My adventures in UX-land…

UX design: “the process of enhancing user satisfaction by improving the usability, accessibility, and pleasure provided in the interaction between the user and the product.” (Wikipedia)

How it started…

Hi, my name’s Gina Duffill and since February this year, I’ve been working with the Digital Development team as a Web Co-ordinator (covering the permanent post holder’s role whilst she’s on maternity leave). Coming from a non-techy background (apart from working as 1st line support on an IT helpdesk 10 years or so ago – does that count??), this was always going to be a bit of an adventure and to be honest, I came into the role not really knowing what to expect…!

Before I joined the team, they had recently started working with a company called Futuregov which is basically a digital change agency which works with local government to redesign services for the digital age, specialising in User Experience design (or UX) and Agile methodologies.  Through these new ways of working, old methodologies are being torn up (e.g. Waterfall ) so that the customer is much more heavily involved in every stage of the research, design, testing and implementation process of a new product.

Rocket Surgery for beginners

When I first joined the team, the first project I got involved in was Profiles (an intranet-based application which employees use to search for contact details of fellow colleagues).  So, I’m going to run through my experiences of UX through the whole of this project and use these experiences to document this as a kind of ‘case study’ of the UX process…

People basically felt there was a need for a new version of Profiles as the existing one was slow and often produced inaccurate search results.  This was when I was introduced to the wonder of usability testing.  I was passed a book to read by usability guru Steve Krug, “Rocket Surgery Made Easy” which explains the basic rules about doing your own usability tests. It’s a great common-sense book, very readable and also has lots of ‘lol’ moments…!

So with our test script at the ready, we asked our volunteers (very nicely!) if we could video them using the application (so we don’t miss anything). We also made it clear from the outset that we were there to test the site, and not them. We reassured them that this was probably the only time that day that they didn’t have to worry about making a mistake!

We gave them a list of scenarios to complete, e.g. ‘How would they change their location?’,’ How would they change their manager details?’  We then recorded their answers in debriefing sessions using the UX-endorsed Post-it™ and Sharpie™ method which looked something like this….


Post-its & Sharpies rule!

Recording our findings on Post-its makes it easier further down the line to group our findings and look for recurring themes / issues – otherwise known as a synthesis session (try saying that after a couple of shandies…)

The synthesis session produced 4 main insights into how users felt about using the current version of Profiles – they felt that it was too slow, the information was often out of date, it was difficult to find alternative contact numbers for individuals and contact numbers for teams.

The next thing we did was to attempt to come up with possible solutions based on the insights gained from the customer (gathering our hypotheses), which then got transformed into design questions, e.g. “We believe that making the results appear on a separate page will result in a much quicker search. We will know we have succeeded when a search takes less than 3 seconds.”

Then we got involved in sketching and prototyping!!  We basically got together as a team in a pod, each armed with a 6-up and a Sharpie™ and sketched some ideas about how we thought the new app should look based on our hypotheses.  We gave feedback on each others’ ideas until we whittled them down to one or two designs we could go with….


Users are the ‘thing’

We then prototyped our most popular design and did some more usability testing (Steve Krug would be proud!) to check that we were on the right track. We took on board our users’ feedback and only started coding our solution when we felt confident we’d made the changes that users had asked for and seemed happy to interact with (UX at its best…)

The power of UX then is keeping the user and their needs at the centre of the development team’s thinking. The problem is when you have been involved in designing a product and invested so much headspace, time and energy into it, you can’t see the search bar from the call to action.  You need (several) sets of fresh eyes to give you some objective feedback as to what it’s like to actually, er…. use!

So……. my experience of working with the Digital Development team and learning about UX has been unlike anything I’ve done before and has turned many of my preconceived assumptions on their heads!  Steve Blank’s call for developers and designers to “get out of the building” (or ‘get around the building’ in our case…) really works.  In my relatively short time here, I can testify that meeting real, live, breathing users and getting feedback firsthand from them about what you’re developing makes all the difference.

I was sceptical (and quite shocked!) at first when I read Steve Krug’s recommendation that we should actually get feedback from users on sketches and prototypes (what, not even anything on a screen?!), but it makes perfect sense….  Why waste valuable time, resources (and code) on something which you’re not even sure will work or that users will be able to make sense of? It’s a User-centric world out there and we’d better get used to it!


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