Unicorns are real — Part I

Insights into the life of a UX/UI/Product Designer

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I started working in the design field at the ripe age of 16 as I was fascinated with the world wide web’s creative possibilities. Now I have just over 20 years of design experience under my belt, but only 7 years since I’ve worked as a UX slash UI slash Product Designer slash … whatever recruitment agencies and fancy schools come up with as a new and oh-so-innovative course title. I’ll rather just call myself a unicorn. Neigh, nice to meet you.

The unicorn is that legendary animal that makes anyone happy who gets up on its back. Yay! It sounds awesome, right? But if you think it’s as easy as farting rainbows all day, you are sorely mistaken. Making everyone happy is one of the hardest jobs out there and if a unicorn doesn’t succeed in its legendary mission, it will disperse faster than mall Santas as the new year is coming.

Before you proceed any further, please note that my methods are not necessarily applicable to every kind of user proposition or problem, but if you want to have users and want to have retention, it’s likely that you might benefit from this insight later.

So if you wish, just hop on and let’s start this unicorn ride. Oh, and while we’re at it, meet the other riders as well;

First rider: The user

When a company hires you for the role of the unicorn, from the JD through your interviews the clients will tell you that you must be user-centred, the voice of people, ambassador of the users, yada yada. Unfortunately, 90% of the time they have little to no idea what that entails, so what they really want you to do is to make the users smile and love whatever they want to push down their throat, a.k.a. do your magic, after all, you are a unicorn and they are the ones paying for your hay made of rainbows after all.

Second rider: The business

So here comes the company to be made happy as well, so be prepared to put that business hat on your uni-horn as users usually dislike anything being pushed down their throats. So, whatever simple and obvious solutions you might find to tackle a typical user problem, you’ll still need to proactively find compromises and offer plan B, C and D to the business to have their goals fulfilled whilst being true to the core values of being a user-centred company, even if the solution is a less perfect one for the user.

The good news is, if the company does realise the value and invests heavily into damn good user experience, they’ll likely be eager to make some compromises on their end. This might not happen immediately, but be a good unicorn and be patient.

Third rider: The devs

Now with some creativity, all the above is certainly doable, but then don’t forget that the unicorn has to make them all happy, so let’s add the tech team in the mix for some special fun. Luckily I learnt development and developed enough products in teams to know what makes a developer twitch, but if you didn’t, be prepared to get your UX proposal rejected multiple times for one technical reason or the other.

While I firmly believe that in tech generally nothing is impossible, a unicorn can only strive if it won’t make other co-workers life a living hell with solutions taking ten times the development time than it would be necessary. Cross-department synergy is a must-have in a successful company, so if anyone, you the unicorn should be one of its biggest contributors.

Now what I just told you about might seem impossible, and many times it actually is impossible (especially tough if you don’t have a full-on UX team to work with), but let me tell you about my workflow, how I try to tackle these issues day by day. In my current role, I consider myself extremely lucky as I get all the resources I ask for, but I could count the clients giving me this kind of support on a single hand from the past 7 years.

Keep it in mind that even with full support, do not expect not to fail here and there, it’s just part of the unicorn life.

Step 1: Make the user happy

The unicorn’s official job description is to make users happy. Whenever I join a new team, I find it easiest to sit whole days with people using the given platform almost religiously and just observe them while they generally show me the ropes on how the platform works, to its deepest ends. I always have a fresh new notebook and a pencil aside, so whenever I hear them curse or see them being impatient or just furrow a brow, I make notes. I ask them their biggest frustrations with the product and how would they have it, how would their life be easier.

The same applies to new users on 1:1 qualitative testing sessions, but there I have two cameras pointed at them, one recording their facial expressions, the other what they are doing on their phone or desktop. Test users are not always straight with the interviewers, possibly because of a somewhat awkward situation of a stranger’s eyes on them. Always make sure that your questions are completely without bias towards the product and ask the users to continuously speak what’s on their mind with no filters on. If they fell silent, ask them questions as you need to know what’s in their head.

For new user problems I usually use at least a 5–6 people sample group per persona, that’s usually fair enough to quickly uncover if there are any bigger issues with the product that we need to address, anything bigger than that is even better. For the overall questions, use digital surveys to collate their answers as you’ll need to collate all your findings into some presentation soon. So save some trees and forget about printing those acceptance and usability surveys unless you want to spend a night or two typing all their answers in. You can even ask them to add their answers to a digital form or have someone documenting whatever they answer, but then have an extra person for that role in the room as you should have 100% of your focus on the user you are working with. Typing while in a discussion doesn’t really lift the mood. For these surveys, I like to use Typeform, as not only their forms are beautiful and easily branded, I find their conditional surveys extremely useful. But again, if you wish to use Google Forms, Survey Monkey or any other survey company that you are familiar with, they’ll do just as fine.

You might find that some companies are not putting the user first as much as they told you on the interview, especially after learning the possible costs of doing user testing you might soon find yourself without users to do 1:1 sessions with or being asked to gather all your friends and family for testing sessions. For reference prices and persona matching users to test with, I can recommend testingtime.com, they have an automatic quoting tool that can show you ballpark figures, but it won’t be pretty.

If the budget is so tight, you can try to go guerilla and find suitable testers on specific on-demand mobile cleaning, massage and beauty therapy apps such as Handy, Urban Massage and such. You can usually see and select from available people and you can save the hour-long session from £20–30, maybe even get a coworker’s nails done while you’re at it.

In these cases, you are not necessarily a lost unicorn, but surely a somewhat disadvantaged one. For a prosthetic, you can always turn to HotJar and start a free trial. It’s really easy to add to any site and recently also to apps. Trust me, HotJar will be your best friend to uncover usability issues and to increase conversions, not to speak about it being the best quantitative testing tool on the market (and no, I’m not sponsored by any of these fellas).

If it’s not installed yet on your site/app, get it done ASAP and initiate user session recordings and heatmaps to start with. Just by watching different users coming to your site, seeing how they behave, you can see some patterns emerge from the mass of data. You can filter sessions by lengths, exit or entry pages and even device. Note all your possible findings and see if they repeat with other users. The recordings are almost as good as sitting face to face with a user except they cannot speak to you, so there’s some margin of error when you make your assumptions of course, but these findings with actual proof might push your company to give in and invest into those one-on-one user testing sessions.

HotJar also provides you with surveying and feedback tools, so if it’s not completely against your established user journey to ask some of them to fill out a survey ask the top floor of the company if at least you could get some data that way.

Without testing it doesn’t matter if you design something beautiful, it might not solve the problem any better than if you got a monkey to throw crap on a canvas, the chances of either solution working to your benefit are less than 50%, only based on dumb luck. If you still want to have one over the monkey, you can still have a good stab at your task by researching empirical data. A great source for that is the Nielsen Norman Group website, they are real pioneers in usability testing and even their free resources are beyond epic, backed by eye-tracking technology and surveying hundreds of people on even the smallest of details. Their articles helped me a lot for over a decade, I recommend reading their articles religiously.

This is the point in the article when the UX designer surfaces in me and cut it short. Based on Medium’s data from 2013, the optimal reading time is 7 minutes, so I’ll just stick to it.

Have a break, have a KitKat and click here when you are ready for Part II.

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