Designing meaning: translating insight into design

A high level meaning map showing the process, friction points and opportunities. Key elements have been modelled using Balsamiq wireframes.

Figure 1: Modeling the total user experience for the university submission process.

Translating insight and knowledge into meaningful interaction design

This article will focus on the actual ‘shaping’ or designing of meaningful interaction.  Understanding what is actually meaningful to people in terms of their interaction and the form it should take represents the very essence of ‘designing a great experience’.  However, equal importance must also be placed on accurately translating our understanding so a design can feel as meaningful as possible.

The design represents the fundamental part of the experience that we actually use and ultimately enjoy – it is the bit that touches us!

Mapping experience

So, you’ve done the research, analysed the data and generated the insights that will shape the design.  You may be designing an intranet, a website, online software or a mobile application.  It could even be a combination of digital and physical services, representing a holistic cross-channel experience.

Regardless of the proposed technology the ultimate goal is to make any design and the experience as meaningful as possible to the user.  A major design challenge influencing our users’ understanding in recent years is designing for multiple channels.  Designing cross-channel interactions adds complexity and is particularly relevant because many organisations will have to face up to the challenges presented.  Understanding the cross-channel should be in on every UXers radar because I believe it is where the UX industry is heading: we have to think in terms of user experience as an ecology.  The best way to solve such challenges is by delivering a meaningful experience.

Regardless of the product, service or ecology being designed (or optimised) the greater the meaning of the final experience, the greater its authenticity and the level of user engagement that is generated.  This is important because we can feel meaning when we are interacting with digital technology.  The greater our feeling the more meaningful our experience.

Translation can make or break a design

Let’s revisit the importance of translation because this is where all the hard work that was spent discovering the vital insights and knowledge about your audiences, how they actually behave and what they expect, comes to life.  However, this is also the point where things can go horribly wrong!

This is why translation is such a critical skill in the user-experience design equation.  Accurate translation can represent the difference between an average website experience and one that feels amazing.  Obviously, as designers we are not aiming for ‘MEH’ we are aiming for ‘WOW’!

In the very early days of the web, websites were pretty basic.  Research was not a practice that website designers needed to consider because the web was so new.

New things tend to feel more novel and exciting however almost 20 years after the first websites were launched, a lot has changed.  People will often visit a website as their first point of call.  Furthermore, people will have specific expectations about a website they are visiting.  Therefore, being new is no longer a defense for a bad experience.

Organisations have learnt that the importance and value of understanding their website’s audience needs, their expectations and their motivations will help them to shape and deliver a better design experience.

Build it and they will come (or leave)!

I believe the ‘dot-com crash’ around the turn of the century rekindled the importance and value of customer research as an important part of the design process.  The often touted ‘The Field of Dreams’ approach was ‘build it and they will come’, and this did not leverage the return on investment (ROI) people were expecting and anticipating.

In many ways the ‘dot-com crash’ was very good for the emerging digital industry as a whole because better websites started to emerge as people expected better website experiences.  This idea has now manifested itself as being of ‘defacto’ importance within the digital design process with a great user experience being viewed as a top priority to achieve.

I think of the overlap between research and design as the actual user experience we feel – it represents the ‘best fit’ between design and research.  Figure 2 below shows the relationship between research and design and the overlap created when both processes start to work together – this overlap or fit  is ‘the’ experience.  The better the fit (e.g. the bigger the overlap) the greater the level of underlying behaviours that are supported and therefore the expectations we are getting right.  This manifests as even more people experiencing a better solution or service.  This can only been seen as a positive outcome.

So, the increasing focus on user experience represents a pretty big transformation in the way websites are designed and built.  Understanding and researching customer behaviour has become an integral part of the design and development process.

So what’s happening to user experience design?

The future of user-experience design (UXD) has been debated for a while.  I do not intend to dive into that debate here.  However, I feel something profound is happening within the UX community.  I believe we are witnessing the evolution of UXD.

Figure 2: The evolution of web design as initially a design-led activity with little research input to one that has become much more user-centred and will evolve eventually into a meaning-centred approach. The overlap represents the fit.

The focus on designing meaningful experiences is reinforced by the need to deliver interactions that people expect and enjoy using.  I am calling the approach Meaning-Centred Design (MCD).

This approach is a reflection of the increasing overlap (best fit) between our behaviour and the technologies we use (design) to support that behaviour.  People are actively looking for experiences that are meaningful.  As designers it means we have to place even greater focus on understanding behaviour from social, cognitive and emotional perspectives.  We have to understand what is meaningful to people and why it is meaningful if we are planning on delivering an experience that accurately meets peoples’ expectations.

We need to feel in control

People expect to feel in control of the things they do and this is especially relevant for digital experiences because anything that impairs our sense of control will not be perceived as a good thing.  It will not be considered obvious, most likely confusing.  Ultimately something to be tolerated at best, and at worst, avoided!

The need for understanding (meaning) will only increase as people’s expectations about their digital experiences grow.  There is so much information around us and this means interactions need to feel more meaningful.  We will judge a digital experience by its interaction and therefore the quality of meaning we feel.

This quest for meaning should not be seen as a new approach or insight into understanding human behaviour because we are biologically driven to generate meaning.  This is why we spend billions of pounds building technology like the Large Hadron Collider  to understand the fundamental fabric of the universe – we need to understand how it works and therefore what it ‘all’ means.  Meaning is at the very heart of our humanity and is one of the defining characteristics of being human.

