U is For USER

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For our February ‘Creative Industries’ segment, we wanted to delve into something we’re sure everyone has experienced at one time or another; the challenging and intricate world of UX/UI. First impressions are absolutely everything when it comes to marketing your business, which is why nothing pains us more than when we witness a poor user experience shatter every chance of success. You know the score – incoherent web layouts, unmanageable app navigation and slow loading times that leave the user frustrated and the brand wondering why their conversion rate is so low.

While the general adoption of UX/UI into the planning process has become almost second nature, there’s still a lot of misinterpretation or lack of understanding when it comes to understanding its many intricacies. For example, most consider UX/UI one of the same, which as any creative won’t hesitate to tell you, isn’t the case at all. Despite areas of overlap in the design process, they both serve different purposes and need to be treated as separate entities in order to be truly effective.

This is especially important as new mediums in the world of UX/UI open up, with voice becoming the much-lauded next phase of evolution. We’re already moving away from screens and shifting our attention to voice instead as advancements in AI make everyday tasks easier to conduct via command, rather than typing out a request. Beyond this, the next frontier of mixed reality will provide new and pioneering ways for people to interact as well, which is something brands need to be exploring and preparing for now.

It’s clear that the value of UX and UI design has never been more important today in helping to hit the bullseye of consumer confidence and loyalty. It’s something that we at Infographic.ly have increasingly paid attention to, recently opening up a dedicated UX/UI unit to deal with the increasing demand from our clients. We sat down with Tarek El-Khatib, our new UX/UI lead, to discuss the ins and outs of this masterful layer of design that we all take for granted.

Welcome to our Creative Industries segment, Tarek. Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into the UX/UI field of design.
Hello! Well, my background is in Business Finance, which I studied at university and it naturally lead me into management consulting as a career. In this field, there’s a lot of process management and reengineering, which structures your brain into seeing operations and processes in a certain way. That experience gave me a firm grounding to go into UX, gathering requirements from clients for the software that they wanted developed, and gradually transitioning this into designing the experiences of these solutions as well.

In simple terms… what’s the main difference between UI and UX?
That’s a great question and one that many people don’t seem to get! UX is about designing the users’ experience with your brand. That includes user research, journey mapping and information architecture – basically understanding the users’ needs, their pain points and the problems that we are trying to solve. UI is a problem-solving process on a different level. It’s about design, branding, color schemes, typography and identity. There’s a bit of overlap in areas like wireframes, but UX and UI are two different worlds and need to be treated as such.

What value does UX have on the bottom line of a business and how ‘necessary’ is it for profit/success?
There is a huge cultural shift needed to make organizations realize they should be user-centric in their approach and build solutions around their customers, not management needs. This is happening gradually, but we’re not there yet. In fact, there’s a nice statistic that I like to quote when I get asked this question – “For every $1 invested in UX, it saves $100 in software development” – so clearly, it does make an impact!  

When do you think the conversation about design shifted from one of ‘aesthetics’ to one of ‘functions’?
Post WWII, there was a mini industrial revolution in the US. Their factories were not affected or destroyed by the war and were continuing to produce consumer goods at a phenomenal rate.

As the free market evolved and started driving competition higher, the industries started making more feature-driven products instead. Rotary phones gave way to a digital future and fridge/freezers soon came with an added water dispenser. That drive for ‘feature bloating’ eventually subsided as companies realized this process made products more complex, and that that the majority of features (80% in some cases) were almost never used. I believe that this was one of the inflection points from where design, which was an afterthought down the production line, advanced and became central in making products, both digital and analogue.

What is the next phase in the UX/UI space going to look like in terms of skill set, industries, products/services?
UX and UI are a medium that separates humans from machines. Over the last couple of decades these mediums were predominantly visual: monitors, ATM screens and car dashboards, for example. Now, we are beginning to see a shift to voice, which uses the same fundamentals of design but in a new way. Mixed reality (Augmented/ virtual reality) is also a new medium with a lot of new and pioneering means of interaction. Designers will need to rapidly learn these skill sets to pioneer, and then keep relevant, in this space.

