Great UX is the Engineering of the Entire Experience Not Just the Design of the Screens

Results by Design: UX Insights for Business Leaders

Description: In the latest episode of Results by Design, we discuss a topic close to UpTop’s heart–our DNA–“Great UX is the Engineering of the Entire Experience Not Just the Design of the Screens”

Join our discussion as we explore how our “DNA” plays a pivotal role in how we implement UX strategy.

Interview Participants:

  • Craig Nishizaki, Head of Business @ UpTop
  • Michael Woo, Director of UX @ UpTop

Transcript

Intro:
Welcome to Results by Design UX Insights for business leaders, the podcast that dives deep into the world of UX design, strategy and insights. Tune in, take action and design your way to success.

Craig Nishizaki:
Hello everyone. I’m Craig.

Michael Woo:
And I’m Michael. And we are your host for the Results by Design podcast.

Craig Nishizaki:
Hey, Mike, how are you doing?

Michael Woo:
I’m doing pretty good. Business is good. We’re working on a lot of fun projects. I’m really excited. What about you? How are you doing?

Craig Nishizaki:
I’m doing pretty well as well. It’s been busy, like you said, but I’m really enjoying having these conversations with you. I think when we’re working, sometimes we don’t get a chance to talk more deeply about things like this, so I’m excited. Well, Mike, why don’t you tell the audience what’s on your mind today?

Michael Woo:
Yeah, I was looking at our overview deck the other day and I saw the phrase the great UX is the engineering of the entire experience, not just the design of the screens. And I thought this would be a good topic to unpack for today’s episode. I know that phrase was something you came up with many years ago, and I wanted to ask you what inspired that and describe to us what it means.

Craig Nishizaki:
That’s a good question. Historically, as new technologies, new methods, new disciplines, frameworks, things like that, gain popularity. There’s always this flood of individuals and companies that pivot to position themselves as experts to catch that wave. Examples. I could think of mobile back in 2008, 2009 or responsive websites. In that 2010, 2011 timeframe, you started hearing full stack development being used in that 2014 to 2016 timeframe, and back then it was backend developers saying they could do frontend UI development and frontend developers saying they could do backend development. And a lot of that was before true full stack developers were being taught how to code with JavaScript the full stack. And I’ve even heard things like full stack design. I don’t even know what that means, but there’s folks out there that talk about a designer needing to be able to code and I mean, there’s a whole philosophical conversation we could probably have about that, but more recently there’s been Web3 and then now AI is the new gold rush, and the same thing happened with UX as people rush into the market to kind of put their stake in the ground, it causes a lot of confusion around the terminology, I think.

And so what I saw and what I experienced getting into the industry back in 2009, at that time there was some innovation firms that were known for UX companies like IDEO and Frog. There were a few big name UX agencies, but most other agencies were doing marketing design type stuff. And as mobile apps and e-commerce took off, and then SaaS products took off, more agencies pivoted into the UX design space and the types of companies, types of agencies that pivoted to become UX agencies were firms that were research firms and they were using wireframes to support their work, their research, but maybe didn’t have the visual prowess of a branding agency and things like that. Or there was development in IT shops that would add a designer to their team and then start promoting that they’re doing UX or there was marketing branding firms that were doing visually stunning work and powerful branding work, but the usability was an issue.

Then more recently, consulting firms as they were involved in business strategy, program management, project management and technology projects at these large enterprise clients, and they would partner with UX firms to do the UX piece. Many of them either acquired firms or brought that in-house, and then outside of that, there were UX agencies, companies that were designing products, apps, transactional web sites, and many of them were led by creatives and didn’t have technologists on staff. In fact, the agency I was a part of fell into that last bucket, and so when Peak Systems acquired us back in 2013 and rebranded as up top, we married the UX practice with the engineering and software development practice, and this has been key for us. I’ve always said, or I’ve said before, that if you look at a company or organization like a Venn diagram where you have the business technology and brand and design as the three circles and UX sits right at that intersection right in the center. So orchestrating and engineering these elements to work together cohesively to achieve great user experience is what we mean by great UX being more than the design of the screens.

Michael Woo:
You’re spot on and you took me back down memory lane with all that.

Craig Nishizaki:
Yeah, it’s kind of interesting when you think back only 10 years, 12 years, right? So my user experience encompasses all aspects of the end user’s interaction with the company, with its services and with its products to help frame the conversation from a UX strategist perspective, what are elements of the user experience that need to be engineered?

