant and unconnected to this glossy world of communication. Here, the problems concerning mechanical or electronic interfaces were critical to the very success of the systems they were part of. The user’s ability to understand, learn and remember, were paramount and Visual Designers and Psychologists were brought in to resolve interface issues. Although these two disciplines also formed the basis of much of the traditional advertising work, the connections were not apparent. In HCI, the feedback loops were shortest – press a button, and you either got something done or failed at it. It wasn’t like releasing an ad and waiting for the consumers to react next time they went shopping! The former needed the user’s intervention, an action; the latter required just a reaction.
All this changed with the advent of the Internet. In the world of advertising and marketing, stories such as Dell Hell began to emerge and proclaimed that it was time to welcome a new world order. Consumers had a voice. Wait! They also had fingers to press, tap, swipe and type whatever they felt like! Product experiences were transmitted globally through social media instantly and at a fraction of the advertising budgets. Product love got amplified as well – in the form of recommendations, fan following and volunteers lashing out at competing brands. All this was happening at an unprecedented speed due to mobile communications. E-commerce gave way to M-Commerce (and perhaps twitter-commerce?)
In the world of Human Computer Interaction, as technology reached ubiquity, it was no longer the nerds and specialists who were tasked with using a computer system. If the system was difficult to use, it was no longer the fault of the user but the fault of the system! We still use the data-transaction terms ‘Upload’ and ‘Download’ from the age of mainframes where computers were the great gods, high up, bestowing upon the mere mortals the deliberations of their computations. But today, computers are equals. Servants perhaps, with no pre-set training requisites for the user. The manuals titled “How to use this phone” are getting smaller and smaller (Apple inserts a small piece of folded paper called ‘Getting Started’ which they have worked pretty hard to render obsolete.
Here is where the world of communication and the world of computing starts to merge in intent. Systems are to be used. Products are to be experienced. Users and consumers are the rulers. Technology, if it has to gain acceptance and become successful, needs to provide a great user experience. No longer is it sufficient to be effective, it must be proved first as a delightful, worthwhile experience that will turn users into proponents. Remember how Mac users praise their possession as if they hold stock in the company! Lovemarks that the Saatchi’s often speak of cannot be created solely by the proclamation of the advertiser’s intent, but gets translated into experiences at the user/consumer level. User Experience (UX) goes much beyond creating aesthetically pleasing User Interfaces (UI). To give an advertising parallel, UI is the layout of the ad or the edit of the commercial, whereas UX Design is the intent, the greater scheme of things, the advertising strategy that ensures desired response.
Product is Promotion
But is UX a product process such as SDLC (Software Development Life Cycle)? Yes and No. Yes it should be part of SDLC, and no, it is not just a product process. It begins with understanding that every software product, web-application, mobile app, any interactive system at a public place such as an ATM or an airport kiosk, at the end is delivering an experience. Most of the times the interactive system is either supporting a larger brand experience or is the brand itself. If it is a microsite, or an ad hoc interactive experience created for brand promotion or it is a banking website which is the product itself, the same principles of User Experience Design are at play. In a world where advertisers brand messages are less trusted and recommendation by a friend on social media is more trustworthy, most of the products ARE promotions themselves. The need for paid-for communication such as traditional advertising will always be there, perhaps repurposed as announcements (or something else as yet unseen), User Experience Design will emerge as a larger important discipline.
UX Design and Advertising both seek to understand the consumer (In HCI these are called users, but one should not take the distinction too far). Primary task of any user experience designer is to understand the user. Figure out what are the tasks that need to get accomplished effectively. Understand what are the different scenarios of use of the interface. Then according to possible Task Flows devise meaningful Navigation. Look at Content, its Hierarchy, structure and Presentation. There is nothing more to it. Technology serves these ends and sometimes a stumbling block in achieving UX objectives.
It is NOT about the technology
Technology changes every now and then. Common user behaviours change slowly (any inference from fundamental research in behavioural psychology holds true for about 25 years) Human nature does not change at all. So who should be brought in line with whom?
We need more UX experts
Although this may sound as if I am proposing an increase in my own competition, there is enough work for more of us. These are early days. Print communication reached the first 50 million user mark in about 16 years. Radio took about 12 years for the same task. Less and less time is taken by every new media to be accessible to more and more people. And practitioners in these new media have not taken enough time to play round, experiment and fail as yet. Therefore there are more interaction problems than there are great interactions.
To give an extremely commonplace example, Facebook is quite a complicated software application (gone are the days of websites, enter web-apps) but the ease with which novice users make friends, like and comment on posts, add photos to the album and chat, regardless of the access device, is phenomenal. As phenomenal as perhaps its success. And the latter is the result of the former. I can give countless examples of such successes that have at their heart a great user experience.
What does it take to become a UX Designer?
Most of the facts I learnt at HFI did not come to me as a surprise. While learning about Usability, I came across User Centered Design. But I always designed my ads around users. During the CXA certification I learnt about How to design for Persuasion Emotion and Trust. But I always had to consider these in order to make even the simplest of the ads. More I learnt more I realised that this is an extension of my understanding of consumers. The difference was the methodology. The focus on User Study, the reliance on scientific measurements. Numbers, not gut-feel. Psychology, not technology. And it became apparent that the ideal User Experience Designer is an Engineer, a Developer, a Visual Designer, a Behavioural Psychologist and a Business Strategist rolled into one.
Since the discipline is in its infancy, even the expert organisations such as HFI are openly training and certifying their clients for mature UX practice. The openness is in sharp contrast with the advertising world where every agency and every individual guards their professional secrets (open secrets, really) as a magician would. I have learn that by sharing alone one can increase knowledge and become irreplaceable.
Who should get trained to become a UX Designer?
The software world is quicker to adopt the practice of UX and it may seem to many that it is a direct translation of their skill set. But it calls for a unique understanding and skills of a different nature. Since UX demands understanding of psychology, consumer behaviour and visual design, anyone from these fields is the right candidate to get trained.
Where do you get trained?
I don’t wish this post to seem like an ad for Human Factors, but it is the only known company to train in Usability and UX in India at the time of writing this. A few individual programs as the one offered by Prof Aniruddha Joshi at IIT Mumbai are also available. I hope to see people from advertising, marketing, promotional industries to take to User Experience Design and I would be very happy to edit this last paragraph as time goes by.