The world of marketing and communication, in general, is shifting to one that is screenless, leaning more towards to voice – how will that affect what you do from UX/UI perspective and what role will you play in the development/use of that?
I think there was a boom of early adopters in voice, but then, providers discovered its complexity. Usability tests show that users expect voice assistants to complete very simple tasks like setting an alarm, but they can’t understand and answer a two-part question. Having said that, as more resources are put into the AI that runs these assistants, reliance on them is likely to peak as the functionality becomes easier. Look at how people are already changing the way in which they communicate – walking around with their phones perpendicular to their mouths because they’re sending voice notes instead of using their Instant Messaging apps. Therefore, the interaction of telling/asking your device something will become a lot more ubiquitous than typing out a request. UX/UI wise, it’s still the same: users discover and learn, the device needs to provide feedback (blinking, light cues) and error messages should explain what went wrong and how to solve it. A lot of the basic principles are still applicable, but presented in a new way for voice.  

Who else, other than designers, need to have a sense of UX/UI and how does that relationship need to work?
Everyone needs to have at least a basic understanding of it, as it’s embedded in all industries, roles and services today. For example, If you’re a doctor operating on a patient, your patient needs to know what is going to happen to them, what their surgery journey is and what the outcomes could be. Or what about if you’re an accountant – you need to be able to design a powerpoint presentation that your superiors can understand, with figures and calculations that are clear for the non-numeric audience. Thinking about your user/customer is important no matter what your job is, how large your organization is and who you are serving.

Design-led thinking is now turning into a business approach for a lot of companies. Being a designer, how can a different viewpoint and strategy, using creativity for example, positively affect a business?
Companies are starting to adopt a more agile approach. Products/solutions are thought of and released in small bursts, testing happens quickly and the product/solution is then refined and improved. This allows companies to fail fast and pivot quickly in the right direction. It also empowers the users to influence the design of the solution that is ultimately being shaped for them, creating huge brand equity in the process.

User experience is not limited to digital products, and can extend to services, processes, or space. Explain how, and if at all, the process differs for the different outputs.
It’s absolutely the same. Here’s a true story for you… I once had to test an insulin pump to see if a senior citizen would comprehend the instructions, or if they’d use it the wrong way and badly affect their health! With non-digital products there’s the additional senses: feel, smell, etc. to consider as well. Take Apple for example, they heavily invest in their packaging, studying each step a customer takes in unwrapping their brand new toy, or put another way, the build up to finally touching it. On a wider scale, supermarkets design their aisles in a way that gets you to spend more time in their stores and shop more. Despite their differences, the way in which they all go about this is the same: study the user, understand their needs, define the information architecture, map out their journey, design the solution, test it, release it and keep improving!

What geographical markets/industries, in your opinion, are breaking the most significant ground with UX and UI?
There are certain traditional capitals of design in the world, such as Copenhagen, London and Madrid, however the MENA region is seeing steady growth in UX as well. Staple dinosaurs, like the big consulting companies, are all creating digital departments that cater to the growing demand for UX/UI in sectors like telecommunication, banking and travel. There’s still a long way to go, but in my experience, the problems of UX adoption in the region are still mirrored in the West too.

What can businesses do themselves to employ a UX approach /change to their current status for those who can and can’t afford the professional help. Where should they start as a first step?
The U in UX stands for user: customer, administrator, manager, seller, waiter, stakeholder. One way or the other, they are all users. Adopting a user-centric approach first requires talking to the users, understanding who they are, what’s important to them, their industry specific levels of expertise (how tech savvy they are for example), and what types of problems they are facing that the business can solve for them.

This information helps in creating user personas, such as ‘the overspender’, ‘the impulsive buyer’ or ‘the bargain hunter’ that represent real people. Therefore when a business has a meeting, a phrase like “our customers are unhappy with feature X” becomes “Mike does not like feature X because Mike does not have the time to learn how to use it.” The personification of the user in this way allows them to become alive and present in design discussions, which helps progress the conversation from what the company wants to what the user wants instead.  This enables the organization to become much more user focused as a whole.