Why everybody should put users first

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You don’t need to be on the product design team to have an interest in user experience. Putting the user first is part of all of our jobs in software and product development, as important as putting the customer first is to a business or service. User centered design (UCD) is the beating heart of all good product development so it’s beneficial for everybody in the team to develop a solid understanding of its principals and to put the user first at every opportunity.

Can you think of a time when you had a poor user experience?

Think about a time you came across a poor user experience and how that made you feel. All digital roles have some kind of interaction with software so it shouldn’t be hard to think of an example. I got my first taste when I started out as a software tester. At the heart of the testers role is the need to put yourself in the shoes of the end user. Sometimes a bug might not be a functional error but could be a design flaw such as an inability to perform a task effectively because an interaction isn’t intuitive to use. The test team I worked on also did accessibility testing using assistive technology tools like screen readers and magnifiers. Fundamentally as a software tester, I just wanted to help improve the software for end users and so developed an interest in user-centered design. Everyone will have their own story, I’m sure I never worked with a tester who didn’t share that interest in putting users first. Most developers are a pretty opinionated bunch when it comes to user experience too, while project managers and scrum masters often have strong views. Everyone on the software team has an interest in good design, it is by no means the sole interest of the design and product people.

So what does the wider team need to know?

Courses on UCD are easy to come by and well worth some of your time. I took a Software Engineering degree which contained one single module on UCD, and that grounding from people like Don Norman, Jacob Nielsen and Ben Schneiderman has served me really well over the years. There are now free courses galore on UCD fundamentals such as these ones on Coursera, EdX and FutureLearn. There’s no excuse not to learn the fundamentals of UCD!

Sadly but rather predictably, after my own course ended, back in the ‘real world’ of a digital agency I found that many of these principles were overlooked by teams I worked with. Hence one of the key learning points from my own UCD course was how widely ignored it all was! In the frantic race to deliver work on time and to budget, design was constantly rushed, bad assumptions were made about user needs and the user experience suffered accordingly.

It’s not all bad of course and hopefully you’ll have worked on project teams where UCD has been done well. Salvation for me came in the form of a major project for the UK Civil Service when I finally found a client going to great lengths to ensure their suppliers followed the principles of UCD. I had followed the rise of the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS) for some years and suddenly the projects I was working on were being held to GDS design standards and service assessments. It was no small task trying to retro-fit the GDS guidelines onto a 10yr old legacy product that was build from multiple open source platforms and had been outsourced to a number of different suppliers over the years, but we had fun breaking the product down and defining users personas, mapping user journeys, doing user interviews and data research to drive incremental improvements to the user experience. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was a fascinating experience and I still regularly send GDS Service Manual links to colleagues in the corporate world as an example of how a pragmatic UCD process can work. 

In a later role I led a product team who were doing agile development and following UCD principles. This team undertook user research,  gathered and prioritised feedback through a variety of mechanisms and used that to inform the product roadmap. Again it wasn’t perfect, but it was a heck of a lot better that anywhere else I’ve worked in 20 years and it was an absolute pleasure to be part of it. I even went to a conference and gave a UCD talk to an audience of L&D professionals. Me, a non designer, presenting on UCD! Bonkers. But like I said, it’s a part of software development that every team member is part of, and it lies at the beating heart of good product development.

Through all of this of course, I’ve never been a Designer myself. My point is, you don’t have to be a Designer to have a strong interest in the user experience and a passion for putting the user first. Most people just want to do a good job on their team and build better software, and who wouldn’t want that?

Image credit: Pexels from Pixabay


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