3 Ways I Screwed Up On My First UX Project

To be honest, I didn’t want to write this post.

It’s a required post for me to do, and initially all I could think was It’s going to be so boring for people to read! I have nothing of value to add in this world! What if it ends up like this? BUT, I had to finish out my capstone for the Interaction Design Specialization on Coursera (put together by UCSD, it’s awesome, and you should check it out), and to finish it, I had to write this.

See, the problem is that I started this eight-course specialization in UX design over three (!!) years ago as kind of a “let’s see if I do want to do this UX thing.” I got through seven and a half of the eight courses, then stopped when I started my real UX Design Certificate (also by UCSD — strange coincidence). I finished my certificate and freelanced on top of my day job, moved back to America, spent every waking moment in a frenzy looking for my first solid UX job, found my first solid UX job (thank goodness!), focused like a madwoman on doing well at it, and suddenly found myself still with half a course left on this eight-course specialization.

Because I’m that type of person who can’t leave something like this unfinished (no really, it nagged at me the whole time), I dragged myself back into Coursera, figured out how to re-logon, and jumped back into my last project.

This long-winded intro is all to tell you that I find myself in a unique situation I actually can write about. I find myself testing and polishing a project I haven’t touched in 2+ years. I’m looking at a brand-new-to-UX project with at least somewhat-more-experienced eyes (let’s not kid ourselves, I know that I’m still a junior in the UX world).

And what do I see? Well, to be honest it’s not terrible, and I’m pretty proud of myself, but of course there were some glaring areas for improvement — things I’ve learned in the (I know, short) time I’ve been dealing with real data, people, presentations, projects.

A screen of the “finished” app.

1) Brainstorming: I didn’t do enough of it

I started out with an idea to fulfill a real need. And I’m kind of impressed — I really did find an area that could be improved with good design, and I found it in a place that was accessible to a new designer. I was a teacher and had access to lots of other teachers, and so what did I think of? Something to improve the lives of teachers. (thumbs up, me!)

But in all seriousness, I looked around at my fellow teachers, shadowed and interviewed them, and I realized that they were constantly figuring out work-arounds (the happy place for design) for taking notes about their students on the fly. They would sometimes use different apps or their computer, but more often than not they were literally taking a notebook or post-its, writing things down in scrawled, quick words, and trying to flip-through, find, and reference the notes when writing each of their 20+ individual comments every two weeks.

Look how crazy this mess is. Taking organized, individual notes quickly while having to manage a group of fidgety 5 year olds is no easy task.

From here came the idea of something that can fill that space between the quick thought of “Jenna’s spelling is awesome” and a polished, parent-ready comment.

But here is where I could have done better. Brainstorming is hard. Brainstorming is still hard. It’s a skill that doesn’t come easily to me (especially in groups. Thank god for brainwriting), and with this project I was quick to think for a bit, find an idea I like, and run with it for the rest of the project. I took practically no time to sit and ideate, no time to create lists of ideas with different constraints and point of views:

What one — only one! — thing could you tweak to change it? What if you eliminated a constraint? What if you compared it to other note-taking situations? What if technology was no object? What if time and money were no object? What are ideas that would make it worse, not better? What are some truly crazy, insane ideas?

Now, after working on projects that have a lot of money and people behind them, there’s a lot more riding on finding the best solution. Brainstorming for quantity over quality is the surest way to get there. For as people say, your first idea could be the best idea, but how will you know unless you think of a dozen others first?

For example, coming back to it years later, I thought of integrating voice-assistance/recording, I thought of adding in a smart watch app, and I thought of more separating out the web app vs mobile app focus. The first on taking the captured notes to build comments, the latter on capturing those notes in the first place. And that was just me idly thinking about possibilities as I polished up my previous work. Think of how awesome it would have been had I spent the time to brainstorm earlier!

2) Storytelling: It’s the best way to get people on board.

I was kind of surprised when I saw my app and realized how disjointed the screens were that I’d designed. Sure, I had a home page and a couple more pages that showed the main functions, but the interactions and extra popups/messages/etc weren’t there to create a whole user story.

