Designing a Killer Experience - An Interview with Andrew Hiser
It all starts with understanding the end user. Who is the target customer? In what context will he or she be launching the app? Will it immediately capture and engage them on a small screen? These are just some of the questions Mobiquity Chief Creative Officer Andrew Hiser will answer during this lively conversation.
Today’s mobile users have high expectations. If you disappoint them, your app may never be launched again.
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Lori Cohen, Chief Marketing Officer of Mobiquity. Questions and responses are provided in italicized text throughout this transcript
Andrew Hiser, Chief Creative Officer for Mobiquity. Responses provided in regular text throughout this transcript.
Lori Cohen: Welcome to MobCast, a Mobiquity series of conversations with leading mobile experts. I am Lori Cohen, the vice president of marketing at Mobiquity, and my guest today is Andrew Hiser. Andrew is the chief creative officer at Mobiquity. He has had a long and illustrative career in user-centered design. Welcome, Andrew.
Andrew Hiser: Thanks, Lori.
User-centered design, user experience, interaction design, what does it all mean, and why is it so critical when you think about designing for mobile devices?
Defining Different Aspects of App Design
Great question! I think there is a lot of confusion out there as well about the difference between user-experience design, interaction design, user-interface design and how they blend together and why they are important.
I think probably it's best to start off with a little explanation of what the differences are and then how they come together. I tend to look at experience design as being a much more holistic exercise. So not just the device, not just the software, but looking at the entire experience that either a customer or an employee has with any kind of software system.
So that might be, if I am receiving a bill from a client, what is my experience like when I am reading that, does it make sense to me?
If I get on to a call center, can I use the same terminology that they use? Does the device that I have in my pocket work with the bill that I have just received? Does that all come together in an experience that makes sense, and does it work?
User-interface design is very much about the interaction that I have with either my computer at the desktop or my mobile device. It's what I touch. It's what I see. It's what I feel. It's how it transitions, how I flow through the application.
Interaction design is very much the activity that is involved-sorry, I should say the discipline that you follow in order to design the interactive flow of the application.
In addition to that, there's also visual design, which looks at the branding, the visual identity of the application, how it looks and feels.
Why is this important, and why is it so important for mobile devices? I think it has always been important for any kind of user system, whether it's a desktop application, whether it's a website, whether it's a mobile device, it's always been important that the user knows where they are, what they can do, that they can understand the application, they can run it instantly. Where that really comes home to roost is on a mobile device where you are out and about, and you are in different context, and you have to instantly be able to use this application.
Designing for the Audience, Space and Platform
There is no training. There is no guidance. You have to be able to use it on the spot. And the richness of functionality that people are demanding in mobile devices means that you have to get it right the first time. The number of times that applications are opened and then closed immediately is astronomical on a mobile platform. You have to capture that customer the first time. So they have to be engaged. They have to see that it's an attractive, well-designed application.
You then also have the challenge of working with a very diminished form factor. On a desktop, you have acres of space to design and work with. On a mobile platform, you have this tiny 3.5- to 5-inch screen to work with.
You are also in environments that are quite often noisy or distractive. You may be interrupted in the process flow of anything you are trying to do. So you have to design to cater for that very complicated environment.
And then you have the cross-platform issues. If you are designing for iOS or Android, Windows Phone, each one of those platforms has a different philosophy of how you would work with an application. So not only do you have to design for different resolutions, different form factors, but also for each of those platforms.
So where do you begin? Do you begin with user experience, sort of the whole UX before you actually get into the user-centric design part?
The first place you start is understanding who your target user is. User-centric design is based upon deeply understanding your target audience. If you don't know who that is, you are stuck.
So the first exercise is making sure that you understand who your target audience is. What demographic? Is it a consumer? Is it an employee? Is it another business? Within those demands, are there particular types of users that we are targeting-are they young, are they old, are they experienced with these platforms?
And then more particularly, how are they going to use it, what are they trying to achieve, and where are they going to use it?
For websites and desktop applications, you can make assumptions about home or office kind of context. In a mobile world, you have got this device really 24-7. It could be used at home, in bed, in the kitchen, in the living room. It can be you are using it in your car, in a shopping context, you name it.
But that seems kind of overwhelming then. So how do you sort of take all of that and all those potential users and kind of really create an experience that will translate for each of them; me, my mother, my children?
Creating Scenarios That Work
The way we do that is making sure that the design process has a touchstone that we come back to. That touchstone in my world is both the persona and the scenario that describes what they are doing.