Michael Woo:
That’s a really good question, and I apologize for getting a little bit too technical, but there are generally five elements or layers to view ux, and you can Google this and you can find this out for yourself, but essentially if you look at the bottom layer or layer one, you have strategy, and this is the most abstract layer, but here you have to define what it is, the vision that you’re trying to achieve and the goals that will get you there. The goals should be a combination of what the business objectives are and what the user needs are. Then you have layer two, which is the scope, that is what are the functional specifications, features and requirements needed to create the product or digital experience. Then there’s layer three, which is the structure, and the structure includes the navigation and information architecture of your digital experience.

Here’s where you also look at user flows or ingress and egress points. Then you look at layer four, which is the skeleton, or we commonly call layer four, the wire frames. You guys probably have heard that where general layout of the screen elements are created. Content strategy plays a big vital role here. What content does the user see? And when a lot of thought is put into interaction design, looking at how a user would click on buttons or links, fill out a form or engaged with a myriad of design patterns, and in this layer you should have a good blueprint by now for your intended design. Finally, layer five is what we call the surface. Here is where visual design comes into play. It ties back to the whole design of the screens, but you’re looking at the company brand images, illustrations, icons, text styling, things like micro interactions or it’s been said to be the skin on the wireframes.

So as you can see, there’s a lot of dosage making or engineering that goes into design of a user’s experience. But to be clear, these five layers aren’t necessarily done in order. In fact, we at up top like to one devise the strategy first, second jump to structure, then skeleton and then surface, which is if you think about it, ties back to the whole north star envisioning of the product. And then finally we tie that back into what is the scope going to be? So we work backwards from there to figure out what that roadmap is. What we’ve found is that by defining the vision and goals upfront, we then work on that north star to gain alignment with everyone involved, and from there we determine, like I said, a roadmap or a scope of work for achieving that vision.

Craig Nishizaki:
Oh man. Okay. That was a mini masterclass in the elements of ux. I love it. Okay, so knowing that there’s all those layers and what it takes to engineer that experience, why do you think people often sum up UX as the design of the screens when it’s clearly there’s more to it than that?

Michael Woo:
Yeah, tangibility, that’s the word. I would say it’s the easiest part to talk about because we can all relate and see the screens in front of us. It’s definitely not as easy to discuss UX strategy or research or any other of the layers that we just went through. Those are typically left for the experts to get excited about, but like I said earlier, we’ve adapted our desire process to align with this behavior by getting stakeholders to rally around an envisioning design or North Star for example, allows everyone to be on the same page. We make these even more tangible by creating simple click-through prototypes, which helps with the storytelling that is what is the experience like to flow through and interact with the designs as opposed to just what does the designs look like?

Craig Nishizaki:
Yeah, I’d agree with you. The way I’d sum it up is I think people by nature try to simplify things by grouping them into categories in their mind, and the user interface is the thing that a hundred percent of people think about when they think about a mobile app or a website or a tool. Like you said, there’s a lot of sausage making that goes on, goes into user experience, and most people don’t want to know how the sausage is made, but they know if it tastes good or bad when they eat it. I think you talked about it in the process, and I’ll reiterate it, but when we work with a client in the early stages of a project and we’re doing the groundwork of research and urchin strategy, journey mapping, user flows, things like that, I don’t think it’s uncommon. It’s a little less common, but it’s still not uncommon for stakeholders to want to jump straight to the visual design. What’s it going to look like? And I think that’s why the process is so important to make sure that we’re anchoring the design with things such as research and insights personas, getting that alignment on the product vision and detailing out the journey maps and the user flow diagrams before we even get to the screens. So that’s great.

So Mike, what role do you think we have as a UX agency to help better define this elusive term of user experience?

Michael Woo:
Our CEO has always used this analogy since I can remember. He says that we up top are the digital sherpas to help navigate our clients through the digital jungle. I think we can draw parallels with that analogy and how we engage with our clients every step of the way. We do our best to inform them of the design process and try to involve them when and where we can. We don’t go away into a black box, do the work and go to the client and say, here you go. I think education of what we do and sometimes how we do it better informs our clients and therefore builds better relationships at the end of the day and should give you better outcomes because everyone feels best.

Craig Nishizaki:
Yeah, I think you’re right. Bringing the client along on the journey is the best way to educate them on what goes into the design of the user experience as an agency. Providing an outside in perspective helps ’em see the label from the outside of the bottle, and business leaders are smart and they want to create impact and value as quickly as possible, so educating them along the way may mean performing customer user research that provides actionable insights so they can make decisions on product development and design. Using those insights or identifying friction at key moments in the customer journey, then showing them how to reduce that friction by applying design and technology. For instance, a self-service experience or something of that nature. I think workshops, ideation workshops where they’re collaborating cross-functionally, but then having a facilitator, expert facilitator walk them through structured exercises is another way that they get to be educated on the process and experience it and then see the outcomes as well.

