Creating user experience 'magic'

When something exceeds your ability to understand how it works, it sort of becomes magical. Jonathan Ive

When Jonathan Ive commentates on his creations, he often eludes to the sense of 'magic'. He's not talking about a David Blane slight-of-hand, but he is talking about something special...something which gets people talking: 'How did he do that', 'how was that possible'? The same aims are true with user experience. Yes, we want to create products which retain and satisfy users and for the most part we use site analysis and satisfaction surveys to measure this effect...but what most user experience designers crave is that 'wow' factor.

In short, we are talking about creating social phenomenon.

Apple is very much a design led organisation and there is huge expectation to deliver that 'wow' factor with every new product release. That's a major burden. Just one lack lustre product release could spell the end of Apple's reign at the top.

These same pressures are true for every product development organisation in the world and I don't think Apple are quite ready to give up their special recipe...but of course we can speculate on just how they achieve it.

Of course, it would be crazy to suggest that designers are the only reason behind Apples success, but certainly if you were ask the average guy on the street what is Apple is famous for, I'd take a pretty certain bet that design would be among the first things they would say. In the same way that Google might be renown for its engineering.

So...how can interaction designers create magic?

1. Understand the user

Utilise every morsel of research or information you can get your hands on. If you can't find much research then analyse the competitors for competitive opportunities (Gap analysis). Look for those paradigm shifts in user experience which will leave your competitors catching up for years. Present your research back to your project team and share the knowledge.

2. Reduce distractions

Purity of thought in the design process is extremely important. There will always be angles that you haven't thought about, so be clear in your thinking. Why did I design it this way, what are the pros and cons of each approach and if there are technical constraints how else might I change the design?

I have heard (though I can't recall the source) that the Apple design team are kept separately from other departments in the complex. Only Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive have access to the design studio.

3. Ideate, Ideate...and ideate again

For me creativity is about planned failure. That may sound quite a downbeat way of looking at it, but what we are really doing when we ideate is filtering down by appropriateness.

This can be a really painful process. The key is retaining curiosity with a dash of naivety...this can be really tough if you have been working in the same company for years. So think about changing where you work or who you work with. Maybe organise a brainstorm with folk you have yet to work with.

Think about the tools you use to ideate. Can you do it quicker another way?

I work in a company which is full of engineers. For engineers errors are defects and they do not like making mistakes! You can't rely on others to promote creative thinking, so think about what you can do to feel more creative in your environment.

4. Influence

No designer can realise their dreams on their own. Period.

Jonathan Ive would be nothing without Steve Jobs and perhaps you could argue that Steve Jobs would be nothing without Jonathan Ive. Plus, you have to think about all those engineers, industrial designers, marketeers, product managers and project managers - all of which have to feel as excited about the design vision as you are.

Allow the experts around you to feed back on your work, let them enhance it and take ownership. The more that people buy into your idea, the more weight you have behind you when you present it to the masses.

Don't whatever you do, don't present your work without conducting at least a quick 'sanity check' with folk you trust.

5. Be open, curious and collaborate

Assert what you know, but never assume you know everything. Expand and develop your knowledge by listening to the people who know more than you.

Don't be afraid of critique. Getting that right feedback at the right time could transform your work two-fold.

6. Stick to your own plan

Everyone else in the company will have strict deadlines and you are no exception. Often you will be given a vague objective along with a firm deadline. Look at the deadline and establish what deliverables would meet that goal. Work backwards from that date and figure out what tasks and activities would need to take place in order to produce something which is both confident and compelling.

7. Use wall space

Put work on the walls. Show it off, even if its unfinished.

Beauty they say is in the eye of the beholder...so that one fragile idea could be transformed or bolstered by the people around you.

8. Test, test and test again

Take any chance you can to meet your users. Show them prototypes and ideas and gauge there responses in both quantitative (collate data) and qualitative ways (anecdotal quotes).

Don't spend ages writing a report, leave that to the folk who can do that well (user researchers). Move forward with the design without losing momentum.

9. Fun and humour

Producing ideas and creativity can be a huge burden on your soul, especially when you feel frustrated at your percieved lack of progress. Don't let the pursuit of that perfect idea kill your motivation. Take a moment to look after yourself...grab that coffee with a colleague, read that book, plan that vacation.

Never lose that sense of perspective, for this is the most important tool in the designers toolkit.

10. Know when to let go

Sometimes your excitement in your work may slowly erode your objectivity and the worst thing is...you don't even realise it! Don't waste energy on ideas that may not achieve those business goals, listen to the folk around you, tease out the feedback you need to keep the project on track. It might just be that simple.