So we will typically identify the target audience. Then we will narrow down particular personas that we think best represent the certain constituencies of that audience. And then we will start to write scenarios that capture sort of the day in the life, and we will write multiple scenarios per persona that describe, perhaps their first interaction, their tenth interaction, their interaction with showing somebody else. We will have scenarios that will describe people who are first to mobile, those who have been using it forever.
Can you just give me a sort of concrete example, maybe from one of the clients we are working with?
Sure! We have a restaurant client at the moment that's looking at installing a kiosk that allows you to place orders for any of their products, customize them, make them your favorite, pay with them on the kiosk-bypass the point of sale completely.
In order to design for a kiosk like that, A, it has to be instantly learnable. So you cannot have a target demographic and say we are just going to design for this age group. You have to understand who comes into the restaurant, who is likely to use this.
So we had personas for teenagers, for 20-somethings, for mothers with kids, elderly people who had poor sight and ensuring that there were scenarios that are appropriate for each one of those.
So we had a soccer mom coming in with three kids and having one of the kids with allergies and making sure that the system could process an order, that she could place sandwich orders for her and her two kids and then find the appropriate item for the kid that had the allergen problem.
Add specific instructions into the manufacture of that, pay with the credit card, and then move to the table and have the food delivered to her. So very intricate scenarios that explored those kinds of life patterns that are outside the norm.
And then we had scenarios for some elderly people that we saw coming in from a retirement community across the road, and making sure that the font size was an appropriate size, and then that the touch points were large enough for them to be able to navigate, and that we didn't necessarily rely on their understanding of say an iPad application and how it works. We had to cater to people who didn't know how to use it.
This all came about by observation. You cannot sit in a room and talk to stakeholders and say, what do you think this needs to be? You have to go out in the field, see how people are interacting with the business process that you are looking to replace or augment and understand very specifically how certain demographics are going to use the application.
But if you do all that upfront work, does that guarantee you are going to get it right?
Collaborating with Audiences
Not at all, not at all. Part of the principle of user-centered design is iteration. We make sure that we collaborate ideally with representatives of the target audience in the design process, making sure we get terminology, we get interaction flow correct. But then we don't rely on that alone. We also take our early design examples back to the target audience in the form of paper mock-ups, and we walk them through the design, giving as little prompting as possible so that we get feedback at the earliest possible stages of whether this design is going to work or not.
We are constantly, in a participatory design fashion, augmenting that design and iterating very quickly, so that any design process will typically go through three to five participatory design exercises where we have had target users giving us feedback before we have written a line of code.
And these kiosks, they are out there in the world now, correct?
They are. We have got-I think there's a single restaurant at the moment with a test site. I think probably in the next couple of months, there are a few more restaurants coming online, as well.
And is it working as expected at this point?
Yes, it is. There are a couple of teething problems, but nothing that we did not expect early on. There are some design refinements going on at the moment, which is perfectly normal for any kiosk rollout at this kind of scale. I am sure we will go through further refinement as we continue to roll it out, as well.
Do clients understand iteration, or would you just want it to sort of come out of the box and work the first time?
Not all clients understand iteration. I think their expectation is that by hiring expert user-experience professionals that they simply just know the answer and that they can sit down and come up with the perfect interface the first time.
And I don't think they realize that user-experience design relies on a process. You need to be a good designer, and you need to be a good listener and very empathic. But nothing beats the process, and you simply cannot be the expert at every domain.
You can be an expert at a user-centered design process, you can be an expert on a particular platform, but you are never going to be the expert in every domain. And that's where the users have to be front and center in that process.
Do you find that when you think about that kind of UX [user experience], do clients think that they can have an opinion on it versus what you know works?
Yes, we have that all the time, and more often than not, we are able to persuade the client based on direct user feedback of the validity of a certain design decision.
We try to move away from opinions as much as possible and make sure that there is a rationale for every design decision that we make. And there is no stronger argument for a client who says I think it should be this way, and we can say, well, that's a great idea. Based on user feedback to date, this is what we have found. And certainly if the client feels very strongly that they want to move in that direction, then that's their prerogative.
Balancing a Client’s Wants vs. Needs
Our role is to make sure that the user's intent and interest is represented and that the design is ideally following their particularly needs, not necessarily their wants, because users quite often express a desire to do something that may not be in their best interest. And it's the role of the user-experience designer to determine how to best meet the customer or end user's needs, not their wants.
And then do you take that and translate that into the visual look and feel that matches the brand?
Pretty much so. One of the things we find here at Mobiquity is rather than waiting to get the interaction design fully formed, we like to have our visual designers involved as early as possible, so that it's not simply a skinning of an interaction design or a paper mockup.
