image of lady riding a bike

Demystifying UX: it’s just like riding a bike

What is UX design?

Ever since the term “UX” (User Experience) design started being used a number of years ago there has been a bit of confusion, especially with clients, as to what UX design actually means. We can explain the methods and processes that we use, but it has always been a bit of a vague description.

The main confusion tends to be that people think that UX design is just a fancy name for (UI) User Interface design. It’s very easy to see how this could seem the case. A lot of the deliverables that a UX designer produces can be very similar to that of a UI designer, but there is also a lot more work going on behind the scenes that is done to produce results that are not as easy to see.

How can we clear this up?

There is always a difficulty in creating a mental model of a digital product. Even with digital products that we use every day, such as email. We tend to default to the visual cues of the product, the email or the inbox, when describing its processes, even though there is a huge amount going on in the background.

One of the reasons for this is that digital products are intangible. We can’t easily lift open the lid and see how all the gears fit together, so this makes it difficult to describe how they work and what they do.

It is a lot easier to explain what a physical product does, because it’s a lot easier to show how it does it. It’s more straight forward to open the back of a clock and see how the bits fit together than to show someone code and explain how it fits together.

A better way to describe what UX design is, would then be to relate it to a physical object that everyone can relate to, and explain how the design of the product is changed to create an experience for the user.

The product

Let’s take a bicycle. It’s a simple product that has been produced for many years and that everyone can relate to. When someone mentions the word “bicycle” or “bike” there is instant recognition as the shape of the product forms in the mind. No more information is provided at this stage, but with what limited information is available, a model is constructed.

The products components

As with any product there are different components that come together on a bike to create the whole. Some of these components the user interacts with directly, while others are there to allow the bike to perform its function. The user interacts with the handlebars, which  turn the front wheel, which steers the bike. While the user does not interact directly with the wheel, the effect they supply at the handlebars directly influences the wheel, which causes a change of direction.

Using this analogy, the cyclist’s interfaces with a bike are all the areas with which they actually interact to perform the task of cycling. These include the handlebars, the seat, the brake levers and the pedals. The other areas of the bike are what could be described as the “back-end system”. These are the components that control how the bike actually works, and the tasks that it performs. Examples of these are the wheels and bearings, the forks, the gears and the chain or the brake cables and pads.

On a bike it’s very easy to see how all these elements connect together to form a whole product, and how a user can interact with the product to create their end user experience – cycling.

How can the experience of “cycling” be designed?

It’s easy to understand what cycling is, but quite an abstract concept to explain. There are lots of elements incorporated into the experience of cycling that go beyond just the experience of interacting with the bike as a product.

The experience includes the feeling of speed, the wind rushing past, the feeling of leaning into the turn going around a corner, the muscle soreness from pedalling and the feeling of cruising along a smooth piece of road. This experience is the culmination of a number of factors including the product, the cyclist and external factors such as the gradient, the type of surface and the speed at which they are cycling.

This means that it doesn’t make sense to say that we are designing “the experience” as much as we’re designing with the experience in mind. We want the experience to be positive, but we can’t force it to be.

Designing without UX

A product like a bike can be designed without using UX design. It would involve being provided with a brief from the client and creating it with the information available.

A designer could have seen a bike before, or cycled a bike before, or even designed a bike before, so they would have in idea of what a bike should look like, and how it should work. They would pull on that experience and create a prototype that fulfils the requirements set down and with which the client is happy. It has handlebars, pedals, a seat, wheels, gears, chains and brakes: everything that the user needs for the bike to work and for them to be able to cycle on it. The client makes a few changes to the design, and the prototype is created into a product.

This method of design can create a usable product, and can create the experience of “cycling” for the user, but we don’t know if the experience is a good one. There are a number of factors that were not considered and, as such, might mean the user having an unpleasant cycling experience.

Designing with UX

Some of what is mentioned above also applies to designing with UX. Once provided with a brief from the client, the designer may have a rough idea of what a bike could look like based on their previous experience. This would not, however, be the design that the client sees. There are other steps that will influence the design before then.

The first step is to ask the client why they want to produce a bike? Who are they making it for? Who is the target audience? What are the goals for the business when producing a bike? All companies need to sell their products to make profit so that they can continue to operate, although some have very different reasons for doing so.

For this example, let’s say that the target market is 16 to 24-year old males, and the company wants to make a profit by selling enough of their bikes, but they also want the target market to associate their brand with well-designed, solid products that perform at a high level. This information can be used to create “personas”, which gives the designer a reference point for all the design decisions that they make throughout the project. It is to ensure that they are designing for the user, not for the client or themselves.

Now that we know who target market, and the business goals for the product, we can start to research what the target market want from the product, and how competitors that already have the desired brand image have achieved that goal.

User research with the target market will discover that a large number of 16 – 24-year old males are interested in mountain biking. This includes cross country, trail and downhill mountain biking that can be done all over the country, and also at specific specialised areas in forests and national parks.

The competitor analysis of other companies in the area shows that those who produce quality, high-performing products use strong, solid and light materials, and have put their products through rigorous tests to prove that they perform at the highest levels. Research into these products give the designer an idea of what designs have proved to work successfully, and can influence the product that they are creating.

Using this information, the designer can begin to create a prototype that is tailored to the target market and the task identified, is using the appropriate materials, and is using known effective design solutions. The designer will also pull on their own experiences from previous products that they have worked on and incorporate them where appropriate.

This prototype is then tested with users in the target user group and in the environment where it is most likely to be used. It is unlikely that the first design created will be the most optimal, so the feedback provided from this testing is fed back into the design followed by further cycles of testing and design iteration until the design is the best that it can possibly be. Only then will the design be put into production and the final product created for sale.

However, this isn’t the end of the product life cycle. The designer should take feedback from those who have bought and used the product extensively to see how it can be improved, and release regular updates to the product, creating versions 2, 3 and beyond, getting closer and closer to providing the best cycling experience for the cyclist.

Just like riding a bike

It’s clear that the bike produced using the non UX method will create a bicycle – it will have handlebars, a seat, wheels and all the other components that make up a bike, but if it was used in the same scenario as the one that was produced using the UX design method, then the experience for cyclist will be very different.

So, UX is just like riding a bike, but the experience can vary quite a lot depending on the bike.

What do you think? Leave a reply below or contact me by email with your thoughts.

Published by

Damian Gribben

Senior UX Consultant in Edinburgh

One thought on “Demystifying UX: it’s just like riding a bike”

  1. Great article, I have really enjoyed reading it. Is not always an easy task to describe UX meaning.

    Regards from Sopra Spain UX workmate.

    Like

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