The Layers of UX Design Decisions

Being a User Experience designer comes with a huge responsibility...

What you decide can dramatically impact a business. This is both a blessing and a curse. Having the role of crafting the vision of a product is empowering, but it also means that product has to really function when it enters the hands of actual users. As a UX designer you have to make sure what you design works for the business, marketing, different types of users, the engineering effort, and of course this all has to be done within a certain timeframe. Decisions can be large or small, but considering all the different layers will result in higher quality choices and in turn a more successful project.

Interface and Aesthetics

The first thing people tend to think about when it comes to design is how it looks. For UX designers this is an important consideration when designing the interface. Does green mean success? Or is this the brand color? Does this action look clickable? How does the user know this button is disabled?

Find balance between the expected and the avante garde.

Visual communication is a hugely important factor of making a design decision. These decisions tend to fall on a spectrum between typicality and novelty. Typicality meaning it’s somewhat mundane because everyone has seen it a 1,000 times before. Novelty meaning it’s unique and special. The sweet spot is finding a balance between the familiar and the original. 

An example of an interface with typical aesthetics is one that doesn’t matter that much apart from it’s functional attributes – something like a settings page. An interface with novel aesthetics is something like a trendy marketing landing page for a hip new fashion brand – it’s about the statement the design makes by its uniqueness.

User Experience Friction

Friction is a term used to describe anything that prevents users from accomplishing their goals or getting things done – simply put, it’s the difficulty of accomplishing a task. This is often thought of as “how many clicks does it take to do X,” but it’s much more nuanced. You might be able to accomplish a task in 1 click by designing a single page with 5,000 buttons, but the time required to find that right action might be longer than having a navigation system with multiple clicks that narrows the list from 5,000 to 100 to 5 and then picking an action from there. In cognitive psychology, a term called cognitive load refers to the used amount of working memory resources – basically how hard is your brain working. 

Most of the time you aim for low Friction. There are a few exceptions, like if there is a potentially damaging action you should increase friction.

Most of the time the goal of the UX designer is to reduce cognitive load and friction, but like most rules this has exceptions. Certain tasks should have high friction by design because of the impact those actions can have. Imagine an interface that can launch a nuclear missile. Should this interface make it as easy as possible to launch the missile in a single click? Or should this interface have 5 consecutive “are you sure” prompts? 

Being conscious of the amount of friction an experience has allows the UX designer to control the user’s experience more effectively, potentially preventing catastrophic problems even if it’s more effort to accomplish the task.

Product Impact

Product impact can be thought of as a gauge for how much an application has improved based on the change. This can mean users love it way more or maybe the business will be able to make a ton more sales. Being conscious of the impact your decisions have on the product is always important. Oftentimes tasks shouldn’t be performed at all if their impact is too low. However, sometimes low impact is acceptable if the development effort is also low – a series of low impact, low effort changes can result in a collectively high product impact.

Consider the impact of your enhancement – is it worth it?

In general product impact should always be considered in relationship to development effort. The ideal ratio is high product impact and low development effort. For example, changing a few colors and typography in your global stylesheets can effect the look and feel of every page in the application (assuming your stylesheets are coded properly) while taking minimal time from an engineer.

Development Effort

This is often the most difficult layer of a UX design decision to determine. Most commonly because the designer doesn’t fully understand how their designs will be built by the engineers. Due to this ignorance it’s critical that designers and engineers work together to avoid projects running into massive design-ruining blockers. 

Aim for low effort, but remember to consider the other layers.

Considering effort in the context of the project timeline is crucial to deliver actual working products. Since most projects have a timeline, think of that finite period between project start and end as the total development effort for the project. Furthermore, within an agile methodology how can the designs be broken down into sprints? Can the entirety of the designs be accomplished given the amount of time and development effort required?

Designers who don’t consider development effort are more likely to cause departmental battles with engineers while reducing the rate of success for the project as a whole. The goal should be to be as efficient as possible as a team so staying conscious of development effort is critical.

A Complete UX Design Decision

Considering all layers when making decisions results in well thought through design updates that can be justified to all members of the team. Because these layers of a design decision are all in a relationship, considering them together ensures a better product with more reliable timelines and a happier team. 

As you design, consider every layer to make effective decisions of any scope. Be sure to spend more thought on the decisions with higher effort.