Discovering "What Matters" and Validating "What Works" to Deliver Great Usability and a Great User Experience

This is a follow up to my last post: The Difference Between User Experience and Usability. By discovering ‘what matters’ and validating ‘what works’, I want to share how TandemSeven practices user-centered design to deliver a great user experience and great usability when creating products and services for our clients.

What Matters
Contextual user research is a powerful way to discover “what matters”. Simply put, contextual user research is a way to uncover requirements by studying and interviewing people while they work, shop, or do whatever it is that a product or service is meant to support. When done well, contextual user research reveals human requirements that cannot be identified with business process design or other top-down methods. Innovative companies differentiate their products and services by being the first to discover and satisfy these uniquely human requirements.

What Works
Once an innovative design idea has emerged from observation of actual user behavior, it can be validated, refined, and perfected through an iterative user interface design process. Iterative user interface design is a repeated cycle of designing, prototyping, and testing with real users to validate “what works”.

In order to validate a new idea really matters, a design team can get users to experience the design by having them interact with a user interface prototype. The first few iterations of prototypes are typically built from hand drawn paper sketches. Paper prototypes can be produced quickly and cheaply and are just fine for determining if the new idea really resonates with users. Testing with paper prototypes confirms whether the concept is something users value, even if the prototype is crude in appearance, has usability issues or other warts. In fact, paper prototypes have the special advantage that they can be changed in the moment. If there is a problem with the prototyped design, the designer can draw changes or enhancements on the spot and work with the user to uncover what is really needed.

Once the team is confident that it has nailed “what matters,” through the first few rounds of testing with paper, the design iterations can transition to focusing on “what works.” The prototype can be moved online and made more and more realistic until it exhibits the complex behaviors and the actual appearance of a finished product. Each time the prototype is revised it is tested again with real users, and the findings are used to inform the changes for the next round. Some design ideas work perfectly the first time out, while others may take several iterations to get exactly right. Either way, using prototypes to conduct iterative user interface design will produce a successful product faster and cheaper than coding and deploying the real thing only to find that it isn’t exactly what users need. And the prototypes can be used to gain buy-in from key stakeholders such as senior management and investors.

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