And then to your point earlier about prototyping, I’ve seen the power of clickable lightweight prototype being shown to executive leadership to get buy-in. We’ve seen it multiple times at major large scale enterprise organizations that are well known to the world looking at a new concept and they will see it, touch it, feel it if you will, get that tangibility and then fund it, and then also using that prototype to share with customers and prospects before anything’s built. So it’s a more rapid, lightweight, and iterative approach. Mike, from your perspective, how do UX leadership strategy methods help to pull business technology and brand and design together to align on engineering the user experience and creating value?

Michael Woo:
Well, first inherent to being a good UX designer is being able to see the big picture. That’s one trait that unfortunately not all designers possess, but one that is especially required at a consultancy like ours. Second, someone in my position can have a real impact within our organization. As a consultant, we are sometimes privileged to be in the same room where decisions are made or oftentimes outside the door listening in. Third, we have already said that great UX occurs the further you pull business technology and brand design together. Thus, it is typically a requirement for us to evolve these groups early and often in order to achieve success. That would be the second point. For example, when we do our design workshops, we ask that there be representation from each of these areas. Decisions shouldn’t be made in a vacuum and all the key stakeholders should be brought along for the ride. Fourth, I think that having a structured approach to UX design, such as the design thinking approach of understanding your users, defining the problem, ideating, prototyping, and testing with users is viewed as a logical, methodical, and generates real results. It’s something that across the departmental teams can buy into, and they know that the more they do, the greater the value that they can deliver to the end user.

Craig Nishizaki:
Yeah, I think your last point about having a structured approach is that’s logical, methodical, and generates results and is something that cross-departmental teams can buy into is spot on. Whenever we talk with a business leader, they want to know that there’s a process, a method, or a framework that’s proven to work, and ultimately they want predictability in a plan. So that makes a lot of sense to me.

Michael Woo:
I got one for you. As technology and methods have changed over the years, how have you seen design services evolve in line with this idea about the engineering of the user experience?

Craig Nishizaki:
Yeah, that’s a great question. Again, it kind of takes me back down memory lane a little bit. So if you think about research for instance, upfront research personas, things like that used to get cut out of budgets and project timelines or project budgets and timelines. They were the first things to go. But I think now that as companies focus on cx, there’s more agreement that the voice of the customer personas, customer journeys are all critical components, and because CX is something that’s seen across the organization at the executive level, it’s raised the boat, if you will, what is it? The rising tide lifts all boats or something of that nature. It’s raised the awareness that UX is involved in these things and the acceptance of doing those practices, of capturing the voice of the customer, making sure that the personas are defined and that the customer journeys are mapped.

I think at the strategy level, business product and marketing leaders used to develop strategy without UX leadership or UX designer’s involvement, and now UX is a part of those discussions and in many cases, leading the effort. There’s a number of design-led companies that are well-documented, and so those companies perform well. So then others follow suit in terms of being design-led or product led. However, to your point earlier, to be effective UX designers and UX leaders need to have domain knowledge and they need to have business acumen. And so to level up and step up to that strategy table, the designers and leaders in UX have to make sure that they have business acumen and understand the language of business. And I think the other thing that I’ve seen more recently is UX being involved in web content strategy as well in terms of a service that’s being asked for and needed from the design perspective.

You mentioned it earlier, the design thinking and lean UX methods, acceptance and adoption of design thinking across executives on the business side of organizations over the last five years has really opened up the conversation for UX to be involved more at that strategy level, but then also helping solve complex business problems, and that leads into requirements gathering, whereas before it would be the business and the technical leaders and then product managers, but now UX is involved in that as well, just making sure that the user’s requirements are there, but more importantly, again, tying those three circles, business technology and design brand together in that requirements gathering process. And then to your point about workshops, those are more and more common than they used to be prototyping with lightweight, non coated prototypes. Years ago, prototype was coded up and tapped into a database, and so you ended up with something that was more expensive, took longer to build, and now with the tools that are out there with Figma and other things, UX designers able to quickly prototype and then get them out to test, which is happening more and more frequently.

And again, I think the testing iterating is part of the agile development process, but also part of the product development process and that now I think business leaders are open to that more and more as a common or a best practice that they should use. And then the biggest thing I think that I’ve seen change is in the implementation of the design. Years ago, we would hand off the wire frames annotated and the visual designs to the development team, and then they would go build it. But what we found was oftentimes the designs were not built to the intent of the design and meaning the behavior, the micro interactions, things like that were not built in a way that the user experience designer had intended. And so what we’re finding now is more companies are open to having the designs coded, so pulling UX firm in to do the front end development or to do the mobile application development, which is what the end user’s going to interact with, and then having that team be technically savvy enough to work with their backend team and manage the API integrations and the DevOps, the deployments and things like that.