Future gazing

The final movement in the UX opus, I predict will represent a complete symbiosis between research and design.  All digital services and solutions will be created with the idea of maximising the ‘best possible fit’ and therefore delivering an optimal experience.  I believe thinking about experience as an ecology with many interconnected pieces is not a novel idea but a necessary one.

My prediction is that this change will probably happen within the next 5 years and definitely within the next 10 years.  The challenge for any organsiation with a less than adequate understanding of the UXD process is how best to adopt and embrace MCD.  You cannot skip ahead to a MCD  approach unless you have reasonably good UXD skills, thinking and strategy.  UXD is the foundation on which to establish and build an MCD approach.

The one team approach

When I was thinking about setting up Nomensa back in 2000 I thought long and hard about the skills we would need.  What I concluded was that psychology, design and computer science would represent the major disciplines.  I decided this combination represented the most effective and balanced skill sets to deliver user-centred design solutions.  This idea has not changed and the three disciplines still represent the core skills that I believe are important in crafting meaningful interaction design.

 

One sign post showing the three disciplines of design, technology and psychology all going in different directions and another sign post showing them going in the same direction

Figures 3: Image of sign posts with design, psychology and technology all going in different directions and one image of them coming together!

There are many things about human behaviour which can not be worked out by guessing because understanding behaviour can often be counter-intuitive.  This is why I feel psychology is such an essential skill in the UXD process and even more so, in the MCD process.

Psychologists are trained to understand human behaviour, design experiments, analyse data, generate insights and trends.  Designers on the other hand are trained in representing information effectively, adding aesthetic difference and creating visual appearance and personality.  To design meaningful interaction requires both disciplines to work together harmoniously – hence, research and design.

I believe UX researchers generate the insights and the UX designers and developers translate them into stylish interaction experiences.  The whole process must be extremely collaborative and fluid.  Yet, it is important not to get confused or overwhelmed by the complexity of human behaviour because as long as we capture the right insights we can build a meaningful experience at the surface level.  The challenge then becomes ‘can we make the surface meaning have a level of ‘experience integrity’ so it can evoke a deeper understanding in our users?’.

Meaning-first manifesto

The combined efforts of design, psychology and technology thinking produces the meaningful interaction design we, our clients and their customers are expecting.  Therefore, taking a ‘meaning first’ approach typically results in more positive outcomes and sometimes the results can be transformational (and completely unexpected, and even surprising).  Another benefit is that our clients tell us that, not only do we do good work but we leave a legacy of understanding and knowledge.

We must consider the meaning we want to design, what clients want us to create and customers expectations throughout a project -  and beyond.  I’ve recently co-authored a piece that touches on the importance of building meaning into the whole design process that outlines the importance of using fidelity as a mechanism for doing exactly that.  I believe this approach helps clients to better embrace digital technology, and ultimately get much closer to their customers by providing them with more meaningful interactions.

Meaning is the something we all desire and want?

This article has raised the importance of meaning within the design of any digital product and how important a multidisciplinary team is to ensuring correct translation of research through to meaningful design.  If we want our audiences to feel something positive and meaningful when interacting with our digital products and services we have to ensure the ‘best fit’ between research and design has a lot of overlap and fits tightly.

Alison Gopnik argues we have an ‘innate explanatory drive’ that motivates us to focus on things that make us feel pleasure whether it be sex or solving a problem of some kind.  Therefore, understanding why things work and function in the way they do actually makes us feel good.  I tend to agree with this thinking and if you look at the Necker Cube example in fidelity article you can appreciate that actually seeing the change feels pleasurable and that’s because our brains are highly motivated by seeking pleasure.

Maybe, this is one of the reasons why we search for meaning in everything we do because it is hardwired into our brains.  You could argue we are intrinsically motivated to assign meaning to the things we observe and experience in our lives because we have too!  It’s biological.  Either way, our drive for meaning is undeniable and we should therefore aim to satisfy it with the experiences we create.

Conversely, we are all consumers.  Yet, we cannot rely on the arrogance of this perspective to represent the main guiding force behind the design process.  What I really mean is, we need to allow the research to guide the design.  Otherwise, we are completing a design Mae Culpa and allowing a ‘design by monarchy’ approach to influence our work.  Human behaviour can be counter-intuitive and complex and it is important we understand it – work it out!

We can never know how any person will actually experience our design and when scaled up from a single individual to a group this represents a ‘mind-boggling’ level of uncertainty.  How can we design for such uncertainty?  It will require ‘mind-boggling’ focus and ingenuity but I believe we can.  Therefore, we must not become detracted by the complexity of the task and keep our ambition focused on designing meaningful interaction experiences: we know one thing – we all desire meaningful experiences.

By bringing people together that care, and have grounding in psychology, design and development, it means we are taking the right path and we are heading in the right direction.

A manifesto for UXD: meaning-first

In my next article about meaning I will present my framework ‘meaning first’ which will outline how we can take a meaning-centred approach.

 

Read the rest of the series:

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About the Author

Nomensa Founder & CEO. After 17 years of dedication to user-experience design (UXD) Simon has been around the block a few times! Simon's passions are creativity and innovation. Simon believes that digital technology should not feel like completing the Rubik's Cube - that represents a big bad fail! Great experiences should feel engaging, intuitive and easy. Simon also believes that great interaction experiences are designed from a top-down approach and focus on uncovering what is meaningful.

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