Basia giving a talk

Caktus recently welcomed UX designer Basia Coulter to our team. We sat down with her to discuss her perspective on user experience design. Basia, like many in tech, came to her role through a nonlinear path. She first earned a PhD in neurobiology while in Poland, and then came to the United States for a postdoctoral fellowship. The experience led to soul searching, including seven years in a Tibetan monastery in upstate New York where, along with her spiritual interests, she pursued a passion for design, particularly web design. She subsequently devoted herself to learning more about digital communication. Basia has been in the North Carolina area for 2.5 years and currently is part of the leadership team of the local chapter of Girl Develop It and a member of local organizations such as TriangleUXPA, Code for Durham, and AIGA Raleigh.

Let’s start simple. What is user experience?

The person who coined the term “user experience” or UX is Don Norman, a cognitive psychologist and a co-founder of Nielsen Norman Group, currently Director of Design Lab at the University of California - San Diego, who used to work for Apple. For him, user experience includes all aspects of end user interaction with the company, the company’s services, and the company’s products. It’s a very broad range of interactions and includes areas like marketing, customer service, product, and, really anything.

What we have come to mean by user experience or “UX” colloquially is probably a narrower definition than that of Don Norman’s. We’re usually referencing some specific system such as an application or a piece of software. When we talk about UX, we think about how a user feels when they interact with that system. What experience do they have?

The goal of good user experience design is to design and build products that are easy to use, that are a solution to an existing problem, and not a cause of frustration or source of more problems.

What is the benefit of focusing on user experience to businesses and organizations?

UX professionals help organizations understand their users and guide teams in employing best practices to build products that solve users’ problems. By designing experiences specifically around users’ needs, we improve customer satisfaction and, by extension, increase ROI and drive profit or app adoption.

When businesses include UX research in the process of product design and development, they ensure they build solutions that target their particular user segment and they invest in solutions that address the specific pain points of their users. Having a UX designer on the team that builds your product means there is a dedicated person whose job it is to advocate for best user experience every step of the way. Great user experience means happy users; happy users translate to satisfied customers, and satisfied customers become loyal customers.

You’re a UX professional that’s worked in many contexts and types of organizations. What is the UX professional’s role in application development at Caktus?

One of the most exciting aspects of UX work is that involves a variety of skills, and my role often depends on the project. At Caktus, I can support projects at the onset, even before a product is well understood; while the product is being defined; then while it’s being designed and developed; and finally toward the end, once it has been built and is undergoing testing.

Before you can build a solution that addresses users’ needs, you have to understand those needs, you have to identify users’ pain points, and that’s why user research is so important. I recently attended a UXPin webinar during which the speaker, Satyam Kantamneni of UXReactor, said, “Any time you have a user, you’ve got to do user research.” I strongly agree with that statement.

So my job could be leading a discovery workshop or a meeting where all stakeholders come to the table to brainstorm in the early stages of defining the product-to-be to understand the problem at hand and to uncover possible solutions. It could be doing user research by conducting user surveys or interviews. Or I could be doing a UX review of an existing application to determine whether or not it complies with best practices of usability and user experience design.

Can you give us a brief overview of principles of good user experience design? We’ll have you dive deeper in a subsequent blog post.

I think it is important to understand that user experience arises from many disciplines coming together. Those disciplines include information architecture, product strategy, content strategy, user research, visual design, interaction design, software development, usability, accessibility, cognitive psychology, and probably more.

So when we talk about principles of good user experience, we’d have to talk about best practices within all of those domains. For the purpose of this conversation, we could talk about a few basic principles that help build good experience for an interface. I would say that anything that helps decrease the amount of mental processing, so-called “cognitive load”, that the user needs to do to be successful, and anything that guides the user in accomplishing a task within an application constitutes a principle of good user experience. That would include, among many other principles, consistency of visual design and interactions, solid and consistent content structure, and presence of affordances and feedback.

To put simply, people are more likely to engage with content that follows principles of good user experience than with content that does not. So if you want to retain visitors on your website or if you want to see more people subscribe to your application, you cannot afford to ignore those principles.

You hold a PhD in neurobiology. What's the link you see between how the brain works and UX?

Understanding sensory perception is very handy in UX design. Take a couple of aspects of visual perception. One, perception of color is contextual—the same color may be perceived differently in different contexts, for example against different backgrounds. Two, our brain cannot process all the information it is bombarded with at any given moment, so it weeds out what it renders irrelevant. The brain also fills in the gaps where information is missing and creates images of what we see as a representation, not a replica of the object of perception. In other words, we think we see what’s out there in the world around us, but in fact we see our brain’s constructs.

So when we are designing, for example, an interface for users who primarily rely on vision, we need to keep in mind that they will not be processing every single element of that interface in order to make sense of it. Instead their brain will be constructing a representation of the interface based on the elements that get the most attention or are assessed as relevant. It is yet a different matter if we are designing an interface for users with vision impairments.

Another topic very relevant to UX design is decision making. The lab where I did my postdoctoral studies was involved in investigating human emotions and decision making. It was there that I first encountered ideas around how emotional responses impact our decision making. I got a first glimpse of the notion that our rational mind is not the only and perhaps not even the primary actor in our day-to-day decision making. There are also studies showing, for example, that users make fast, snap judgement decisions about a website’s trustworthiness based on its aesthetics. Those are very important pieces of knowledge to keep in mind when designing an interface for users whose decisions and choices will be guided by that interface.

Basia, you personally have had exposure to a wide set of cultural perspectives having come to the United States as an adult. What role does cultural perspective play in UX?

It is critical. Take text as an example. If it’s written from left to right, our eyes will track it a different way than if it’s written top to bottom. Another example is color. We rely on color to convey meaning, but different colors have different meanings in various cultures. In western cultures, for example, white is associated with innocence and is often used in design for weddings. In other cultures, white signals death and mourning. So these are totally different connotations. If we use color to convey meaning, we will need to be mindful of different cultures to create the right experience for the user.

There are also generational differences within the same culture that have impact on user experience. You could think about those as subcultural differences. For instance, there is a trend in web design that’s called flat design, in which interface elements look flat and no visual techniques are used to give them a three-dimensional appearance. This trend has become controversial in the UX community; some UX professionals feel strongly that stripping interactive elements such as buttons off of their three-dimensionality removes important affordances and compromises usability. And in fact usability tests have shown that a lot people have a hard time recognizing flat buttons as buttons. However, it turns out that Millennials and younger users do not have as much trouble with flat design as older users do. So if you’re designing an application for a younger audience, you might not have to worry so much about compromising the usability of your application by using flat design, but if you’re designing for an older generation, you should consider your flat design choices carefully.

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