Embracing Technology for Better Experiences

In the beginning there was an idea. And the idea was formless and void, and it needed so much to be forged into a real project. And all the strategists, creatives, designers, project managers and techies were moving over the surface of it and spoke already different languages.

The thin line between excitement and disaster

You already know the story. It is about a downslope, leading from a brilliant idea to a mediocre final result. It is about misunderstanding and not checking feasibility. It is about not putting all the parts together, and trying to push a round peg into a square hole.

The ideas are much valuable but always need to be confronted with constraints. What does an idea need to be completed? Is it even feasible? In the world of digital projects, various factors need to be considered. One of these, and maybe the most obvious one, is technology.

You need to check if the project is feasible at various stages – not only at the very beginning, but also during production. In fact, each person in a digital project should know and understand a bit of what other people do. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? But reality says that each of the groups tend to pull some of the decisions within project towards them. My UX is more important than your visual design. My visual design is more important than your code. My code is more important than your UX.

Technology is a pivot here. No matter what, it is always a two-faced jack: a rock-solid foundation for the project and an impassable limitation. Trying to leap over this limitation can be fatal for a project. In other words – you can break some UX and visual design rules, but you will not turn a screen display into mirror or increase the throughput of the mobile link the end user has access to. Period.

In the kingdom of the blind the one-eyed are kings

You don’t need to be a one-man army. It is enough to know the basics and “feel” the constraints. Just know the limits and you are the king. A good web designer does know some CSS and understands how the fluid grids work to provide responsiveness for a site. This knowledge lets him to create designs that are more feasible to implement and are still creative. Good UX designer, at the same time, knows the technological constraints enough not to design something that simply won’t work. Front end developers and programmers need to understand how to adjust the technology to meet both requirements of the user experience design and visual design. It gets even more tricky when you need to fit the budget, of course.

This is why you need to adjust. This is why both basic and proper knowledge of the technology is so important. It usually manifests in having a strong team of people who understand technology. You are the trigger, you raise the flag, they do the rest on their dedicated field. Simple.

Anticipating technology

Anticipating technology is pretty much knowing the constraints and getting the most from the projects within these. The constraints come from various sources – both user- and server side. You need to anticipate the site performance, considering what kind, from what sources and how much data an interface will need to load, and what server side or javascript operations need to be performed in the background. Based on this feeling, you need to suggest patterns that will work properly in the (statistically) standard environment. Sometimes you just need to think server-wise, at other times you need to leave your desk (well, at least: mentally) and understand that real users do not use rocket-speed, 27” machines and the performance of their machines is significantly lower.

Of course, there are rational limits for adapting to user-side constraints. You won’t make everyone happy, you can only make happy the reasonable, statistical majority. But even then you can use graceful degradation for the rest of them. It is another great technique to provide the optimal level of awesomeness, just by slightly decreasing experiences for older browsers and slower machines.

Making everyone happy is a wrong direction to go. While it is, for sure, tempting, the cost of implementing it versus the real profit, either for users or for business owner of the project, can be unjustifiable. I remember one interesting case with providing users to upload some very specific file format (actually: a bunch of formats) to the server and perform very demanding transformations on the server-side. Providing it would need a significant increase of the project costs, only to satisfy a small number of users (like: 0.2% of them). There is no business justification to this.

Planning technology

Planning technology is going beyond the constraints. Sometimes, the strategic, functional and (what turns to be most important at the end) business requirements of the project need extra power. Without it, you will not be able to reach the expected return on the investment. While you have to adjust to the technology users have in their hands, you can do the best to build high-efficiency solutions on the server side, building thin-client interfaces rather than pushing all the responsibility on the end-user machine.

Using data warehouses is one of such situations. If a project needs to manipulate on high amounts of data, you need to be aware of that at the very stage of UX design. You will not be able to provide efficient patterns for data manipulation and presentation without it. You don’t need to be very specific about it – all you need to do is raising a flag at the very beginning to let everyone know and wait for the proper people to jump in and to the rest. Of course, as it is not your field, sometimes you may be wrong, but this is a matter to be checked by techies.

One of discussions I have once participated in, regarded displaying results of video search from multiple video-hosting services. While some of these displayed the results almost instantly, the other ones API returned results with a considerable delay. As the search engine idea was to display the search results that are most relevant to the search query, and there was a time limitation in receiving the full list of videos from all the sources, it could only be done at the cost of either of these: the results accuracy or delay. This is an example of situation, where UX needs to adapt to technology.

When it comes to planning technology, costs are involved. Sometimes heavy. It is a pity when it turns out in the end that you cannot afford a better technology within the given budget, but it happens sometimes. In these situations you need to go lean, maybe even the MVP way and stay at the level of providing the best you can. But, well, it’s worth trying to convince the boss, that the investment is necessary, anyway

Keeping track on the implementation

UX design is about designing experiences, not just interactions or wireframes. As such, it does not end with the last view designed, be it wireframe or graphic design. Keeping track on the implementation itself is important as this is the moment the designed interactions actually come to live.

It often happens that something goes wrong at the phase of implementation. The designed patterns are not implemented properly and the final product is far from what you have designed. Assuming that you have done your best anticipating and planning proper technology, this should not take place or at least the impact of it should be minimal (this is where nothing describes the situation better than the ole’ good tree project image – just google it).
Of course, situations take place, that you are not able to predict everything and it is necessary to adjust the UX idea on the fly. This aspect, however, gets minimized when your knowledge of technology is higher.

Sometimes, however, you can, especially when the project crew implements something that does work, but does not provide proper experience for the user. Take responsive images as an example. You can deal with them either in the browser (which, for users on mobile link means way more data to download, resulting in lower page loads and – in the end – lower conversion of the site). But there is also a possibility to provide this responsiveness on server side, preparing scaled versions of the images on the fly and serving these instead of their big brothers.

Getting inspired by technology

Technology, as already mentioned, cannot be only considered as constraint, it is also very inspiring. Even at a very basic level, it can lead to designing better interfaces. This is why a daily dose of Wired, WDL, TechCrunch or The Verge is so important. You learn new things, and even if you do not – you at least get aware of these and this leads to new ideas of using the new technologies and, as a result, designing better experiences.

So read a lot. And ask a lot.
“Why don’t we use that, I have read about it somewhere?”
Surely, why not?

Some quick and practical tips:

  • Keep track on technology – you don’t need to be a tech guru, a basic knowledge is fair enough to track usability problems at the very beginning, find new possibilities and come up with new, better ideas.
  • Try to work with people who have general knowledge about the technological aspects of the project, even if it is not their main field.
  • Do a feasibility check at the stages of ideation, UX design and graphic design.
  • Think budget-wise. Find out which changes can give your project a boost that justifies additional investments.
  • Check if during implementation things go into the right direction. If necessary, adjust your strategy, UX and design to deal with technological constraints that appear during production.

The article was published for the first time on Web Design Ledger.

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