So we build early on into the phase, design exploratory session, where we bring as many designers together to look at the results of the persona work and the scenarios and start to conceptualize some design ideas.
And this is the way in which we inject innovation into any of our design process, so that visual designers are not sort of left at the back of the project process, where they are sitting there waiting for wireframes to be documented and then they start to skin it.
We feel that visual design is a very important core component to the engagement of the application, and inherently we get some very innovative ideas.
We also like to involve developers in that process, as well, both from a standpoint of making sure that what we are designing is achievable, but also they have deep experience with the various platforms and tools, and then they will inject some wonderful ideas into that process, as well.
So with visual design, it seems to me that opinions, again, can rear their ugly heads. So how do you deal with that because it's kind of art and it's kind of science, right?
Design: One Part Art, One Part Science
That's user experience. Design is very much a blending of art and science. And you need to let each have its head at the appropriate time.
With visual design, there is a rationale for every design decision. However, there is a lot associated with a client's particular brand that we have to adhere to, make sure that it's part of the family of interactive products or digital products they have in the marketplace.
But more importantly, visual design is what attracts you first to an application. And so if you don't get that right, then you are not going to get that initial engagement.
Obviously, the way in which the application performs, flows, is the personality of the application that will keep you coming back. But if the visual design is poor, then you will lose engagement right from the get-go.
Is there sort of an education process that has to happen, or do you think that the companies that we deal with understand in some ways that this whole user experience has to happen sort of at the front end in order to ensure you are going to get a good product at the back end?
No, I think there are-I think all of our clients get it that user experience is very important, if not of paramount importance with mobile. Every time I am speaking to a client, invariably they will see UX is it, that's where we have got to focus our attention.
Good Design Takes Time
What they don't yet understand is that you don't go from problem to solution in a week. It is a process of deep understanding. It's iterative. These solutions can be very, very complicated, not just because of the platform issues that we discussed, but in enterprise applications, there are serious architectural considerations.
So making sure that they are understood and they are represented in the design takes time. Good design takes time, it's not something that you can simply sketch on the back of a napkin and be done with.
When you hit it right and you get a good design, is it something that you don't want people to even notice, right? You don't want it to call attention to itself, you just want it to exist, to be?
It depends. If you are designing an application that does not have a critical feature set that is a critical piece of functionality that business needs to support.
For example, let's say, you are looking at a look book for a fashion brand. It perhaps has no eCommerce component to it, it's more about an awareness campaign. Perhaps it has some functionality to help you mix and match dresses and blouses, and you name it, together. It's not critical that that design is that functional, and you perhaps allow the design to be a little bit more obscure because it becomes fun to interact with it, in and of itself. And so the design is perhaps a little bit more in your face.
If you are looking at a critical business function, absolutely, you need to have a design that gets out of the way and lets you achieve what you need to achieve. Good usable design disappears into the background so that you don't have to question what do I do next, where am I, how do I get to the next step. All of those questions should be out of your head when you are interacting with a device like that.
How do we know to swipe and to do the things we do with our smartphones and tablets without somebody sort of saying, hey, this is how you use this?
Making Gestures Work
Oh, very good question! We tend to use-we don't assume that users will automatically know how to do gestures. We will use things like animation and effects to show that there is more beyond the screen that you don't see right now.
So if we have, let's say, a left or right series of gestures to move through something, a great way to indicate to the user that there is more there is when you are building that screen you show things disappearing off the screen, and so they see something perhaps sliding in from left to right and disappearing off to the right. And they might think, oh, there is something over there.
And so it's giving an indication to the user that perhaps moving this back to the left is going to expose some more. And if users at this point have recognized that these devices do support gestures, that gives me an indication of what kind of gesture perhaps I could use to support that.
However, you shouldn't necessarily just rely on gestures alone. You need to be able to support interaction for those who don't want to use gestures. I think an application that requires on the iOS platform a left to right gesture to delete something as the only way of deleting is going to cause problems. You need to have other mechanisms for supporting that that are more obvious to people.
And then do you need different interactions depending on whether you are on an iOS device or you are on an Android device?
Unfortunately, yes, at this point in time, there are some gestures that have become more standardized, but each platform does support different gestures for different kinds of capabilities.
There is a strong push at the moment that more of these applications should be gesture enabled, even to the point where I have seen applications that you can only use gestures. And I think it's a little bit of a mistake.
I think it goes back to the old days where we had the paradigm of Command Line Interfaces, where you have to remember every instruction versus the visual GUI or WIMP model where you are seeing an object and you are recalling what I can do with it, which is a far better mechanism for people to interact with devices.
