5 UX Insights: What I learned from the Course

In January I started participating in an online course called Interaction Design on coursera. More precisely, the course is a specialisation consisting of 8 single courses. Each of them can be enrolled separately and takes about 4 weeks following a determined schedule with assignments and deadlines.

This was in fact my first experience of doing a massive open online course (MOOC) and I found it pretty amazing that this way of learning is now possible due to a globally connected world. The course counted more than 3000 classmates from all continents and gave me the chance to listen to a professor from University of California, San Diego, the creator and publisher of the course. Both gave me access to knowledge, information and inspiration, I probably wouldn’t have had in a non-digital world.

Because of my curiosity about this experience, but also regarding the flexibility and freedom to choose when and where to learn (and also to easily stop if the course is not what I’ve expected), I preferred the online course to studying at a real, physical university.

Today I want to share my top 5 takeaways from the specialisation’s first course “Human-Centered Design: an Introduction”, I completed last week.

1. Interviewing people is valuable

In my last job at a strategy consultancy, I conducted several interviews both with consumers and clients. I’ve learned that the information and insights gathered from these interviews can be an extremely valuable basis for prioritising and defining future initiatives. Consulting interview results also gave me confidence when I had to identify deep consumer needs and explain strategic recommendations for client’s businesses.

So, I was happy that interviewing people was the course’s first assignment which allowed me to transfer my knowledge in planning, conducting and analysing interviews to the new UX topic. Although the context was different then – discovering people’s needs in order to find design ideas – interviews turned again out as a very effective method to come up with possible solutions, mainly in two ways:

First, interviews can reveal initial ideas (What do people need?).
Second, they can challenge ideas the designer has (Do people really need that?).

The second aspect doesn’t mean that qualitative interviews should be used to achieve proof in form of verification or falsification of a hypothesis. Instead, the job is to put the participant in the role of the expert and ask questions as open as possible. However, interviewing people to find latent needs can prevent designers from working on ideas which are not relevant for other users.

2. Prototyping is playful

In contrast to interviews, I haven’t learned a lot about building prototypes before, so I was especially curious about the second part of the course called “Rapid Prototyping”.

The key fact I learned is that prototypes can have super low fidelity as long as they demonstrate tasks and user flows in a way people understand. When this is fulfilled, there is no need for perfection. Instead prototyping reminds me of what we call “Bastelstunde” in German schools and kindergartens: handcrafting samples of different materials like paper, cardboard and post its.

Of course, there also exist high fidelity prototyping techniques like wireframes and digital mock ups, but the course concentrated on simple and handmade practices like storyboards and paper prototypes, which take place at the early stages of design processes.
And so it happens, that storyboarding design ideas was the second assignment of the course. You will see a part of my work here soon.

I was already familiar with storyboards from my studies where my classmates and I had to sketch the sequences of a commercial TV spot. In retrospect, we would have created a much better TV spot if we had followed the major steps a design storyboard should demonstrate:

  • Show the problem which leads to a need
  • Show how a product / system can fulfil this need
  • Show success / satisfaction the user gained by using the system

With regard to storyboards for UX design, there are furthermore two important rules to follow:

  1. The storyboard needs to include a user who is the protagonist of the story to tell
  2. The storyboard doesn’t show any kind of a specific user interface 
– however, roughly sketched interfaces can be included to demonstrate that the user is using the system at the moment.

But the most crucial rule to follow when building prototypes is speed: Speed leads to agility. And speed leads to multiple versions. Both is highly important when we think of design at early stages.

I want to talk a little bit more about these aspects in the following two paragraphs, as they are two further key takeaways from the course.

3. Speed is challenging

When I created the storyboards for the second assignment, I wanted to make it really awesome in order to get a good grade from my classmates. I’m not sure if I would have been faster outside of this special assignment condition, but in fact it took me two days to draw 6 storyboards – far too long when we compare it to the recommended time of 10 minutes for one storyboard. And also far too long when we think about storyboarding in real working life.

I realised that this really needs to go faster. So, a holistic focus on the actual purpose of storyboards – demonstrating design ideas which help to accomplish users’ goals and tasks – instead of caring about details and polishing may be the appropriate guideline here. But beside this insight, I also learned about the great benefits of rapid prototyping:

  • Feedback: People – all kind of stakeholders like users, clients, members of the design team etc. – are more open to give feedback when it’s obvious that it wasn’t spent much time in creating the prototype. This feedback is very valuable to refine prototypes into something more concrete.

  • Flexibility: Quick and rough prototypes allow more room for adaption and changes after feedback and keep the iteration process efficient.

  • Practice: Rapidly creating and adapting prototypes also means producing many prototypes. And as with almost all things we do often, we get better at. So our skills of building prototypes will improve the more we create.

4. Multiple designs enable objectivity

Creating many versions instead of few polished ones also has another benefit: Designers get able to separate their ego from their artefacts and build a healthy distance to their own designs.

On the one hand, this helps the individual designer to better deal with feedback and criticism, as the designer understands that the criticism is related to the artefact, and not to him/her as a person.

On the other hand, creating multiple designs increases rapport within a group, when several people work on a design. While sharing only one idea per person can lead to enmity between teammates, sharing and comparing multiple alternatives provides a vocabulary for talking about possible design solutions in the group.

Of course, speed is important too here, as spending time and energy for polishing decreases the personal distance to designs, like: “I invested so much time and effort. It just must be good!”

Last but not least, the first idea is barely the best. Creating multiple versions makes designers explore more alternatives and widens their horizon of possible design solutions.

I adapted the approach of creating multiple designs when I designed this website in Sketch and also experienced that I find the best solution by a combination of individual exploration and feedback from others.

5. User research at every stage

The last insight cannot be assigned to a specific part of the course, as this was one of the overall messages which was stressed again and again in different situations.

The fifth takeaway of my UX online course experience is that user research is neither something that only happens at the beginning of the design process, nor something that marks a final test before the product will be released. In fact, user research should contribute to every stage of the design process:

  • Start with need-finding interviews to explore people’s problems and desires
  • Create low-fidelity prototypes (e.g. storyboards, paper prototypes) to sort out big bugs and understand people’s behaviour
  • Create high-fidelity prototypes (e.g. digital mock ups) to get precise user feedback.
  • Create dynamic interfaces people can actually use (e.g. code, including database) to reveal minor flaws

The key is finally to find the most appropriate and efficient method for each step of the developing process, regarding the results on the one hand and the costs (time) on the other hand. Identifying the right research practice is probably not easy and needs some experience, but the course gave an introduction of several tools and instruments I can now refer to and which highlighted that user experience design is an incredibly scientific field.