man working in isolation
PHOTO: Matthew Henry

Anyone looking to develop effective applications and websites is familiar with user experience. When done right, UX can dramatically increase the adoption of applications and creates easy-to-use solutions. When done in isolation, it can go very wrong.

The user experience (UX) disconnect happens when so-called experts begin defining the problem without taking known constraints into account. These constraints are often otherwise known as requirements.

I admit I'm guilty of working with end-users to deliver the "ideal state" for an application — after all, you don’t want people to be afraid of asking for something because they don't think it's possible. However, at a certain point you need to incorporate the real-world into the UX process. This results in designs that are both functional and realistic while still providing a positive user experience.

Pretty Is Not the Goal

An industry colleague shared a nightmare scenario with me the other day: They attended a meeting where they were shown the UX team's design for a website. The UX team had created this design without knowing what content would need to be delivered to the people using the site.

The result was aesthetically pleasing and quite useless.

When designing a website, you need to understand the content first. What information are you conveying? The content doesn’t have to be perfect, but it needs to be clearly representative of what the end site will need to deliver. It needs to help people achieve their goals. You can have a beautiful site that scrolls smoothly and is perfectly responsive, but if you don’t put the right content in, how do you know if it is delivering the desired user experience?

Related Article: User Experience Debt Is Sapping Our Productivity

There’s Not Always an App for That

Most of my work over the past decade has been around internal content services. Our interfaces are data-driven, and the “content” is composed of documents and records. During one review session, we were discussing a future phase of the application. It was beautiful and I could see how the design was going to make everyone’s job a lot easier.

Unfortunately it was impossible to deliver.

A challenge in large digital transformation efforts is that different parts of the organization are transformed at different rates. This is to be expected, as changing everything at once requires a number of very capable teams and even more money. In reality, some aspects of the business become digital faster. Those components continue to evolve as the rest of the organization catches up on the digital maturity scale.

In this case, we were one of the vanguard teams. We weren't necessarily the best, but we had started first. Our domain was the most technologically backward on day one and needed to be addressed quickly. By tackling our problem first, the business realized immediate gains.

The issue with the proposed update was it assumed every other department had become fully digital and could provide the needed information. That was a faulty assumption. In a year it would be true, but it wasn't the current reality. Showing that to staff would have created unrealistic expectations which could have potentially killed adoption of our solution.

Related Article: Why Can't Enterprises Get User Experience Right?

UX Needs to Work With Developers

The UX team needs to work closely with the people implementing the designs. In the first case, the web content management (WCM) developers looked at the design and immediately raised some red flags. The design could not be readily implemented in the WCM. It could work with a few changes, but the users were already expecting the proposed design. If the teams had worked together, the UX designers could have better understood the technical constraints of the underlying system and found a useful, functional design that the developers could implement.

In another scenario, I was working with a government client and the UX team delivered a design that was not Section 508 compliant. For those unfamiliar with Section 508, it establishes the US Federal rules for application accessibility. Luckily, the necessary changes were minor and when the resulting UX was shown to users, it tested quite well. We had our Section 508 experts work with the UX team, so they understood the accessibility requirements. Future designs were more compliant going forward.

Related Article: Why Good UX for Internal Customers Matters

Good UX Requires a Team Effort

The difference between UX success stories and UX horror stories is pretty clear: When designers go off and build a design on their own, the result may not be realistic. The resulting discussions can become very confrontational as people try to defend and justify their positions.

When the UX team works with the implementers to build within the system and organizational constraints, success usually follows. Additionally, it makes the hand-off to the development team smoother as the developers already understand the desired design and the thought process behind it. This kind of teamwork leads to the delivery of a winning application.