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The importance of a good user experience, and why we need to involve our users in the design process: Q&A with Richard London

By 5 September 2019March 21st, 2022Archive

We’ve all been there – we’ve gone onto a website or piece of software and found it frustratingly difficult to find the information we need or get it to do what we want, and that’s often down to poor UX (User Experience) design.

A bad user experience can have a detrimental effect – increasing the time it takes to complete a task, or making us lose trust in the product completely, whereas good user experiences often simply goes unnoticed, because everything works smoothly and exactly as we expect it to.

I spoke to Richard London, Head of Design at BTL to discover more about why user experience (UX) design is so important, and what it takes to ensure every Surpass user has a positive experience.

Richard London

Richard London – Head of Design

Richard began his career in the assessment industry in 2005 as a multimedia designer for BTL. He was promoted to Head of Design in 2015, and under his leadership the team has grown from two to twelve. He has been responsible for working together with other departments to introduce various processes such as Task Modelling and Complex Process Analysis, which help to promote understanding within Surpass Community organisations, identify potential pain points and ultimately maximise efficiency within existing and emerging workflows. He has also worked closely with other colleagues to implement the Surpass Accessibility Team.

During his time at BTL, Richard has put these processes into practice working on high-level projects alongside leading testing organisations including British Council, Prometric and the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA). However, it is his patient and supportive attitude, and a willingness to listen and embrace new ideas from his team, which has made him instrumental to key integration and development projects across the Surpass Community.

Hi Richard, firstly, for us non-designers out there, can you explain exactly what UX design is please?

Of course, UX design is the process of enhancing a product with the focus on creating a good user experience. This means it must be usable and accessible and allow users to reach their end goal in the most efficient way possible.  It’s often assumed that UX and UI (user interface) design are the same thing, but that’s not the case. They are closely related, and both form the overall design of a product, but whereas UI design is about the way something looks, UX design is all the thought that goes into ‘why’ it looks that way, e.g. why a button is in a particular place on the screen. It’s driven by the knowledge of how people actually use the product and the interactions they make.

Why is UX design so important?

It’s really important for ensuring that someone can use a product, service or website without any confusion or unnecessary complications. In our case we are designing something that someone is potentially using for 7 hours a day. If a poor user experience means that a task is taking longer than it should, or users are getting frustrated, then that’s a huge concern for us. A system with as much functionality as Surpass needs to be as uncomplicated and intuitive as possible, meaning users can work efficiently.

I think everyone can probably relate to a bad user experience with a product, and how frustrating or even detrimental to getting a job done it can be.

Yes, I think we’ve all been frustrated by websites or products before! We can easily recognise a bad experience, but how do you know what ‘good’ UX design is?

I often say that good UX design is almost invisible, because if you complete your task smoothly and efficiently without issue, then we’ve done our job! When things work as you expect people often take them for granted, but I guarantee that a lot of research and thought will have gone into making that a good experience for you as a user.

So, how do you know what you design equates to a positive user experience?

There are certain design principles that we adhere to, but ultimately, it’s about gaining an understanding of how the product will be used on a daily basis. The greater understanding we have, the more confident we can be in how it’s designed. Just because we’re a team of experienced designers doesn’t mean we automatically know what’s best. We carry out a lot of research in order to get it right.

A good experience could be down to something as simple as including pagination at the bottom of a screen that contains lots of data, or adding a frequently used button to the home screen. Then there’s more complex things such as understanding how certain processes are carried out, and mapping out the user journey in Surpass.

What kind of research do you conduct, and how do you fit that it with often tight development schedules?

When designing new functionality in Surpass, we often conduct site visits with users where we’ll sit with them and observe how they carry out a process in their existing system, to inform how we implement it in Surpass.

We also regularly carry out surveys to get user feedback. The Surpass Conference is also a fantastic way for us to have discussions about new designs and get direct feedback from the community.

