Foundation Series: User Experience Disciplines

requirements classroom

What the heck is UX?

UX, pronounced you-ex, is the shorthand for user-experience. It represents the science and art of tailoring the experience that users have with a product – in our case, software. UX is a relatively new term, rapidly overtaking HCI (human-computer interface) and CHI (computer-human interface) as the acronym du jour. In some circles it is known as human-factors engineering, applied to software design. There are several disciplines within this field, we’ll introduce each of them.

We talk about the different roles within this field in several posts throughout Tyner Blain. The following are introductory explanations for these roles.

Information Architecture (IA)

The study of information and it’s presentation to people. Also the study of how people interact with information. Many software packages allow users to manage complex information. Information can be presented in ways that make it easier for people to absorb and understand.

As a very simple example, imagine a website that allows you to research the cost of living in different cities in the USA. There are thousands of cities in the country. IA helps with designing a user interface that allows users to get information for a specific city. An IA specialist would recognize that cities can be organized by state. In fact, cities in different states can have the same name, like Springfield, Missouri and Springfield, Illinois. But two cities within the same state won’t have the same name. This insight can be applied to present a design where the user selects a state first, which then filters a list of the cities within that state.

A corporate internet may really be the combination of several different standalone websites – a company news bulletin or blog, an interface to the HR system, a download center for installing corporate-approved software, an email directory for the company, etc. IA specialists will determine how to organize all of these functions so that employees can intuitively find what they need and get as much benefit out of the site as possible.


The study of what makes software easy to use or hard to use. A usability specialist will look at the tasks that a user needs to perform, and analyze the most intuitive or efficient ways to perform them. Think of the sequence of steps that you take when adding a graph of data in Microsoft excel. There is a wizard that walks you through a series of questions in order to create the graph for you. A usability specialist determined the best sequence in which to ask and answer those questions.
Usability specialists will also make holistic assessments of how an application or suite of applications behave. This helps users gain competence or mastery of software more quickly. All of Microsoft’s applications use the same approach for opening and saving files (same menus, same shortcut keys, same dialogs, etc). This is the result of usability analysis.

A usability specialist will also be the person who determines how to make software great for novice and experts alike. This is critical to having successful software – the experts are the people who will promote your software for you, but they won’t become experts unless they survive the novice-user break-in period.

Graphic (or Visual) Design

Some people erroneously think of visual designers as the people who make software sexy. The can certainly do that, but graphic design is as much about creating emotions for the users, consistency of presentation, and establishing elements of brand as it is about sexy. This is what makes a Macintosh look like a Macintosh (while usability specialists make it great to use).

A graphic designer can create a set of consistent icons that make an application feel professional, and make the user feel whatever the designer wants. Graphic designers can make the user interface feel different enough to create a notion of uniqueness and branding (association of the images with the product or company), while also keeping them consistent enough with “everybody else” that users know what to do. Another technique is to create an affordance visually. An affordance is an image or element that suggests an action. A dial says “turn me” while a slider says “slide me.”

This can be very subtle and very powerful.

boring scrollbar

Think about scrollbars for a second. Most scrollbars have a pretty boring look. There are tiny up and down arrows at the top and bottom – which create an affordance that says “click on me and the window will move up (or down). That’s good design. There’s also a grey bar in the middle. In some user interfaces, the size of that bar is proportional to the amount of the content that is currently visible. This gives the user some insight into how much content is hidden – another good visual design. A user can also click and drag the grey bar up and down to move the contents of the window. There are no visible cues that this would work, a user would have to be shown that this works. Another example of “hidden” functionality is the ability to click in the light grey “background” of a scrollbar – it causes the contents of the window to page up or page down. Again, without training or an errant click, people would not know this.

cool scrollbar

If we make a tiny change to that scrollbar by adding a few lines in the center, we create a tactile effect – implying that the user can “grab” it with the mouse. This scrollbar screams “grab me”. Subtle, but powerful.

Interaction Design

Interaction Designers are a different breed.  They focus on the software at a higher level, using a goal-driven process to focus on the intent and objectives of the users.

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Check out the index of the Foundation Series posts which will be updated whenever new posts are added.

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