Product vs. Design
The last note discussed the different types of user interface design, interaction design and visual design and tried to make the point that both are required for a good user experience. But the response surprised me. So many people wrote to me to complain that their company essentially doesn’t do either type of design, and they know their product suffers for it. Most said that the UI engineers just did whatever they could and that was the design. Sometimes the product managers waded into the design waters and did what they could. Some companies try to outsource some visual design at the end of the process, just before the product goes into QA. Some people that wrote to me said they had no idea what any of these roles were.
It seems to me that the design community hasn’t really been doing enough to address this problem. They do a good job communicating among themselves, and there are some outstanding talents in the design community (Mark Hurst, Hugh Dubberly, Alan Cooper, to name a few) but in general I think these guys spend a lot of time preaching to the choir, and that the message about the value they deliver needs to get to those teams that need them the most, and these are the teams without designers. I realized one way to do this is to work on educating the product managers.
The reason I care so much about this problem is simple. A good product requires a good user experience. And a good user experience requires the close collaboration of product management and design. This is a big topic, but first I think we need to try to get us all on the same page in terms of what design includes. So in this post I’d like to spell out what I consider the design related roles that are essential to creating a good user experience. Note that I am emphasizing roles rather than people, as it is possible to find people that can competently handle more than one role, but one way or the other you need these roles if you want a good experience:
Interaction Designer (aka information architect, user interface designer, user experience architect) these people are responsible for developing a deep understanding of the target users (each user profile that you are trying to satisfy in your product), and coming up with the tasks, navigation and flow that is both usable and satisfying. Generally, the interaction designer maps product requirements to a design represented by wireframes, and passes them to the visual designer.
Visual Designer (aka graphic designer) these people put the flesh on the wireframe and create the actual pages and user interface look and feel, which includes everything from the precise layout, colors, and fonts, but more importantly, the visual design communicates and evokes emotion in the product (which is far more important than you may think).
Rapid Prototyper this a special breed of developer that loves to explore product concepts. Rather than focusing on the issues of creating commercial software that is robust, scalable, and high-performance, these people create is posable software the lifespan of the prototype may be less than a day the purpose is to quickly try out an idea by creating something that simulates the intended user experience.
Usability Tester (aka human factors engineer, usability engineer, usability researcher) this person specializes in evaluating whether the prototype allows a given user to easily achieve his objectives. It includes recruiting appropriate test subjects, administering the tests, evaluating the results, and recommending alternatives.
The four design roles above work closely with the product manager to discover the blend of requirements and design that meet the needs of the user – the idea is to get to the point where the software is both usable (users can figure out how to use it) and desirable (users actually want to use it). You also need to ensure the software you are designing is feasible, so you need to have a software architect reviewing the progress and prototypes.
For large companies, especially consumer internet service companies, you really do need all four roles represented on your team. If you are an enterprise company, and you’d like to differentiate your product from your competition, one of the easiest ways to do this is to create a good user experience; as a general rule, most enterprise products are very weak in this respect.
对于大公司来说，尤其是consumer internet service companies来说，你真的需要在你的团队中有这四个角色。如果你是一个enterprise company，你也期望你的产品不同于你的竞争对手，很简单的一个方法就是创建一个好的UE，一般来讲，大多数的商业产品在这个方面都是比较薄弱的。
For smaller companies, you may be able to double-up some of the roles. For example, I recently was working with a consumer internet service startup in the Web 2.0 space, and they assembled a terrific team of three: a product manager, an interaction designer that also covered usability testing, and a visual designer that also covered prototyping. The three of them worked together extremely well to quickly come up with numerous prototypes that they then tested with target users (in their case, since the site is a sports-oriented site, they found lots of friendly target users hanging out in sports bars, all too happy to try out some software in exchange for a beer).
对于小一些的公司而言，你或许可以将这些角色重叠。举个例子，我最近正在和一家初创的consumer internet service在WEB2.0的空间中工作，他们构建了一个只有三个人的绝妙团队：一个产品经理，一个交互设计师，同时他也负责可用性测试，一个视觉设计师，同时他也负责原型。他们三个配合的非常好，能够快速的构想出很多原型，然后他们通过目标用户进行测试（因为这个站点是以运动为定位的，他们常到一些运动酒吧找很多友好的目标用户，他们对于用一杯啤酒交换尝试这些软件都非常高兴）
One other important note. Many companies realize they need to do something here, but think they can outsource this type of work to a design firm. And to a degree you can, but beware that certain functions are more appropriate than others.
For example, I really don’t like to outsource the interaction designer role for three reasons: 1) it takes months to truly develop the necessary understanding of the users and customers, and most contracts don’t have the time to do that, and even if they do, that knowledge is lost when the next release comes up; 2) the interaction designer needs to be on-hand and deeply involved all the way through the project, from the beginning to launch, as there will be literally hundreds of detail questions that come up during development and test where an interaction designer making the right decisions is critical; 3) the user experience of the product is simply too core to the company to not have in-house. It is a better choice to outsource QA.
You can get away with outsourcing visual design, as there are a number of studios that can do what you need, especially if you have a strong interaction designer on staff. You can also outsource usability testing, although it is often expensive and I am a big fan of informal testing and the product manager and interaction designer can often team up to cover this (there are pros and cons to this).
For the rapid prototyper, the easiest thing to do is to borrow a developer from your engineering team. This can work great as long as you make very clear to that person that this is a totally different type of activity, and that he should not try to build a prototype where any of it can be reused later in the real product.
There’s a great deal more to say on this critical topic, but hopefully this discussion lays the foundation. Which of these roles are already covered on your product team and which ones are missing?