What I learnt about User Experience Design in 2016

Most of my web design career was spent focusing on graphic design, learning the software, keeping up with new technology, considering brand guidelines and adhering to what the client wanted. Little consideration was given to what the people using the websites wanted. In retrospect, it's strange I was never involved in any kind of user testing, despite freelancing for several top 100 agencies and a company creating digital material for the learning and cultural sectors in London.

A few years ago I shifted my focus from the desktop environment to mobile. It was only then did I start to understand the importance of designing for the people using the product. Contracting as a User Interface Designer for Polymorph, I gained valuable insight from great minds. They taught me how important User Experience is and that's when I realised I needed to get a much better understanding of it.

At the beginning of 2016, I started a project with an agency based in Johannesburg. I was to redesign the current software for their SaaS client. I had a lot to learn, and I had to start quickly. Here's what aided my crash course in User Experience design.


Where to begin?

The most daunting part of any project. My advice for others is to seek guidance from people more knowledgeable than you. Steve Barnett put me on the right track. The workshops in the beginning of the project were useful and valuable. For instance, they taught me to ask the right questions.  Steve walked us through the stages of the project:

Method sketch by Steve Barnett

Method sketch by Steve Barnett

I was relieved we had a direction and starting point, but wasn't sure how to go about the user research in the Plan phase - Product Discovery. I was already familiaring myself with the current software which was industry specific (lots of jargon!) and complex, but we needed to understand the people who use it and what their goals were.

Steve recommended a great book to get started with:

Just Enough Research by Erika Hall

Erika Hall's book is a succinct insight into user research. She manages to condense a lot of infomation into 154 pages. It's funny too - a real pleasure to read.

For practical guidance to conducting user research, I read Interviewing Users by Steve Portigal. Plenty of good tips and ideas.

I met with a few of the people using the software, spoke to stakeholders and inspected the google analytics statistics. With my new found knowledge of the target audience, I created Personas. I never really understood the importance of them until I created them myself. They are an important tool to help put the team in the shoes of the user/customer. They should be in the back of the whole team's mind when creating software. For a designer, It really does shift your focus from designing for designers to designing for users. This Smashing Magazine article explains the benefits of using Personas.


How to collaborate effectively with a remote team?

The Product Owner is based in Cape Town, where I am, so it's been helpful attending face to face workshops and brainstorm sessions. However, the development team is based in Johannesburg so the next challenge was how to collaborate better with them. They had a good solution: online software for whiteboarding. After some research, we chose RealtimeBoard which has been useful for documenting ideas, concepts and managing workflow. RealtimeBoard invited me to answer a few questions for an article about my experience with it. It was interesting to see their innovative approach to understanding some of their target audience (designers), while I was conducting my own user research. They have helpful templates which save a lot of time if you're trying something for the first time.

Persona template in RealtimeBoard

Persona template in RealtimeBoard

What are customer journey maps?

The great thing about UX is that there is so much information online. According to UX Mastery, a customer journey map is:

 a visual or graphic interpretation of the overall story from an individual’s perspective of their relationship with an organization, service, product or brand, over time and across channels.

Using Realtimeboard to create/share diagrams and Mapping Experiences by James Kalbach as my tuitor, insight was gained into the customer's journeys within the software and the tasks they do during their work day. These diagrams enabled me to turn these observations into deliverables.

There are so many methods of creating customer journey maps, so the challenge is finding the most appropriate way to unlock knowledge about the customer. Nielsen Norman Group explains When and How to Create Customer Jouney Maps.

Sofia Hussain illustrates the experience of 'buying a home' as shown in Mapping Experiences.

Sofia Hussain illustrates the experience of 'buying a home' as shown in Mapping Experiences.

What are impact maps?

During a workshop, Steve suggested I try an impact map to gain knowledge of the business objectives of the organisation I was designing the software for. Not only should one be considering the customer's needs, but what does the organisation want to achieve?

Another good book recommendation: Impact Mapping by Gojiko Adzic. It's concise (I read it on the plane to meet the Johannesburg team) and easy to understand, due to helpful diagrams and straight-forward explanations.

