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Design for yourself, really: Wise words from UX experts

Not only do you have to design quickly, you have to design well. Enter UX experts who can help you design the perfect app for any user. It starts by thinking about yourself.

Ask UX experts their design secret and the answer might surprise you, simply because it's no secret: They just remember that they're users, too.

Philip Lew, CEO of Xbosoft, speaking at the Fluent Conference in San Francisco last week, said it's important to remember that the best design might not be the best user experience. The answer, he said, is to "pretend you are the user. You want to know your users deeply."

Lew's rather revolutionary idea is that just because you can design a feature doesn't mean you should, if it won't improve the user experience. In fact, he said, "sometimes boring really is better."

Those bold words come at a time when software developers are under increasing pressure to design faster, better, across multiple platforms and for widely varied audiences. Screw it up and your mistakes will be blasted over social media for all to see. In fact, at a different Fluent session, Tammy Everts, senior researcher and evangelist for Soasta, said frustration with applications drives 49% of users to competitor sites, 33% will never return and 18% take it to Twitter or other social media sites.

It's tough out there.

So, what to do? Think like UX experts, if it at all possible. Happy app customer equals happy design life, right? Here are some specific ideas:

Start with something simple

Typography has been around for thousands of years, and it is still hugely influential in how users experience applications, iOS developer Jonathan Beebe, of Ramsey Solutions, said during a presentation at Fluent. "Your choices in typography have a direct effect on how people think and engage with content," he said.

Don't give users too many choices: UX experts like Beebe recommend narrowing down the number of customization options to a few, clean choices. Too many choices can get in the way of user experience.

Pick a typeface that's trustworthy: Studies have shown that serious news stories presented in a comic book style font -- Comic Sans -- aren't taken seriously, so Beebe advised choosing a typeface that's suitable for the weight of the site.

Fortune favors the bold: And, apparently, the italicized. If user comprehension is important, remember that after 200 words or so readers start to skim. So bold words, italics and other things that might lead to a cognitive strain will improve comprehension, Beebe said. "The little bit of difficulty in reading engages the processes that support learning."

Getting to know users

Lew -- and other UX experts -- are adamant that all design has to come from the perspective of knowing whose hands are on the device. And it's not just who the user is, but what devices he uses, when, why and what are the motivations? Getting to the bottom of those issues will allow a designer to create a context for the application.

"That context can enable a better user experience through anticipation and satisfaction," Lew explained. He used words such as likeability, pleasure, comfort and trust to describe what users are looking for from their experience.

"To satisfy them, we have to anticipate what they want and who they are," he said. "But you don't want an application that's going to nag or impose or invade or be creepy. There's a right time and place for notifications and ads."

Less really is more

"The majority of an app's value is provided by a small number of tasks," Lew argued. So you want usability, but also efficiency and effectiveness.

Make it really easy to use: Make dropdown buttons, boxes and links simple and easy to use. Use typing input widgets, and try to "reduce the cost of typing," Lew stressed. Make search error-friendly and help out the user with suggestions instead of penalizing him. Minimize clicks and compress things together. Don't overuse color!

Then make it easier to use: If you've taken UX experts' advice and really understood your user, you'll know that color and font sizes, among other things, should be different for an AARP user than a game player.

And make it easy everywhere: Think about what the user needs and when, Lew stressed. If a mobile and a Web app are married together, try to determine what users will accomplish on a computer versus on a phone, and design for that.

When all else fails, ask for help

UX expert and consultant Ted McCarthy thinks the barriers between design and user experience have to be broken down, and that starts with a conversation. "If you're designing something, and you have a question, ask the UX person for some perspective," he said. Or offer to team up with them.

"I encourage engineers to come out on a field trip and videotape the interactions," he said. "This is what your product acts like out in the real world. It's a lot of qualitative stuff really. What do they do out in the real world? You need to find that out before you build the app."

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