Habits of Highly Effective Interaction Designers

September 20, 2018

Of all the thoughts on how to design interactions, here are the ones that have come up more persistently.

Ask "What", not "Why"

Even though we as user researchers want to know the why behind a user's goal or task, the path to get there may not actually be to literally ask "Why".

I initially came across this idea when reading a book called Find Your Why by Simon Sinek, where the author proposes a discovery process that is very similar to that of a user researcher, to elicit feedback from key individuals. They include not just the mechanics, but also some guidelines of what to do and what not to do. Interestingly, one of the guidelines when conducting interviews was to ask "What", rather than "Why". And they reasoned that this unlocks the part of the verbal brain that can actually articulate the answer, rather than asking the emotional part of the brain.

Until I find a better example (The book provides a better one, but I cannot think of it right now), here is an example I came up with to illustrate the difference:

  • Question 1: Why do you love me?
  • Question 2: What do you love about me?

You'll see that these are very similar, but whereas the first one is going to lead to awkward silence (in trying to answer a tricky question with conviction), the other one is set up to lead to a more ready and useful answer.

The following article also discusses this, but coming from a clinical psychology approach. The "What" form of the question can help with emotion labelling, and "keeps us open to discovering new information".

Make it visual

(Ironically, I'm typing this article using plain text, and I don't necessarily know how to make this article visual. This goes to highlight that it's difficult to do, even for this author, but I do think it's a habit that should be adopted, and made automatic, nonetheless. I'll keep thinking of ways to this visual.)

Ideas can be represented verbally, visually, or numerically. When communicating with others on the team, choosing to make it visual automatically makes it concrete. Text, while easy for you to input, will readily become too abstract to communicate clearly to others. They'll gloss over it, or people may read the same content and perceive very differently. Visual representations shows relationships clearly, makes gaps in knowledge readily apparent. Even the structure of a table can help. Maybe it's making things into a bulleted list, just so that an underlying structure becomes visible.

Sketch on paper before going digital

I don't know if this is solely based on personal preference, but I've found that the outcome of taking time to draw things out on whiteboard or a piece of paper can reveal additional opportunities for improving the design—-more so than solely through digital input. (This is coming from me, a digital-input freak. Just to put a number to that claim, I have put $400 dollars, no exaggeration, into customizing and programming the keyboard and mouse combination I'm using to type up this article now. That's not even counting the money spent on previously wielded input devices, like trackball mice, pen tablets, etc..)

Making it into a habit suggests that we reach for paper and pen, no matter what the situation is. Even if your source information comes from a digital form, draw it out on paper first, and digitize again. It often takes work, but the quality will be better.

Digital makes things too easy to fiddle around with the digitization tool (alignment, fonts and font sizes, colors, borders, styles, etc), and robs us of focus. Sketching forces you to move forward with getting more thoughts down. It also makes things easily visual, as per the previous habit.

Drawing things on paper or on a board also levels the playing field for others who may be able to provide feedback, who would be able to instantly grab the pen and start building upon your ideas. They won't need to know how to use or become accustomed to your fancy, digital tool.

Iterate, but don't waste iterations

The idea and benefits of iterating ("fail/learn fast, fail/learn often") is widely accepted, so I won't go into detail about that.

What I do want to recommend is to not waste iterations. Know when you can skip. Every iteration that you can successfully skip saves everyone time and patience. For example, you don't need to re-validate Nielson Norman's "10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design", so don't put a design in front of someone without making sure that it doesn't already violate said heuristics.

Just like it's an interaction designer's job to save developers from building the wrong thing, it's also our job to avoid having the users repeat back to us things that we already know, such as the 10 Usability Heuristics.

The first iteration to any design will be the crappiest, and therefore is most likely to contain mistakes that you already know. Before shipping out that first iteration, perhaps prepare and run through a checklist of the ideals and criteria the first design iteration must have, before pushing that out the door—-including the 10 Usability Heuristics.

I'll be working on a comments section, but for now, you can tweet me @JayLiu50 or email me at jay@designbyjayliu.com.

Written by Jay Liu, interaction designer.