This youtube clip expains the technique quite well.

An example of an impact map

An example of an impact map

What else to read?

Design of Everyday Things - Don Norman

Honestly, this took me ages to read. Finished after two attempts. The technical, science stuff can be boring if you're not used to reading these types of things. Glad I persisted, as there are such valuable insights that will stay with you while you design digital products.

Don't Make Me Think - Steve Krug

Experienced designers should be considering much of what Steve preaches in their designs already, but this is a good reminder of the things that make digital design usable. I struggled with the unattractive cover design and the website examples shown in the book, but if you can apply these fundamentals to aesthetically pleasing designs, then you're doing things well.

Mental Models - Indi Young

I haven't read this yet, but it's on my 2017 reading list.


In conclusion

I believe the research has helped me design a much better system (so far).  As we wireframe and prototype our ideas, we have been doing workshops with users of the current system to make sure we are creating functionality that will help them with their tasks. It's important that we keep testing the prototype across a range of the target audience, so we can get feedback to enable us to create a helpful, usable tool that will improve the quality of their work life.

I have a lot to learn still, and with technology changing so fast, it's important to keep current. Follow UX experts on twitter, go to conferences, sign up to the newsletters and read the books (so much free stuff online). That's what helping me learn.

Inspiring Japanese Artists & Designers (Part 2)

In April last year, I wrote an article about a few Japanese artists that I love. Unbeknownst to meI would be visiting Japan a few months later. My trip to Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto was a visual feast. My eyes were bloodshot from gawking at books, posters, packaging, flyers, gardens and normally mundane things like barricades at construction sites, which were whimsically shaped like penguins.

On the hunt for vintage Japanese film posters and toys, we went to Nakano Broadway, a shopping mecca for nerds which contains numerous outlets of Mandarake stores (one of Tokyo's largest vendors of used anime and manga-related products). I found a second-hand book store which had weird and rare art books. One particular book was back to front, and in Japanese. I had no idea who the artist was, but I was so seduced by the incredible artwork that I had take it home. After a bit of research I discovered a wild genius:


Kawanabe Kyōsai (1831 - 1889)

Described as "an individualist and an independent, perhaps the last virtuoso in traditional Japanese painting", Kyōsai's life spanned the transition from the Edo to Meiji periods, and he saw his country change from a feudal society to a modern state.

A son of a samurai, he picked up a human head which fell off a corpse in a river at the tender age of nine. It is believed that he took it home and studied and sketched it before his parents discovered it and ordered him to return it to the river. This possibly fuelled his desire to paint the grotesque and macabre.

    Close up of Two Battling Warriors


Close up of Two Battling Warriors

     Jigoku dayu (Hell Courtesan)


Jigoku dayu (Hell Courtesan)

Considered Japan’s first political caricaturist, he did impromptu sketches of political figures and events while notoriously quaffing prodigious amounts of sake. In 1870, barely two years into the Meiji "Enlightenment," he was imprisoned and flogged by the authorities for his irreverent behaviour.

Aside from his caricatures, Kyōsai also did sketches and paintings that drew inspiration from Japan’s folklore and mythology, incorporating well-known characters such as the kappa (a river imp) and the namazu (a giant catfish who is said to cause earthquakes). 

Great-granddaughter Kawanabe Kusumi converted a home in 1977 in the suburbs north of Tokyo into a small memorial museum of about 3,000 of her grandfather's works. With only three rooms to display the collection, the museum rotates the artwork every month or so. This cross-section of Kyōsai's wonderful art  is one of the things I'd like to see on my next trip to Japan one day.


More about the artist:

My pinterest folder of Kyōsai's works


Sketches of hell by Kyosai on Pink Tentacle


John Teramoto, curator of Asian Art, explains a Daruma scroll painting made by Kyosai Kawanabe. Concise and interesting video below:


Keiichi Tanaami

I also bought a book about Keiichi Tanaami in that Nakano Broadway book store. He is one of the leading pop artists of postwar Japan, and has been active as a graphic designer, illustrator, video artist and fine artist since the 1960s.

