Band-Aids, STOP Signs and Text Wraps: Thoughts on UX

stopsign-cropUser experience (UX) can be broken down into five components: strategy, scope, structure, skeleton, and surface. Thought leader Jesse James Garrett writes about these five S words in The Elements of User Experience, a must-read book for user experience designers and product managers. In this article, I share my thoughts on three important ideas from the book: the whole system, context, and conceptual models.

Address the Whole System

When combined, the five elements create a holistic view of a product. Jesse points out that a product will not be successful unless someone ensures that the team pays attention to each of the five components during the entire creation of a product.

This point reminds me of the importance of taking a holistic view in other fields, such as healthcare. In Western medicine, doctors are trained to examine and treat the patient’s body as separate parts–the brain, eyes, skin, ears, heart, liver, stomach, etc. A person who is unaware of a food allergy, for example, may develop many seemingly unrelated symptoms, including skin rashes, brain fog, intestinal discomfort, and acid reflux. Without knowing about their food allergy, much time and money can be wasted in meeting with medical specialists. None of those doctors may ask the right question that would lead to the answer, because they are too focused on their specialty. (Nutritionists, who are more likely to recognize the symptoms as a food allergy, are generally not employed by medical centers, so doctors would not refer a patient to them.) The patient is often left with several Band-Aids and a broken “system.”

In much the same way, Jesse makes the point that if any of the five UX areas are overlooked, misdiagnosed, or examined out of context, the product may work but also be bandaged, inconsistent, and may lack cohesion–all resulting in a poor user experience.

The Importance of Context

One idea that differentiates UX design from visual or functional design is that it is informed by context. Jesse gives the example of a coffeemaker: the overall look and feel of it is the visual design, and the ability of each button to enable the correct response (such as turning the appliance on or off, setting the timer, and setting brew strength) is the functional design. The user experience design addresses questions of context so that the person using the coffeemaker is likely to use it correctly, easily, and efficiently, which all reduce the amount of mental effort required and the possibility of error (like burning the coffee or himself!).

Another great example which illustrates how the three different design frameworks blend together successfully is the “STOP” button on a treadmill. At the gym I belong to, this button visually shares some cues of a stop sign–it is red with white capital letters. Functionally, when a runner presses it, the treadmill stops moving immediately. The user experience design aspect is that the button is larger than all other buttons, and it is closest to the runner’s body. These characteristics are extremely useful in preventing injury. If a runner has suddenly lost her balance or is feeling stressed and overwhelmed–a state that can temporarily reduce the brain’s cognitive functioning–she doesn’t have to think much about how to stop the machine, she can almost do it reflexively.
stopsignContext matters: on this Precor treadmill, STOP is the largest button and is closest to the runner’s body.

Understand Your User’s Conceptual Model

A conceptual model, or mental model, is what a user believes about the product with which they are interacting. It is based on their previous experience and knowledge of both real-world and digital products. Jesse gives the example of a digital shopping cart. The cart is a metaphor for a real shopping cart at a physical store, in which a shopper collects items for purchases, then proceeds to the checkout line to make the purchase. This works well as a conceptual model for online shoppers to understand the process of selecting and purchasing items on their computer.

When the conceptual model breaks down, users will have a poor experience with a product. For example, I have taught three beginning-level Adobe InDesign classes and noticed common mistakes that students make in learning the software. One of them is related to using the Text Wrap feature, which allows the user to select an object that is stacked on top of a text frame, and then make the text wrap around that object.

The common mistake comes from students who have been using Adobe Illustrator. Their conceptual model–what they believe about the functionality of Text Wrap–is based on using that feature in Illustrator. The problem, as you can probably guess, is that the feature works differently in InDesign. It actually requires an additional step to turn “on” the wrap. As a result, students are mystified as to why the text isn’t wrapping. They believe they are using the feature correctly, based on what they have learned as the model in Illustrator.

AI_TextWrapIn Illustrator, selecting Text Wrap, then Make, immediately activates the text wrap feature.

INDD_TextWrap_step1Different from Illustrator, selecting Text Wrap in InDesign opens a panel but does not activate the feature.

INDD_TextWrap_step2Once the panel is open in InDesign, another step is required: choosing the type of wrap.