Thursday, April 4, 2013

Use Your Words

An up-and-coming User Experience (UX) designer recently asked me whether it's possible to fully separate UX from visual design -- to create a "pure" UX that's only functional and not aesthetic. Good question, up-and-comer! This is a very appealing idea: the purpose of most applications is functional, whether it's selling something, or distilling information, or what have you. Therefore, the goal of UX is to facilitate the achievement of that functional objective. Aesthetics are an important but secondary concern.

To this end, many UXers employ wireframes in the design process. A wireframe is a bare-bones representation of an application screen, with only black text and boxes on a white background. Without any influence of colors, pictures, or fonts, it's meant to represent a strictly functional view -- pure UX. Frequently, faux-Latin "Lorem Ipsum" or other placeholder language is used to indicate areas of text. Desginers often present these to client stakeholders, asking for sign-off that yes, this interface is appropriate for the client's goals. Unfortunately, it's often difficult to get users to really connect with such "low-fidelity" interface mock-ups. Lacking visual excitement, the wireframe appears as a sqiggly field of grey, and users will often say "Sure, that looks fine," regardless of what you put in front of them. What can we do to grab stakeholders' attention? At this stage, we don't want to rely on fonts and colors; that puts us at risk of making something pretty but dysfunctional. The solution is words.

I've found that stakeholder engagement increases significantly when we use real words in our wireframes. Words hit the brain really fast, and they evoke all sorts of meaning to the user. So, instead of Lorem Ipsum, write wireframes with actual representative content, which makes it much easier for a client to understand how users will perceive the application. If the client hasn't provided content, then make it up! This may lead to a debate with the client, since you're putting words in his or her mouth. Good -- now is the time to have that debate. If you don't know what the content is going to be, you won't be able to help users navigate that content. Use the wireframing process as an opportunity to elicit a content strategy. Even if you do receive content, tweak it. Make it more extreme. Let your client's reaction inform your understanding of the project objectives.

Let's take an example. Here are two wireframes with generic text (click to enlarge):

To the well-trained eye, they look... um... sort of different? To a client, they're indistinguishable. If you're lucky, the reaction will be: "Sure, looks good. I'll sign off on that. Now let's see some colors!" More likely, it will be: "Why are you wasting my time with this?"

Now consider these wireframes, with specific language:

Ah, now we can see the difference. When a client signs off on one of these, that really means something. And, it gives you a big head start on visual design. Everything flows from the language.

Therefore, to the original question -- "can good UX be achieved without introducing visual design?" -- I reply: Maybe! But to a different question -- "can good UX be achieved without introducing content?" -- I say: No. So use your words! You can go a long way towards alignment to client objectives, before you break out the colored pencils.