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How Do I Design the Obvious?

Obvious design is the result of a process that reveals the goals of your users, the contexts in which they use your sites and software, and the tasks they really want to achieve. To acquire the information you need to design a successful project, several practices should be put into play. Following is a high-level overview of each of these practices.

  • Project definition. In the beginning of a project, it’s vital to uncover the purpose of the site or tool, the goals for the business, and the scope of the project. Armed with this information, you can much more easily define the target audience and prevent confusion later on.
  • User research. Once you understand the purpose of the site or tool and understand the business goals, it’s time to analyze the target audience and figure out who will be using the end product. The goal here is to create a set of "personas," which are personalized versions of user profiles—personalized in that they feature personal details for fictitious users, based on a study of the target audience. Personas are the result of interviews, contextual inquiry (the onsite observation of users in the environments they’re likely to be in when using your product), surveys, and organizational exercises. Obvious design focuses completely on users, so they remain involved throughout the process.
  • Screenflows, storyboards, and wireframes. These fancy terms describe what are essentially blueprints for your product, covering the information architecture, the overall appearance of the product, and the details of individual interactions. For me, this is the really fun part. This is where you get to break out your pencil and paper, favorite flowcharting software (such as Microsoft Visio or OmniGraffle), or even a napkin, and begin shaping the requirements of a product into something you can see and show people for initial feedback.
  • Prototypes. Prototypes are essential for designing the obvious. With a quick prototype, you can test your design by sticking it in front of users, running through use cases (also known as scenarios), and imagining how the personas you created for the project would handle the design. There are many ways to create a prototype, varying greatly in purpose and result, but any prototype will help surface potential design issues, which makes prototyping a valuable tool for any project.
  • Usability testing. Usability testing should never be the only thing you do to justify your designs, but it’s certainly a great tool for determining how your designs work when used by real people. While often performed in usability labs and other contrived environments, usability testing can actually be simple, cheap, and quick; in many cases, there’s no need at all for a formal usability lab. Instead, you can utilize short, simple tests with representative users within your organization, family members, etc. The efficiency of usability tests is limited only to how creative you can get while still achieving concrete results.
  • Other design techniques. All this design work rarely covers every detail. New requirements inevitably show up halfway through a project, and the boss’ pet feature invariably finds a way back into the application, regardless of how hard you try to get rid of it. When things like this occur, you can still keep the product on track and as smooth as you intended by running interference with some crafty, quick design work before a new feature is coded.
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