What is UX? Ask ten people, and you may get ten different answers. Everyone has a different definition, assuming they have heard of the term at all.

I won’t bother tackling the Herculean task of defining it for the industry at large, as I think that definition will evolve as the practice emerges from adolescence. But I do want to talk about what it means for us. Over the past two years or so, we have spent quite a bit of time defining and refining the role of UX — and UX designers — at Prolific.

Okay, but really, what is it?

User experience addresses the interaction between people and products, whether those be digital products, physical products, or something in between.

UX designers at Prolific are largely concerned with two big questions:

  1. Are we building the right thing?
  2. Are we building it the right way?

Let’s dig in.

Are we building the right thing?

Stated differently: Are we solving the right problem for our partner? We like to call ourselves problem-solvers, but the reality is that we are problem-definers first, before we get to the solving part.

Solving the right problem ensures that we don’t spend months building the most state-of-the-art product and then at some point realize it doesn’t meet the goals of either the business or the people who would presumably be using the product. If we don’t get this part right, nothing that follows will matter very much.

So how do UX designers fit into answering this question?

The Discovery Phase

Before the team writes the first line of code, we devote time to learning about our partners, as well as their existing and target customers. UX designers interview current and potential customers to understand how our products and offerings could solve issues they may encounter in their daily lives. We try to get to the root of their real problems; there’s no need to create a solution when no problem exists.

On a recent project, we conducted weekly user interviews with five people for four weeks, learning about their daily habits as it pertains to shopping and their motivations for engaging in certain activities. We observed them using the partners’ existing platforms, as well as competitors’ products, to see how they are currently trying to solve their problems.

It’s our responsibility as UX designers to constantly remind ourselves — and our team — that we are not the users. As people who work on digital products on a daily basis, we have a very different perspective on how technology integrates into our lives, and we need to keep a close pulse on how our partners’ customers approach whatever area we are focusing on as we build the product.

During the discovery phase, UX designers also work closely with strategists to leverage quantitative data and other third-party sources to get a view on what is happening. This data can give us a broad view on trends relating to customer behavior and competitor performance. We also pair this data with qualitative data from interviews to get a peek into why these trends might be happening, which may range from brand perception to usability issues.

The things we learn during the discovery phase drive our roadmap and give us areas for future exploration. At the end of the day, if we’re not meeting our users’ needs, the chances of them using our product are slim. These learnings inform what we prioritize and what we build. They also highlight what we still need to learn, which is especially important if we are building a minimum viable product. In those cases, we are putting something out into the wild to quickly get data back from our users about what isn’t working, along with what is.

Are we building it the right way?

This is the question that most people think about when they think about UX. Is it usable? Is it desirable? Can I get from point A to point B without throwing my phone across the room?

Technology works for people, not the other way around. We make sure we think about how users will perceive and use the things we make, and that it matches their mental models of how things work. We figure out all these details during the production phase.

Working through mental models

The Production Phase

Once we have a general roadmap of what we’re striving for, we start thinking through how our ideas and potential solutions will work in practice. Both UX designers and product designers at Prolific drive this process, sketching and discussing interfaces, interactions, and flows. UX designers play a key role in making sure these interfaces follow general usability guidelines, while keeping an eye on what will need to be tested in front of actual users.

UX designers also think a lot about the bird’s eye view of the product that we’re building. We map out all the views and interactions, where they live in relation to each other, and how a user would go through the interface to accomplish certain tasks. Through this process we surface potentially confusing areas, places for error management, and other navigation considerations.

Having a solid grasp of usability best practices is important, but it can’t compete with good old, watch-people-use-your-product-and-cringe usability testing. People are unpredictable and many of the things they get hung up on can be difficult to foresee. By putting our ideas in front of users early and often, we’re able to get in front of problems before they get out of hand, especially before releasing to the wider public. We minimize risk and save time that might have been spent fixing unanticipated problems down the road.

However, the work doesn’t end at launch. Once we release the product into the world, the UX designer plans for how we can gather, monitor, and analyze data from all the people who use it. The data points are plenty at this stage, and there’s a lot to learn. We track these learnings and adjust the product as necessary while setting our sights on what may be in store for the future. With an MVP mindset, our first release is really just the beginning. There’s always more to improve, enhance, or radically transform. With so many possibilities, we use data to help us guide the way.

UX in the Age of Digital

Digital products are always changing. Blink an eye, and you might have to, once again, acclimate to something completely new. At Prolific, we’re especially focused on UX because we know we can’t rest on our laurels in this changing world. The only way we can keep up-to-date is to keep asking questions about what’s going on with the world and the people in it. A deep understanding of the user’s context is required in these circumstances. When and where are people using their myriad devices? What compels them to open an app? What are they looking for? What’s going through their head in those moments? These are all questions that we seek to answer through the user research that we conduct. Only by understanding the answers to these questions can we design a smart, intuitive interface that users will love and our partners will deem successful.

A Team Commitment to UX

From back-end engineers to customer service representatives, everybody on the team is responsible for the overall user experience of a product. Ultimately, the role of the UX designer is to infuse user advocacy into everything that every member of the product team does. UX designers work with the product manager to define the roadmap, bring team members to sit in on user interviews, share weekly digests of customer insights, and work closely with product designers to craft thoughtfully mapped, well-validated solutions. We work out edge cases with engineers, measuring effort against impact, and collaborate with strategists to get a full picture of the digital landscape and establish a user-centered, business-minded path to move forward. UX designers may lead the charge on user considerations, but it’s the entire team that makes our vision a reality.

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