But more and more companies are open to that. I think that’s been a big evolution, and then we’ll see how things evolve and change with AI over the next few years as well. So you’ve done a great job crafting the guiding principles for our UX team, and there’s five of ’em. There’s understanding the problem you’re trying to solve, designed for the end user and not yourself, have empathy for everyone and make things simple, intuitive, and delightful. And the last one is to seize opportunity to innovate. How do you see each of these principles being woven through the DNA? That great UX is the engineering of the entire experience, not just the design of the screens.

Michael Woo:
Yeah, that’s a good question. Lemme try to take this from the top. So understand the problem you’re trying to solve. As a UX designer, you’re a problem solver. First and foremost. I think you learn rather early that if you haven’t defined the right problem to solve, you’re already on the wrong track, so everything else won’t matter after that. Again, this happens early in the strategy phase and it’s probably the most difficult part of the process to get around this. You have to be a good listener and ask really good questions. Next, the design for the user and not for yourself. I’ve been around a lot of designers in my life and there are some who want to leave their imprint on the designs themselves and not for the reasons that you think maybe they’re into a new trend and want to see it being incorporated in their work or they’re looking to round out the portfolio by adding in bells and whistles to draw attention, but not necessarily add value.
The point of this is to refocus the designer on the user’s needs and not their own. Okay, the third one, have empathy for everyone. This one is interesting. I think for years I’ve been reading nonstop about you have to have empathy for the users, and I totally agree with that. However, I extended that to everyone because my intent was to have designers think about the people that they’re actually working with, whether it’s the client, client teams, internal teams, all the cross-functional folks that are required to make a project successful. They really have to emphasize with others who empathize, sorry, with others who write content or to develop code or to defy requirements or manage a project. Designers are not unicorns as much as they want to believe. We are all in this together, so we need to treat everyone with respect. Fourth, make things simple, intuitive, and delightful.

As I said earlier, it’s easy to add things to a design, but it’s really hard to strip things out and to say no. I think the more we can keep things simple, the happier everyone will be. And if there’s room for delight at the end of the day, we could sprinkle some in if it’ll make someone smile and feel good when they walk away from your design. Lastly, seize opportunities to innovate. I like to preface this usually with, don’t change things up just because you can. When folks do this, there are downstream consequences such as users becoming unfamiliar with patterns that they’re normally used to or creating an unnecessary learning curve. Make sure your decisions are rooted in data. However, look for areas where innovation can add a real value and impact to the user.

Craig Nishizaki:
Yeah, I love that you’ve thought deeply about this and taught your team these principles. I think it shows in the outcomes that you and the team consistently produce, the one that you hit on about empathy for everyone. I can see it in how effective that is working with the client, not just thinking about the end user, but also the person that we’re interacting with, where they’re at at that moment. Why are they onboard or not onboard? What’s their main concerns, things like that, that all come together to make a project or a product successful. So yeah, I really appreciate that. We’ve covered a lot of ground today in the area of this idea of great UX being the engineering, the entire experience, not just the design of the screens. I personally love that it’s more than a tagline. It’s woven into the DNA of the team. Mike, anything you want to add?

Michael Woo:
I think, like you said, we covered a lot. There was a lot of good stuff here. I think we could dig into a lot of these topics in the future even more, but to your point, I really stress thinking about that empathy for everyone that really resonates with me. That was probably my favorite value principle that I’ve adopted for our team, and I would suggest that others do the same if you can. For sure.

Craig Nishizaki:
Yeah, I’m with you on that. Well, that’s it for today’s episode. Join us again next time as we explore innovative approaches to enhance your products and services, optimize customer interactions, and ultimately drive success for your organization. Tune in, take action and design your way to success.

Outro:
Thanks for tuning in to Results by Design. If you liked this episode, be sure to share and subscribe to our YouTube channel. We are also playing on all your favorite audio streaming podcast platforms, so stay connected and join us for the next one. Results by Design is brought to you by UpTop. Our mission is to equip business leaders like you with the knowledge and tools needed to leverage UX methods and strategies to achieve tangible business outcomes and create lasting value. Whether you’re a seasoned executive or just starting to explore the world of UX, results by Design is your go-to resource for unlocking the potential of user experience to achieve remarkable results. Tune in, take action, and design your way to success.