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Tarun Kohli

Tarun is the founder and CEO of Quovantis, a product design and development company. Quovantis works with leading product companies and innovative startups and helps them realize their vision to create compelling products. Tarun is passionate about User Experience Design, Technology, and building products that leave a positive impact. Recently, he shared his learnings in a book he wrote about UX Design Principles.

Flashback to the year 2010…

When we started helping product companies with user experience design in the year 2010, every design stand up would turn into an intense battle of color and gradient choices. We would spend hours in countless tiring discussions and exchanging not-so-pleasant verbal volleys.Everyone had their opinion which couldn’t be ignored, and through this chaos, we would often hear phrases like-

– Huh…Whatya mean by the button should be smaller?

– Have you heard of the word? Umm…whatyamacall it — yeah… consistency!

– Step away from the design please…

– What on the earth is wrong with using Lorem Ipsum…I love those profound Latin words

Okay, I exaggerate. Back then, our design stand ups showed the difference in our group’s design philosophies, lack of standardizations and what we valued. It’s not that designs were bad but they weren’t following any core design principles. Even more frustrating was when the feedback did not give anything actionable and someone would blurt, “It just doesn’t feel right”. Much respect, dude. But what do you mean that it doesn’t feel right? This was usually followed by an intense silence, scratching of one’s beard, gazing at the ceiling and then silent shrugging of the shoulders- “I don’t know. Something.”All of this was turning out to be a big problem — how do you have an effective design feedback without a common vocabulary? This led us to the codification of our seven design principles. It helped create a shared understanding of our design approach and what we valued as a team.

Principle One

It wasn’t hard to accept this as our first design principle. We decided we must empathize with our users if we want the design to solve their problems.Empathy, not sympathy. People first, not pixels first. It was like taking a sacred vow – We shall get married to the user’s problem, not our solutions.

Good design solves users’ problems and it can only be created if we were in sync with the goals of the users, their operating context and their mental models.We decided to understand the user’s view of problem, walk in their shoes to feel what they were feeling. See what they were seeing. Think what they were thinking.Only when we started seeing the world from their eyes, our solutions started speaking the same language as of their problems.

Here are a few things we follow to build empathy-

– Listen carefully and understand the problem statement first. Don’t jump into the solution mode immediately. Connect with people and discover the unknowns.

– Observe users, Get out of the building to understand their operating context. Only when we observe users in their real environment, we are able to derive the true meaning of their pain points.

– Build empathy maps and personas. It’s akin to providing a face to your imagination. Building user personas gives a better understanding of the user group’s problems for whom the solution is being designed.

– Reduce bias. Be open. Allow fresh perspectives to prosper. We don’t hold any prejudices and let users express themselves.

– Ask open ended questions which take users down a certain train of thought, questions which do not persuade binary responses like “Do you like using this product?” But questions which make the conversation flow and evolve into interesting interpretations. For example- “What more features would you have built if you were developing this application?

Principle Two

Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration. — Jeffrey Zeldman

We questioned ourselves- why do we rely on our hunches and guesswork for content when we can clearly use real world data and bring clarity to our designs?Using Lorem Ipsum or any dummy text robs the eventual design of character. Rather than truly understanding how the designs would be used, Lorem Ipsum just sits there like a dress that looks great on a mannequin but doesn’t tell you anything how the same dress will look on you!So we’ve collectively vowed to forget the word Lorem ipsum from our designer’s dictionary. It gives us a more realistic view of how applications will behave in their real environment instead of Photoshop or Sketch.

Here’s what we do to design with (real) data-

– Get real data. Work with product owner to get realistic examples of data.This ensures that when we go out in the real wild world, the layout that we had in mind looks the same and items are not bumping into each other because of varying length.

– Get varying sizes of data. We try to gather both minimal and fully fleshed out examples of content. We discover every possible way in which data can appear on the screen.

– Use dataset consistently. We make sure the application flow uses the same content across the screens. Using different data set for different screens causes confusion.

Principle Three

Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make it simple-Woody Guthrie

Every complex action takes a lot of time and user’s effort to understand. And chances are, such complex interface will dissuade the user to come back and use it again in future.

