UX from the best

Black Pepper’s user experience team, Chris McCourt and Theo Matthews, recently attended the Nielsen Norman Group conference for UX in London. This week long intensive course is designed to spread the best practices of UX across the industry, as well as provide certification.

Who are Nielsen Norman?

NN/g are regarded by many in the industry as the last word in UX. Jakob Nielsen, Don Norman, and Bruce Tognazzini, the founders of NN/g, are some of the most well regarded UX practitioners. Nielsen has been described as “the reigning guru of Web usability” by FORTUNE magazine. Tognazzini founded what is probably one of the most influential groups in the industry of the past 2 decades: Apple’s Human Interface Group. And Norman, author of ‘The Design of Everyday Things’, is attributed with kickstarting the “human-centered design” revolution that has shaped how we, as an industry, create and design software.

Today, NN/g are a consultancy firm that can provide UX expertise to companies looking to become more user centric, and ultimately, improve their bottom line. Along with this, they conduct UX research reports that provide guidelines for creating web, mobile, and intranet sites.

Combining their research expertise, and large portfolio of case studies, NN/g have become industry leaders in providing training and education. They run conferences all across the globe with the aim of spreading the insights gained from their research. Evangelising these insights is one of their key directives, because in doing so, it will help the industry begin to understand what exactly UX is.

What is UX?

The experience of a user is often formed by how they perceive the front-end of a system. It is because of this many believe that UX is simply prettifying the front-end UI. That it’s something you create from your functional requirements, and just hope for a usable system. A preliminary activity.

This is a misconception.

User experience, as you might guess, is the experience a user has when interacting with software. Of course, everyone’s personal experience is entirely subjective, meaning that it is impossible to create software that guarantees a good experience to everyone. This is much like music. Even Pop, although designed to have the widest appeal, is like fingernails on a chalkboard to some.

The Importance of UX

UX is about getting into the mind of the specific people using your system. It’s about empathising with them, and by doing this, you will figure out what their goals, motivations, and capabilities are. UX design requires curiosity to understand how people behave. In other words, UX has to take human psychology into account. This is different from a UI or graphic designer, who focuses purely on the aesthetics and visual design of the system. With no thought put into UX, you will perhaps end up with a system that is very pleasing to look at, but is utterly unusable. People will try to take the least demanding course of action when trying to reach their goal. If your system is straining, people will get frustrated and leave, no matter how pretty it is.

The below animation is an example where form has most definitely taken precedence of function. It has much visual appeal, and to a graphic designer, that may be all they want, but to a user, waiting 3.5 seconds for your total bill to load is just frustrating.

Paypal Receipt
Aesthetically pleasing, but unnecessary long animation for a receipt concept

How to create a good UX

One of the main learning points being taught by NN/g is the importance of research. This isn’t the kind of research that requires a 20,000 word thesis, hundreds of hours of trawling through literature, and a referee. It’s simply about engaging with the people who are likely to end up using your system. It sounds obvious that to design a system that people actually want to use, you must first talk to those people, but in practice, it’s an activity that still far too many avoid.

A tool used by many in UX to help keep a project user centered are personas. As defined by NN/g, they are “A single representation of a cluster of target users who represent similar behaviors, goals, and motivations.” In plain English, that basically means creating fictional characters that each represent a group of your users. These fictional characters have names, a photo, a little backstory, goals, and frustrations with other systems. These characters, although seeming silly, are a very powerful way of helping the project team remember who they’re creating for. As research shows [1], by using personas, keeping the user at the front of the team’s minds, you’ll create a better user experience for it. They hold value even beyond the direct development of software. Personas can be used for recruiting participants for usability testing, and also as indicators as to whether your system is meeting the needs of your target users.

There are numerous other considerations to make when designing a UX. Considerations such as the Gestalt principles, which are the innate ways in which people perceive visual content. Or inattentional blindness, where users automatically tune out parts of the webpage they associate with ads. Even culture has a profound effect on UX. If you wish to learn more about these effects, you can find research that comes under the name of Human Computer Interaction.

What did we take away from NN/g?

From the five days, we not only take away our UX certifications, but also many ideas. In terms of what we, at Black Pepper, can apply to better our software UX, personas is something we would definitely like to further develop. Due to the nature of our projects, we aren’t able to get access to our end users in the same way a product team could, so persona creation must be done in a slightly different way.

A variant of personas that works well for Agile software development are ‘Proto-personas’. These personas can be created with your project team in a 3-step workshop that’s short enough to fit in an afternoon. First, everyone identifies at least three personas to target as possible users. Step two is to share and compare all the personas, discussing what aspects of the personas are valid, and which aren’t. Lastly, to settle on your final personas, you create segments based on the common traits between them all.

Analytics is another area in which we felt we could improve, if only for the benefit of our own website. By using tools such as Google Analytics, you can effectively identify areas of your system that users are having difficulty with. Analytics, though, don’t tell you why they’re having difficulty. You must piece together the information you have to create a theory, and then you test that theory. A/B testing is a common way for evaluating these theories. This is where you show two or more versions of a design to different users and monitor their response to the designs.

Although we have been using both personas and analytics for a long time, with the insights provided by NN/g, we are now able to use them more effectively.

Perhaps though, the most important takeaway from the conference was not a specific technique or tool, but actually what the role of a UX specialist is. To give a project the best possible chance of developing a good UX, the principles must be applied by all the team members, and not just one single person. Therefore, it is the role of the UX specialist to make sure that the rest of the team is keeping the project user focused. Without this focus, a poor user experience is inevitable.

Jakob and certification3 2


[1] Long, F (2009) 'Real or Imaginary; The Effectiveness of Using Personas in Product Design', Proceedings of the Irish Ergonomics Society Annual Conference, May 2009, pp 1–10 Dublin.