The team have also started creating ‘empathy maps’ which are a tool for better understanding users’ needs and developing a deeper understanding of who you’re designing for.

You’re right, it takes time to fully understand how users interact with the system and that’s why we work so far ahead. Our designers are looking at the development backlog and carrying out this research in order to produce well thought out design mock-ups way in advance of development starting.

Do you get a good response from people when you ask to conduct site visits for research?

Yes, people are generally happy to help as we’re designing something for them, but we’re always looking for more insight from other users. I think there’s sometimes a perception that if we ask questions about how something is done we’re checking up on them to see if they are doing it right, but we’re actually just genuinely interested in how they perform tasks in the system. Every organisation has different processes, so the more variations we can understand, the better.

I’m actually going to presenting a session at this year’s EATP conference on ‘The Democratisation of the User Experience’ and why it’s important that we involve users and other members of your organisation in the design process and show the value of real user feedback.

You mentioned earlier that you work to design principles, what are they exactly?

They are a set of usability ‘rules’ to keep in mind in whatever we design. They, along with the established patterns of behaviour in Surpass and our understanding of user interactions all contribute to good UX design. Just some of the principles to adhere to include:

  • Visibility of system status – users should always be informed of what’s happening in the system through visual clues and clear navigation
  • A match between the system and the real world – the system should speak the users’ language and follow real world conventions, making information appear in a natural and logical order
  • Error prevention – provide the user only with appropriate choices
  • Recognition rather than recall – the user should not have to remember information, the design should suggest the right action or guidance should be clearly accessible.

So, as Head of Design and UX at BTL, what are your key objectives for Surpass?

Our main goal is to improve our clients’ processes with a fit for purpose product that allows them to work efficiently. Consistency is also key, we have a total of 11 designers working on the product so it’s important that we don’t overlap, and ultimately that it looks as though there’s only one designer!

Our company mission statement is “To improve the assessment experience for everyone”. We are aiming for universal design, which means that the product works for everyone, not just a subset of users, and of course, whilst it is currently possible to deliver accessible tests in Surpass, we’re hoping to get to the point that every piece of functionality is accessible.

That’s a large team, is it difficult to keep track of with so many people designing in the product at once?

We all work really well together, the whole team has a shared passion for creating the best experience with the product that we possibly can, so we’ve all got the same goal in mind.

As the team has grown, we have had to introduce measures to keep each other informed of what we’re working on and ensure there’s no overlap with two people working on something in the same area of the system at once which could conflict with each other.

Could you tell me more about what measures you’ve introduced?

First thing every morning we have a team stand up (something that’s adopted by most people around the business as part of our agile ways of working). In this short meeting, everyone gives a quick summary of what they are working on which helps us to identify if there’s any crossover.

We also hold ‘Design labs’. This is where we get together as a team and someone will bring along something they are working on if they are finding it challenging to design a solution. After understanding the issue, we’ll each sketch out how we think it might work. We generally come up with things along the same lines as each other which is quite comforting!

Another thing we regularly do is a team ‘show and tell’ which is exactly as it sounds. Someone will present to the team on something they’ve been working on which is a great way of keeping everyone in the loop about larger pieces of work.

Finally, on the point I mentioned earlier about consistency, we are putting together a design system, which will be a resource for everyone on the team containing guides and examples to ensure the product remains consistent in design. It will also be useful in helping other teams around the business to understand why something has been designed a certain way.

Thanks, Richard, for chatting to us today, it’s been a very insightful look at how much work goes into creating a good user experience in Surpass.

If you are attending the EATP conference in Madrid, Richard will be hosting a session titled ‘The democratization of the user experience’ where you can find out more about some of the points discussed in this Q&A.

The design team will also be heavily involved in many of this year’s Surpass Conference sessions, where you will have an opportunity to feedback on some designs in Surpass.

If you would be happy for the design team to visit your organisation to gain insight on how you’re using Surpass, please contact your account manager or, where your input will be valued.

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