I had put so much time and effort into creating personas, drawing storyboards (I’m a big big fan of star people), and listening to the compelling stories of real users, and yet the prototypes I was presenting at the end of each week were static screens.

Some awesome star people. Also, I just want to say that I would use less text and less interface panels if I were to do it now. DON’T JUDGE EARLY UX ME.

In my current job (and really, I don’t think this is unique to me, but a common UX role to be playing), I’m half-designer, half-persuader. I spend my time almost equally between creating prototypes and getting people on board. Now I happen to work at a design team within a big company (and I’m talking deep corporate America, not some fancy new company like Facebook), and I’m constantly working in tandem with program managers, business analysts, subject matter experts, and developers. We’re all trying to just get our jobs done and deliver things with a short time frame, and it’s my job to get everyone happy and (let’s be honest) emotionally attached to the best possible version of our product.

I can’t drop the powers of storytelling as soon as I start elaborating out the necessary features. Everyone needs to always feel for Jane, or else Jane’s needs quickly fall behind the importance of “that will take more effort to code” or “let’s just include that crucial UX piece in Release 2.”

Finishing up the prototype for this course, I dropped some screens I had created earlier because they didn’t fit the narrative, and spend time creating the little details to flesh-out the story of my app. What I ended up with was a protoype that flowed, showing how a real user would find real value from it.

(Now, before anyone gets contrary, yes, we of course sometimes need to design things which aren’t part of beautiful narrative or present things which aren’t cohesive. It happens often. But if your goal is to always tell a story, even when showing the Export-to-PDF feature to your project manager, you’ll be much more effective overall at getting people to agree.)

3) User Testing: Do it often with small numbers of people — really, though.

Now this is not exactly my fault, nor the course’s. There are limitations on how much you can ask students to do in a given week, and “make sure you test your prototype with 5 new people each time” is just not going to work.

But I found pain points that could have been fixed a long time ago, at an easier-to-fix stage, had I spent time testing with a couple users, here and there, early on in my design process. It’s a lot more annoying to change a feature in something like Axure after you’ve created multiple interactions based on what was there before.

Like here. This would have been a great place to start testing.

And of course extrapolating this out into the real world, we all know that it’s way easier to find mistakes and change things early on, before developers start the (really) hard work of bringing it to life. Luckily, research shows you only need a few people to find the majority of problems, and it’s something that can be incorporated into any design process (start small, with guerrilla testing, and go from there).

Our jobs are there not only to create great design, but in the end, our jobs exist to make the company money by increasing user adoption, and to save the company money by fixing things early on and often.

So with what I know now, I spent some extra time, more than the course required, asking people to look at and test my app as I went through the final weeks. It helped create something that was cleaner, easier to use, and more cohesive overall, and definitely led me to some of those “OH, duh.” moments that only come from having seen something through a new pair of eyes.

Brainstorming, Storytelling, User Testing

Is this a strange distillation of experience down to three lessons learned? Maybe (probably). Are there lots of other things I’ve learned along the way besides these? Of course. Among many others, I’ve learned how having other skills outside the traditional “UX” ones are important to thriving in this field, how having empathy for your teammates is as important as having empathy for your users, and how working within a team of UX designers is amazing, as each person has their strengths and can teach you a lot about those things.

But brainstorming, storytelling, and user testing are three areas that I still strive to improve on daily as a UX designer, and I can clearly see my grasp of them change in my work. Really, finishing up this capstone project is a positive exercise in showing how much I have grown as a designer…at least in these three areas. (and other areas, I really really hope)

I almost want to work on another project to the half-way point and stop, coming back to it three years down the road.


P.S. For those of you who are interested, here’s a run-through of my app. It’s a way for teachers to on the fly save impressions or actual notes of their students’ various skills. What’s not included here, but would be were I to continue fleshing this out, is a voice recording option, a smart-watch app version which would focus on the saving of impressions and voice recordings, and a desktop version which would focus more on the integrating of your notes into meaningful comments. I have tons of ideas, but I suppose this is where it ends for now…