4 Apr 2012
Lately, there's been some concern within the UX community about folks doing crazy things like skipping the critical IA step or ditching wireframes to go straight to hi-fidelity comps. Behind this is an implicit accusation: By choosing to ignore traditional UX methods and deliverables, you're not really practicing good UX.
So... I think there's a difference between skipping a phase versus internalizing a phase. As young students, we go through a very formal writing process in order to learn the skills needed to be a good writer; I doubt very seriously that any of us go through that same, explicit process as mature writers. We've internalized those things we were taught. I've found the same true of my work, where frankly it might appear that I am skipping "steps," and am going straight to visual design, but I (personally) no longer have the need to expose these steps. Moreover, by going straight to a screen, people (stakeholders and users) are able to experience the IA & IxD by way of something pretty darn close to the final experience. This results in far better feedback than I ever got from abstractions like site maps or wireframes. One caveat, this "internalized" approach doesn't scale to very large projects where the complexity is much greater (say, a very large site with tens of 1000s of pages). But, for most small web sites and all web apps, this integrated approach has worked great; I've traded steps for multiple rounds of iteration, which allows for much more learning and feedback early on. Of course, the approach I'm describing assumes some prerequisite amount of experience...
Still, some will say that we must tease apart a project into discrete, isolated steps to get proper feedback on just the structure or just the interaction concept or just the look and feel. I say this is rubbish. Human beings don't think about content separate from presentation separate from structure separate from [fill in the blank]… We experience the world around us as one integrated whole. By insisting that we create these artificial distinctions, we confuse more than help. Take wireframes: We've all hear clients ask "Is this what it's going to look like?" This should be a clear signal that this artifact isn't working. As human beings we experience the world around us using all of our senses. Asking someone to comment just on the interaction or just on the structure--independent of the other pieces -- is a bit like asking someone to judge a chocolate chip cookie based on only a handful of ingredients. "Here, these are the wet ingredients (eggs, sugars, vanilla)--what do you think of this cookie?" How can we possibly expect to get good feedback on such an incomplete experience?
I'd argue for an integrated, holistic approach to UX that serves up as complete an experience as possible, as early on in the process as possible. I'm talking days, maybe even hours in some cases. This is not so we can be done more quickly, but so that we can use this new found time to iterate more frequently with actual users, leading to better, more user focused experiences. This approach is both more efficient and more effective. And hasn't this always been the goal? To build value for an organization through the design of useful and desirable customer experiences? Why should we settle for a process that puts artifacts and process ahead of experiences? As with writing, going through the motions of UX is for the rookies. I'd rather do whatever it takes, even if it mean getting out of my comfort zone and learning a new approach or skill, to create the experiences that actually improve peoples lives.