Achieving radical simplicity in design is not easy. You need to understand the limits of human cognition and design keeping in mind your users’ goals. A simple design always focuses on the essence of the problem and leverages users’ existing mental models to reduce the cognitive load.

We use the following methods in our designs to achieve simplicity-

– Remove the unessential. Our focus is to only include the “absolute must”elements and make sure that there isn’t any visual clutter to complete any specific task.

– Group things which belong together. The appropriate grouping helps increase the user’s efficiency in discovering, learning, remembering and performing tasks within the product.

– Hide things if we have to. We do not shy away from concealing information if it makes our product look less cluttered. Rather it helps reduce the cognitive load on the user.

– We use the constructs and mental models which are widely used. For example, the mental model of a button is a solid or hollow rectangle with text at its center. We all are accustomed to seeing buttons for actions like Submit, Download, etc. So we don’t experiment with different shapes for a button.

We use Design Affordance to keep things intuitive.

Lastly, we always keep in mind that perfection is achieved when there is nothing left to take away.

Principle Four

Consistency is one of the most powerful usability principles: when things always behave the same, users don’t have to worry about what will happen. Instead, they know what will happen based on earlier experience — Jakob Nielsen

Consistency is important to make the user experience efficient. While using an application, users learn to use your design faster if they come across elements which they already know through their previous experiences. Or, what the app made them to learn in earlier screens.

Here’s how we handle consistency while designing-

– Create consistency through same visual elements. Whether it’s color, fonts, buttons, icons, or typography, everything should stay the same throughout the product.

– Build familiarity with commonly used UI Elements. Like search box, logo position, etc. Although it’s good to experiment with new things but we don’t go wild experimenting too much. We accept the fact that our design needs to follow the accepted user patterns.

– Publish a style guide. Our style guide has important guidelines which helps us in bringing clarity.

Principle Five

We need to design for the entire experience, not only the happy scenarios

A Goldilocks user experience takes care of every user persona- from the one who is using the product for the first time to an expert, from the happy scenario to the unhappy ones.

A holistic user experience is created when the design takes care of the following states-

Here is how we design keeping all the states in mind-

– Design for first time users. We not just think in the black and white but grey areas as well. For example- what would happen when the users use our product for the first time? How would the system help them on board?

– Design for possible rabbit holes. We know there would be instances when a user can get stranded when there isn’t any data, while the system is loading data or it runs into some sort of errors.

– Design for alternative flows. We design for the alternate flows and help them complete successfully.

Principle Six

Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works—Steve Jobs

Design needs to make sure that it not only looks pretty and usable but has an ability to work at breakthrough speed.

So as designers, we fret about every little detail like browser compatibility, speed, layout and how each of these elements impact the page load time and the end-user experience.

Here’s how we make sure our designs don’t choke the bandwidth-

– Simplify. Simplify. Simplify.

– Collaborate with developers. It’s important to involve developers in the design process and have their opinion on adding/removing elements. We make sure that the development team gets to approve the design as early as possible.

– Look under the hood. All designers need to know how browsers and mobile apps work technically. This is important so that they can test their designs on real devices without developers’ help.

Principle Seven

The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism—Norman Vincent Peale

For designers, feedback should be like music to ears. It’s the fastest way to improve your designs.

We schedule a weekly “Show & Tell” session within the design group. In this session we showcase our work and give feedback to each other. This enables us to not only create great designs but become better designers in the process too.

Here’s how we seek and give unbiased design critiques-

– Share the design in advance. Before the meeting, we share the problem narrative and design ideas. This gives people enough time to come prepared for the design critique sessions.

– Involve everyone. During our feedback meetings, we ask people to put up their critiques on yellow stickies on a white board. This way even our most introvert designers get a chance to voice their opinion.

– Be specific. When we don the hat of critique givers- we are polite but specific about what we have to share. We offer suggestions that could help improve the design.

– Appreciate. We also don’t shy away from sharing things that we loved in the design.

Our design principles have helped us in aligning people around what matters. We have realized there are far less conflicts now. Our intense discussions haven’t subsided but they have become more meaningful now 🙂

This post was originally published on UX Planet.

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