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Gribbons presents the Art and Science of Good User Experience Design / By Jessica Lucas

Dr. William Gribbons is a tour-de-force in the field of User Experience Design. A professor at Bentley College, he has had a front seat to the evolution of usability for over 20 years. The Society for Technical Communication New York Metro Chapter was thrilled to have him present his popular seminar “The Art and Science of User Experience Design” on September 14, 2014.

What is User Experience Design?

“We are designing for people.” User experience is rooted in community, design, training and documentation. The goal of user experience design is to conform to the user’s strength so that they behave the way we want or expect. When it comes to human behavior, once expectations are set, they are impossible or hard to break. Currently everything is determined by the marketplace and user’s expectations.

Good user design asks a very basic question: What do users really need? Dr. Gribbons points out that all too often we give users all the information we have, which can cause information overload! We should learn to be more selective with the information we provide to the user. As technical communicators we tend to gravitate towards “just in case” information. Simplicity is always key to good design.

Are We Building the Right Product?

So, are we building the right product? During the seminar, we spent a large amount of time grappling with this excellent question. It applies whether we are on the forefront of product design or a technical communicator functioning as the conduit between the developers and the users. The ‘right’ product is one that the user consumes without issue. As technical communicators, we should challenge the definition of the product’s space and intent to help determine the broader goal of the product or company.

Dr. Gribbons discussed two basic human principles for user design. On one hand, core behaviors are primitive or hardwired in our nature, and on the other hand, contextual behaviors are learned and part of our culture. These human principals tie directly into the question of building the right product. If we examine these basic human principals, we can hopefully, narrow the field.

What are the Layers of User Experience?

The bulk of the seminar discussed the layers of user experience and how we can use this to build better information products.

Our first experience interaction with the product stimulates our sensory systems to make initial decisions or observations about things such as color and contrast. Contrast is the measure of perceived distance between the foreground and background. This is very important because high contrast reaches our brain first and what reaches the brain first, commands the most attention. Color, while less important, also plays a role. As an example, Dr. Gribbons mentioned that as we age we lose our sensitivity to blue and elderly users cannot see the color blue, especially on websites and screens.

The second layer deals with how we organize or cluster the information we see. We decide in a fraction of a second, the attractiveness of a website. In that time we have determined the patterns we see and the various grouping on a site. All this is decided in the blink of an eye!

The third layer concerns our mental models or prior knowledge. This consists of knowledge stored in our long-term memory. As UX designers and technical communicators we must figure out what the user knows, because existing knowledge frames expectations for new experiences. This is also where our cultural experiences come into play.

Layer four is the cogitative part of the user experience. This conscious part of the UX, is where users synthesize the previous layers to make informed decisions. This is also the point where our learning styles and learning practices are put to use. Dr. Gribbons introduced the idea of “foraging”. Foraging is how users pick through data or text, filtering through their own mental models, to find the information they need.

After learning and synthesizing information, the final two layers — memory load and emotion — form the final slice of the user experience. What is remembered and how they feel about it are the final result of the user experience. Good design and careful forethought can produce a positive outcome.

The amount of information that Dr. Gribbons packed into the daylong seminar was amazing! A big thank you to the STC NYC Metro chapter for bringing this wonderful seminar to our area.

For further information the following two websites offer many articles on user experience and UX design:

1.      UX Magazine www.uxmag.com – This site is a great collection of current articles on user experience design, as well as links to events and job postings. Dr. Gribbons has a great article on this site “The Four Waves of User Centered Design.”

2.      UX Matters www.uxmatters.com – This is a very comprehensive site with articles by UX professionals and a large range of topics.

The following are books that Dr. Gribbons mentioned during the seminar:

1.      The Laws of Simplicity (Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life) by John Maeda

2.      Inspired: How to Make Products Customers Love by Marty Cagan

3.      Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

4.      Blink by Malcolm Gladwell