Design going rogue, how to tame the beast
Joining ongoing projects and adapting to different and sometimes wild scenarios is a common place for UX designers. Whether working in consultancy or in-company it brings big challenges that can be overcome with a few tricks. We learn that with experience. Here is a real story and a few tips.
Today’s story: When the client found out that no one would use their product
In this post I’ll talk about a very common situation: when a designer joins a development team on an ongoing project. The team is working at a fairly stable pace; however, no designers whatsoever are participating on the team.
What’s the problem and why is it a problem?
Bad things can happen in software development due to the lack of focus on users. It varies from company to company, but it usually results in serious usability problems and unclear market fit. In this particular product, users were finding themselves completely lost on tasks and flows.
Without fixing those the product would have low to no adoption after launch. Besides, with an unclear market fit, sales and marketing teams would be lost to go to market. Product failure was almost certain without fixing.
It was a data collaboration platform developed for an actuarial consulting firm. Its main functionality was connecting multiple data sets in a secure environment providing data sharing and collaboration. The platform allowed companies to match and enrich mutual data sets.
Client and team
It was a startup, the product was in early stages of its lifecycle, close to its first release. At the time I joined the team it consisted of a business analyst, a front-end developer, two full stack developers, a tech lead and two back-end developers.
The team didn’t have a product manager. All decisions about functionalities and strategy were made and communicated by either BA, CTO and CEO directly to the team.
There wasn’t a product roadmap, the product backlog was created ad-hoc. Priorities were defined on daily basis. Both priorities and specifications would change during the sprint.
Current user experience
Although there was a basic notion of different user’s roles, tasks and goals, they weren’t specified anywhere. Functionalities were built without considering user journeys, with no clarity on user flows and sequence of tasks. Besides, software developers would work on different functionalities simultaneously. All of them worked with the same framework (Material Design for Angular) but there was no consistency across components. Different structures of grids, tables, wizards, font styles, among other elements, were found throughout the system.
When the first prototype was presented to users, there was no surprise to learn about serious usability issues. But yet more concerning was the complete discrepancy between the solution and users’ needs.
Users were not able to complete tasks because the information architecture didn’t make sense for them.
Pages didn’t follow a logical hierarchical sequence. Components didn’t reflect functions (e.g. buttons didn’t look clickable). Labels and titles didn’t reflect users’ vocabulary. There wasn’t any instruction or visual cue to indicate the actions required. No feedback on task completion. Different interaction patterns were used to execute the same task. No logical grouping of information in forms. And those, just to name a few.
What can a UX designer do when joining a team and finding a scenario like that? Best answer is: “Well, it depends”. In this particular case when I joined, the team had the big challenge to deliver a complete functional solution in one month. The team should fix the most impactful usability issues in the system to get their client’s acceptance. The first version of the platform should be launched for clients to start using straight away.
What I did
Needless to say, that a complete redesign of the platform was out of question. Fixing all inconsistency across the platform or the information architecture wasn’t an option. There were too many dependencies and no consistency in styling (e.g. multiple and duplicated style sheets).
The only way to help the team at that stage was to come up with some quick fixes. A solution was to be implemented with no impact on what was already done. The team would continue building new features.
My first challenge with the team was co-creating what we called a workbench. It was a single page containing dynamic information that would guide users step by step throughout the system. Not the ideal solution, but still a good band-aid. With quick and guided access to specific pages and call to actions, the users would be able to conclude tasks. Important information would be available at the right time to the right people.
A usability test over an interactive low fidelity prototype proved to be a successful approach.
After finishing the workbench, I worked with the BA, project managers and the newly hired Head of Product. We defined potential market segments and proto-personas. With this definition we planned and executed the market and user research that came next.
We ran in-depth interviews to explore market fit. We identified new needs and stories to incorporate in the product.
While working on the user research, I also created a UI pattern library. The library included all components already implemented, standardised user interactions, labels and messaging. Although it wouldn’t be implemented soon, at least it would be a useful reference for the future.
There were several learnings for the team. I’m proud to say that we totally saved what could have been a disastrous outcome.
The collaboration with the team generated the quick wins expected. Also, a human-centred design process was established to validate ideas and minimise uncertainties.
We built a solution that enabled the team to address critical usability issues. We identified potential market fit. New stories were included in the product roadmap to satisfy future users’ needs.
As a consultant, I had six weeks to work with the team and address different problems.
It made clear for them the importance of having a UX designer as part of the team.
Because it was a collaborative work, new skills were developed within the client’s team. From that point on, the team was enabled to adopt a human-centred approach in the product development strategy.