Sketching, prototyping — The key to solving design problems

A leading figure in the British user experience community, Cennydd Bowles is a user experience designer and writer based in Brighton, England. He works in design and strategy at Clearleft, a UK-based design agency well-known as a leader in user experience, and his book, Undercover User Experience Design, written with colleague James Box, has been acclaimed as “a must-have for your bookshelf”.

In a recent blog post Bowles wrote:

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Design is inherently less predictable than most other product fields, since it closely involves emotion, comprehension, taste and all those complex, deeply human attributes. That means that design is a gamble. A good designer will improve your odds, but there’s always a chance that their hypotheses (which, after all, is the most any designer can provide) will prove to be false. A solution that works in one context may fail in another. Because there’s not this replicability of process, there can never be scientific “truth” in design; experiments, observation, and iteration are the only way forward.

Memeburn chatted to Bowles and he was excited to share his knowledge about user experience, as well as to see how the huge adoption of mobile technology is affecting the way the user experience industry is moving on the African continent.

Memeburn: What core lessons or questions do you think designers should ask themselves about their design process?

Cennydd Bowles: How the user-centred design process can help us create things of genuine value — and profit as a result. Ways to validate our assumptions about users. Methods for learning from our early designs and improving our products through intelligent iteration.

MB: You travel a lot, which puts you in a great position to observe humanity in many different contexts and locations. What do you normally look out for on your travels, for inspiration and insight into how people work?

CB: I tend not to arrive with any specific agenda; it’s more about being open and observant, ready to be surprised by differences. However, I do find myself drawn to the way that technology mediates personal interaction. Are people using mobile devices, say, to share information, or are they using them as a shield against the world around them? I’m also eager to learn the protocols of communication within a new place, both verbal and non-verbal.

MB: In many ways, the services you’ll see in emerging markets such as South Africa (especially around banking and telecoms) are more functional and more efficient than some of their developed world counterparts. From a UX perspective, what are you most interested in learning on this trip?

CB: I want to be surprised, informed and challenged. I want to know where South Africa is ahead, where it’s behind, and where it’s just doing things differently. Specifically, given that 57% of South African mobile internet users never use a desktop computer, I want to learn how this affects people’s experiences and mental models of technology and the web.

MB: What’s the trickiest design challenge you’ve encountered this year? How did you solve it?

CB: How best to help users of a food site to find a recipe that was recently broadcast. As with any design challenge, the key was a lot of sketching, prototyping, and being able to recognise when a favourite idea has nothing more to offer.

MB: Which products/services do you love so much that you wish you had helped bring them into the world?

CB: It’d be nice to put my name to the wheel. More recently: Dropbox or Instapaper — products that genuinely make my life better.

MB:You have an upcoming talk in South Africa which will cover UX for multiple platforms. Will you look at digital experiences only, or the blended experience where concept meets unexpected object?

CB: We’ll look primarily at digital experiences, since of course this is a tech conference — so expect us to look at the seams between web and native applications. However, you’re right to point out that many of our digital experiences also have touchpoints with the physical world; I’ve been researching these “physicodigital” hybrids for a while so I’m sure we’ll touch on them.

Cennydd Bowles is a speaker at Tech4Africa: Africa’s premier web, mobile and technology conference. Other speakers include Josh Spear, Adam Duvander, Herman Chinery-Hesse and Jonathan Gosier.

Image: Anna Debenham (Flickr)

Questions contributed by Basheera Khan

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