What is UX, and how does it relate to hardware?

What is UX, and how does it relate to hardware?

Lately, I've been trying to unravel all of the mysteries of a great hardware product. From the engineering, to the strategy, to the design, it all ties in to the mystery of what separates the good from the bad. But I know I've been missing something, because I haven't yet hit upon that famous buzzword - User Experience. What is UX, exactly? And how does it relate to hardware?

I endeavored to find out, by interviewing a UX/UI expert I know. After a good deal of conversation, and a good deal more contemplation, I whittled it down to this:

UX is broad, encompassing several major considerations in product development. Specifically, they are: the user, the form, the content, and the structure of your product.

  • User: Who is our user? What problem of theirs are we solving? How do we divide this problem into user stories?
  • Form: What form does the solution to the problem take? Is it a product? A service? A hybrid?
  • Content: What information and what actions are we going to make available to the users?
  • Structure. How do we structure the available information and actions to make it clear to the user how to solve the problem?

Does some of this sound familiar? It should. The first two parts (user and form) are largely contained in our design thinking process. In the Empathy and Definition steps of design thinking, we get in the heads of our users and decide on the essence of what we're trying to solve. The next three stages of design thinking - Ideation, Prototyping, and Testing - guide us through defining the form that the solution to our users' problem will take.

Design Thinking is a (large) subset of User Experience

The two new factors we've got to contend with are Content and Structure. When design thinking is done, you've got to define the information and actions you'll expose to the user at any given point, and how those two will combine into an intuitive series of tasks that solve the user's problem. In an app or website that will be some sequence of menus, buttons, and text. On a connected hardware product that will be knobs, dials, buttons, LEDs, and a corresponding app.

Now we have an understanding of what UX is. But how does does one begin defining a good User Experience? Well, take this with a grain of salt, I'm new to the field. But, my current understanding is something like the following:

First, we take it back to the user. During design thinking, we got into the head of our user, defined their problem, and decided on the form of the solution. Now, we break down the high level vision of our solution into a series of user stories. The Internet tells us that:

A user story is a tool used in Agile software development to capture a description of a software feature from an end-user perspective. The user story describes the type of user, what they want and why. A user story helps to create a simplified description of a requirement.

Replace "software" with "hardware" and we're still in business. User stories are generally kept to 1 sentence to be brief and to-the-point. For those of you who studied up on your design thinking, think of them as mini "point of view" statements.

So we've taken all the potential features of our product and created brief stories describing the user's interaction with those feature. Next, we consider the optimal flow of that interaction. A flow is the series of steps in our interaction. Let's define optimal as the intersection of short and intuitive.

Overall, we dive in to User Experience by taking the solution we've defined, breaking it into a series of user stories, and defining a brief and intuitive series of steps that a user can take to accomplish the task highlighted in the story. Sounds pretty doable on paper, right? But there's no doubt that this quickly becomes a daunting task in the real world. For starters, we've only touched on the foundation of UX here. Getting your UX Content and Structure right will involve wireframes, color palettes, a level of obsession with menus you probably never thought possible, and more.

For example, Zuli's UX definition takes up (at least) one whole wall of their office.

Zuli's UX documentation, as shared in their post on Dragon Innovation's blog.

But nothing worth doing is easy, and a thoughtful UX implementation is definitely worth doing. When you think about it, UX is on the front lines of the battle. Everything else you put into your product - strategic analysis, boatloads of engineering, even most of the design thinking process - is fairly opaque to the end user. But your UX work is front and center, and will play a huge role in defining the users' opinion of your product. So put the time in, and do it right!

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