Keep your UX design on target with useful constraints

Identifying the right target and staying focused is necessary for success. It’s as important to your next project as it was to Luke Skywalker hitting a small target to detonate a Death Star. Design constraints are the easiest way to keep your project on target for success.

‘User Experience’ is a term charged with ambiguity. There are many widely conflicting definitions and rambly explanations. Add the word ‘Design’ on the end, and the meaning gets murkier. It doesn’t need to be so complicated.

The #1 frustration for those of us who architect and design user xxperience (UX) is explaining how “what we do” differs from a) graphics design, b) marketing and c) development. If you were an electrical engineer, psychologist, geologist or entrepreneur, people who do not do your job have a roughly correct idea of the sort of work you do while firmly grasping that they DO NOT know your job. Unfortunately, everyone seems to think they know what user experience is and what that involves.

user experience is a strategic and tactical approach

to getting value from design.

In other words, user experience is a process that should be at the table when products are being conceived and deserves funding because UX is about making products valuable. If someone is just making your product pretty without adding value, they aren’t doing good UX.

Constraints vs Functional Requirements

Functional requirements form a specification of what functions are to be built. Useful design constraints are more fundamental. UX is concerned with needs, not functions. If we don’t know who customers are and what underlying needs we are serving, we don’t know what functionality to build. If we don’t know the users’ mental model associated with those needs, we don’t know how to design interfaces that make sense. Good functional specs and visual design depend on UX analysis of real users.

Stop Scope Creep for Better ROI

Without design constraints, companies TRY to deliver an open-ended number of features of equally high value to an audience that includes nearly EVERYBODY. In the old days, this resulted in a pedestrian product that people tolerated. Lately, that approach usually leads to failure. Feature creep and audience creep (collectively known as scope creep) are the enemy of good user experience.

Return on Investment (ROI) is important. Don’t do things that don’t matter. However, if management thinks they can *maximize* ROI by making all possible customers and all features top priority, mediocre is the best you can do because designers don’t have focus. Even a nicely constrained project can be led to ruin by scope creep. Trying for too broad an audience, often results in low or no ROI.

If you want to dig deeper into a model for valuing UX work so that managers want to fund it and designers produce results, check out my article focused on just this topic.

Stop Overpromising by setting Boundaries

The job of marketing is to find out what users want and promise them something better than competitors. Graphics designers make it pretty and developers build it.

Nothing reeks of ‘experience poison‘ more than

overpromising and underdelivering.

When users feel annoyed, frustrated or confused, you’ve got ‘Experience Poison’. Nothing is perfect, but negative experience erodes brand trust quickly. The more features you offer, the more likely something won’t be right. The more that marketing promises, the harder it is to deliver something to customers that doesn’t feel underwhelming. UX helps marketing pull those promises back in line with reality.

You can’t delight users with what they get unless

you underpromise before you overdeliver.

It’s good that graphics designers want to make things look awesome, but without design constraints, designers can run off the rails for actual customers. If users notice how beautiful your design is, it’s too much sizzle, not enough steak. Understated is more usable.  UX  helps focus design on actual market segments. For example, if designing for aging boomer and GenX generations (late 40s to 70s), don’t design trendy for the facebook generation unless you wish to exclude and snub those older users.

What about Products Everyone Uses?

There are some products that seemingly everyone uses. These products didn’t set out aiming at EVERYONE as a target market. It simply doesn’t work. I have personal experience designing something that *eventually* was used by almost everyone. I did it by designing for only three (3) important, targeted personas. Those personas were the most likely to see the highest value in our product and the most likely to be Mavens and Influencers who spread the word to others. If you completely satisfy a few key personas, you’ve got a successful product. If those personas are influential, people you did not design for may adopt the product too.

Constraints Help You Stay On Target

Design around your core audience and their their blockbuster tasks to constrain your design space. Constraints make designers and developers happy since their work is more likely to be successful. Is your target “being successful” or merely “getting something out there”?  Deciding what you’re not building and who you’re NOT designing for is as important as anything else we do.

You only have to do a few things right so long as you don’t do too many things wrong. – Warren Buffet



About Bill Stewart

Bill Stewart is a UX Architect & Designer who loves great experience at work and play. Whether he's designing a customer experience, lindy hop dancing, or teaching Wing Chun, he looks to maximize the value in every interaction.

11 thoughts on “Keep your UX design on target with useful constraints

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