Design isn't static

And neither are our users. Our work should never stop at Photoshop. It’s meant to be touched, played with, broken, etc. Designing a product without including the users in the design process is like building a way-finding system without ever stepping foot onsite. We can only rely on intuition and experience for so long before we forget why we started designing in the first place.

Kathy Sierra puts it simply in her book Badass: Making Users Awesome:
"We’ve been looking in the wrong place. The key attributes of sustained success don’t live in the product. The key attributes live in the user. Instead of looking for common attributes across successful products, we must look for common attributes across successful users of those products."

The User Gap
At Funsize our main focus is product design. Our process blends both UI and UX practices into a single form which is uncommon for a digital agency of our size. Working agile demands unconventional strategies and constant process evaluation. For example, we’ve delivered gifs of key animations, pitched ideas from the users perspective, a/b tested without the clients knowledge, and even used entire sprints to write user stories. The struggle of intense, focused work is that it requires one to maintain both first person and third person perspectives which can make process evaluation very difficult while in action.

We’re extremely confident in our choices as we are all well informed users. We download new apps daily, evaluate the design choices, and determine if patterns and style have succeeded. For any designer starting out in interactive (or any design field), this is a necessary practice. Funsize is unique in that we work closely with product companies, specifically their project managers as if we were their in-house design team. Having data supplied by our client is pretty amazing and conducting research in Funsize to test that is a strong step in the right direction.

When clear gaps in an agencies process are ignored, it can lead to stagnation. Trying new strategies and finding out they are unsuccessful is more valuable than not trying at all — a large factor in why we continue to work only internally on Fridays. In the case of Funsize, we’re relatively young and this stagnation is far off, however the path that will take us there is obvious. One thing we can never forget is design is a service. We cannot forget our users desires. If they do not want or like the design they will not use it.

What can we do?

Fortunately at Funsize, we don’t work with clients on Fridays. We’ve allotted time for research and opportunities to grow our practices and take risks outside of the client work week. These are the strategies I have been focusing on in direct conversation with our user problem.

Prototype all the things. Right now our main tool for prototyping flows is Invision (I use the term prototype here loosely) and it isn’t living up to my expectations. Flows for native exists within the web app and therefore are limited to what the web can do. I would argue that using basic html and css within Phonegap would be a better way to achieve what Invision is aiming for since the prototype is useable and is of higher fidelity than linked static screens. Even Keynote can get you 80–90% of the way there just by showing how something works with movement. Our current engagements do not focus on development but purely design at Funsize which makes the challenge of user testing a little more difficult on our end without client support.

Qualitative research. We can user test the quality of flows focused on design and interaction (i.e. not sales influenced) with tools like Pixate and Form although we’re limited to single moments within the app. Friends, family, and the kind folks at Capitol Factory could become potential user testers. It’s unfortunate that the scope is so limited but this will hopefully make for more focused research outcomes.

Quantitative research. As I’ve stated above, we don’t have the advantage of shipping code to a large pool of users for A/B testing without client support. We’ll have to write something within our statements of work for research of this size. Using data collected from our client’s analytics is arguably the most powerful tool to make informed design decisions. One example of an informed design decision that Alex Baldwin shared with me was a small addition to Envoy’s sign up screen. By adding a column to the right of the sign up forms that feature value adds they discovered through time and user testing, they increased their conversion rate by 30%.
Learn how to receive useful feedback. Users will not be helpful 100% of the time and their feedback can work against you if you let the user make all of the design decisions. This is highly situational, but knowing what kind of feedback you need is more important than just getting any feedback you can. Amy Hoy illustrates this point by replacing the word ‘user’ with ‘player’ and challenging the designer to watch for when the user attempts to “break the rules.” You can read more about that here.

Bridging the gap.
Relying on someone else’s data isn’t preferred, but sometimes necessary when conducting research. Every engagement should allow for testing and there are several methods in which to conduct it depending on the scope of the project and stage. There is a practice I discourage called ‘the parent test’ since it’s based on agist grounds although the concept is useful if applied correctly. Everyone is a user so logic follows that anyone should be able to use your product. Friends, social media, and even craigslist can be a source of feedback. Collect user stories from a handful of people so you as the designer better understand your research. Arthur Bodolec from Feedly makes a point that if you don’t gather stories from users “you’re going to start designing features for people who don’t really exist.”

Further reading
Listen Before You Design: A Guide to User Testing Your Product by Feedly’s Design Co-Founder by Brady Dale.
6 reasons why you should be prototyping more by Tom Söderlund.
Selecting the best UX prototyping tool by Tom Söderlund.