If I have to remember some arcane gesture to work with this application, then it's not going to be successful. If the application is designed in such a way that I see it transitioning in some way that enables me to recall a gesture, that's great, but it should also have some other mechanism to achieve the same goal.
So in your career, you've obviously designed the desktop and now into phones and tablets, what's the most exciting part about mobile for you as a designer and for a UX expert?
I think the challenge of designing for this very capable device. When you think about desktop or Web, particularly Web, I found fairly constraining. It was very much a page kind of metaphor. Yet, as the Web matured, you were able to do much richer interactions and explore other capabilities.
But with mobile, you have got all of the richness, plus all of these wonderful new senses that you can work with, as well.
Cross-Platform Mobile Designing Challenging and Exciting
We are also finding that invariably mobile means more than one platform, and it's part of an omni-channel experience. So perhaps mobile and Web are being supported at the same time. So design engagements are requiring us to design the same features and functions on three different mobile platforms, on two different tablet platforms, as well as Web. So designing consistent experiences across all of those platforms is a wonderful challenge.
And the magic-happen phase between all the analysis and the solution is where I love to be. And when you have got big design challenges like that, it's a great place to be.
What about analytics, do you rely on analytics then to sort of see, okay, here is our plan, here is what we design, now let's sort of get a sense now that the application is out there, how are people really using it, and then go back, modify, iterate?
Absolutely. Analytics is a huge part of how we design these days. Once upon a time, you didn't have that kind of analytics, you had to-if you had an existing application you were looking to redesign, you would observe that usage and make certain assumptions. Today, if there is an existing, either mobile application or website that you can draw analytical information from, it's hugely informative going into a design phase.
When you've got a design that you are releasing to have the analytics out there to see how close you were to the mark is fantastic. It also allows you to try out new design ideas. So you can do multivariate testing on multiple design solutions and see which one performs the best. It very quickly tells you where perhaps there is a breakdown in the flow or where users are having difficulty.
It's a great way to augment any usability testing that you have perhaps done. You can never do the wide kind of usability testing. If you have launched an app and it has gotten a million users, there is no way you can test against that in any other way.
Think when you are launching internationally, there are some gotchas there that you can't necessarily capture during the design and development process, that analytics is hugely supportive.
What's one of your favorite applications, again, thinking from sort of the design and the UX side?
Opening Creativity with Penultimate
I use a product called Penultimate. It's a very simple note-taking application. One of the things I like about it is it allows me to work with a stylus. I am a very tactile person. I like to draw and sketch. Having any kind of application that forces me to use a keyboard tends to get in the way of any kind of creative process. So being able to use an electronic device to capture these kinds of notes and sketches and drawings, to me is as close as I can get to having the experience to get out of the way.
It's giving me an electronic piece of paper that gives me all the benefits of paper, but also all the benefits of an electronic device.
And I have to believe that's a tablet.
It's a tablet, not phone.
There's no Web component, right? I mean, you can never-
Well, HTML5 you could possibly produce the same kind of interaction, but I am not singling out Penultimate. There are a number of other products that do the same kind of thing. I am a little disappointed that you have to use the kind of stylus that you do on an iPad. I am looking forward to in the future perhaps having technology that will support a different, more pencil-like or pen-like stylus to give us a finer degree of control.
If I am in meetings, I am not going to sit there and type notes. It's just not me. I am sure other people can do it. I have seen them do it. But I much rather work with a pencil and sketch and draw and draw arrows and circles and connect the dots, basically. That's just how my mind works.
Advice to Clients: Don’t Overlook Design
If there was one piece of advice that you thought you should give the enterprise client, what would it be when it came to your realm of expertise?
Don't short-circuit design. I think there are many organizations out there that believe that being first to market is the be-all and end-all of everything. And I actually counter that with the fact that I think you need to be best to market. And first would be great, but best to market is more important.
I mean, the app world is littered with first to market being overtaken by best to market. Good design can save you time in the long run, can reduce development costs. If you get it right the first time or close to right the first time, it sets you up for success in the future. Being halfhearted with design, you will get halfhearted results.
I don't think organizations can successfully navigate the mobile world if they put out a halfhearted design effort.
I think organizations also are thinking that they need to have a mobile presence right now, and therefore, they will put anything that they possibly can out. Users are expecting that if an app is put into the marketplace that certain fundamentals are going to be there, and if they are not there, then your app is actually doing you more damage than good.
Thanks very much, Andrew.
You are welcome.