The psychedelic colour, themes of mass consumption, repetitive and obsessive motifs remind me of  Tadanori Yokoo.

     Keiichi Tanaami, 'Dream of Human Metamorphosis (A),' 2014, Nanzuka


Keiichi Tanaami, 'Dream of Human Metamorphosis (A),' 2014, Nanzuka

In the latter half of the 1960s he immersed himself in making video art, the newest medium in the art scene at the time. He met Andy Warhol during a visit to New York and was very inspired by him, Coca-Cola, American cartoons and comic book characters.

Here is one of the animations he created below:

In 1975, Tanaami became the first art director of the Japanese edition of Playboy Magazine. He revolutionized the large-format magazine. 

Tanaami fell ill in 1981 and had a near death experience at the age of 45.  While hospitalized, he had a high fever and experienced vivid hallucinations from the drugs used to treat him. He kept a record of his visions which ignited the surreal and psychedelic nature of his later work.

More about the artist:

My pinterest folder of Tanaami's works


Keiichi Tanaami website


Coincidentally, his work appears on the cover of the latest issue of High Fructose magazine


Shigeru Mizuki (1922-2015)

Manga pioneer, Shigeru Mizuki is best known in Japan for his hit television show, Ge ge ge no Kitaro. His widely loved character, Kitaro, was a spirit child who resided between the world of the living and the realm of yōkai (supernatural monsters and spirits in Japanese folklore). The father of  Kitaro  lived in Kitaro’s eye socket and took baths in teacups.

Mizuki is also known for his World War II memoirs and his work as a biographer. His wartime experiences affected him greatly. Not only did he watch his friends die from the horrors of war, he also contracted Malaria and lost his left arm in an American air raid. This did not deter him from drawing thousands of beautiful pages of manga when he returned home.

In an interview, he explained that his yōkai characters can be seen only in times of peace, not war, and that he purposely created these supernatural creatures to be of no specific ethnicity or nationality as a hint of the potential for humanity. 

    The Makura-gaeshi ("pillow-mover") is a soul-stealing prankster known for moving pillows around while people sleep.


The Makura-gaeshi ("pillow-mover") is a soul-stealing prankster known for moving pillows around while people sleep.

Sakaiminato, the birthplace of Mizuki, has a street dedicated to the yōkai that appear in his stories. One hundred bronze statues of the characters line both sides of the road. I would love to visit this city when I hopefully return to Japan one day.

More about the artist:

My pinterest folder of Mizuki's works


Charming interview with Shigeru Mizuki at 82 years


Yōkai Daizukai, an illustrated guide to yōkai authored by Shigeru Mizuki, features a collection of cutaway diagrams showing the anatomy of 85 traditional monsters from Japanese folklore. Here are a few illustrations from the book.

Cautionary Advice for Freelancers

Freelancing is not easy. It can be risky, frustrating and daunting at times. However, it can be a highly rewarding lifestyle choice when goals start being achieved. Once the anxiousness subsides and confidence in the next pay check settles in, only then, do we make the right decisions.

Read More

Why All Digital Designers Should Create Prototypes

Lately I've been doing a lot of prototype work, mainly for mobile apps and it is really challenging. More so than creating wireframes. Prototyping forces you to think about the process, the flow, the transitions, the workings of iOS or Android and most importantly, the user. It forces you to get into the mind of the user and try imagine the most obvious way to get from A to B. 

I am still learning a lot about this process but I will share a few things that I have learnt recently.

Read More

Inspiring Japanese Artists & Designers (Part 1)

I love Japanese art & design. The use of colour, the themes, the wit, playfulness and the style of illustration appeals to me immensely. One day I plan to visit Japan for pure inspiration. Until then, I'll be posting articles of some of my favourite artists. I am merely scratching the surface, highlighting points of interest to me. 

Read More

The Evolution of Digital Music Interfaces

Wafts of fond memories arose when I found a mp3 player I designed for a musician's website in the early 2000s. I remember using the pencil tool to create the loader and track titles, pixel by pixel, and then animating it in Flash.

Read More