Picture this. You arrive at a party and you’re the first person there. There might be some music playing, maybe a bowl of chips on a table, but nobody else is around. You feel awkward and uncomfortable, so you decide to leave. Now imagine you’re the first person to arrive at the party but things are a little different. There’s a sign near the chips that says, “Help yourself! Grab a beer too!” There’s a phone on a dock that says, “Choose some music, everyone else will be here soon.” You know you’re in the right place. You feel comfortable and you decide to stick around and wait for the next person shows up.
This is UX in real life according to Matt Hryhorsky, design director at Filament Labs. UX IRL is the idea of using the real world to inspire user experience design in the digital world.
“UX doesn’t live inside our phones or our websites,” he said from his office in Toronto. “We need to step way outside of those devices to understand what people are doing in the real world.”
These subtle signs, the cue for the guests to help themselves to some potato chips, the docking of the phone, these are the same wayfinding tools designers use in onboarding processes to guide users to where they need to go. These are cues stripped from the physicality of our everyday lives and replicated on the screen, and yet we don’t stop too often to think about the relationship between UX IRL and UX on the screen.
UX Design Discovery in the Real World
Taking a step back to view human interaction in the physical world unleashes a wealth of inspiration for today’s UX designers, Hryhorsky says.
“There is a tendency to only look inside our own industry and I think it’s kind of incestuous that way. We tend to look at other people’s work, get excited about it, and then try to emulate it,” he said. “I got to a tipping point about a year and a half ago and I thought, there’s got to be a better way to do this. There’s got to be a deeper pool of inspiration we can draw from that just isn’t something that’s been done before in digital. We have an opportunity to dive outside of that and that can be the catalyst for some real innovation in this space.”
That’s why recently when Filament took on a project for an interior design company, Hryhorsky and his team headed out into the physical world with the intention of better understanding the client and its customers.
They visited the spaces the company had designed to get an understanding of not just the aesthetic of the spaces and the style of the company, but also the flow of the room. How did people navigate the space? What stopped them and captured their attention?
“We make a point to go out into those physical spaces more from a design discovery perspective, not necessarily from a user experience research perspective,” he said. “Those public spaces are where we draw our design inspiration from, but the understanding of users and people, we can’t really do that unless we talk to them.”
People Over Pixels
Hryhorsky takes on a lot of interns at Filament. He loves the different perspectives young designers bring to the table, but has noticed that many of them come out of school eager to dive straight into designing. That’s not how Hryhorsky does things. He likes to dedicate the first month of a project to understanding the users.
“Our process allows [the interns] to understand that we don’t just dive into pixels right away. We start with people. We start with research. We start with really understanding what the problems are. You can’t solve something you don’t understand, so we make sure that they have a really good overview of why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
He reminds them, just as he reminds me several times throughout the duration of our interview, that literally everything is a user experience. The table we’re sitting at while we’re talking about this, it has been designed at a level that is comfortable to both of us even though we are of different heights. The can of Diet Coke in his hand, someone designed it so it would be comfortable while he was holding it.
“Everything in the world has been designed by somebody for a purpose,” he said. “If we recognize that all the things in the physical world were designed in a way that makes them easy and functional, UX isn’t new. It’s not just something we created over the past few years when it became a discipline in digital. It existed far before that and we can learn so many lessons from looking outside our screens and analyzing the things around us and why they’re so great, and we can apply that back to our digital products.”
A Holistic UX Needs IRL
Hryhorsky is a firm believer in that “you can’t design anything worthwhile without doing user experience research.”
User research isn’t just about understanding how somebody uses the product you are creating, it’s about paying “attention to every facet of a user experience,” including everything that happens before and after a user interacts with your product.
“To us, design is about creating a solution and an ecosystem for somebody to be successful,” he said. “If I understand what you do when you wake up in the morning, whether you have kids or not, you’re commuting to work, when is that perfect point in the day where you might be interacting with the thing that I’m creating, it gives me so much more context to understand how valuable it can be to you.”
He gives an example of a recent experience his team designed for a financial institution that was geared at helping teachers research financial options. After interviewing a number of teachers to better understand their routines on a day-to-day basis, the team found that on average teachers were not accessing the product until 9 pm at night.
“I don’t know about you, but if I was teaching an entire day and coming to a website at 9 pm to do financial research, I would be drained and frustrated and tired. The way that we positioned the design, marketing and content strategy was all around making that the most enjoyable, simple experience as possible so that we could get those people what they needed in the best possible way given their mental model at that particular time of day,” he said.
UX IRL is on one hand about examining what makes physical designs in the real world work successfully and applying those lessons on a digital scale, and on the other hand about understanding how a product (be it an app, website or otherwise) exists within the context of a user’s entire day. A UX IRL attitude is a holistic way of approaching design.
“True UX understands the motivations, dreams, hopes and wishes of people, [and asks] what are people doing?” Hryhorsky said. “We don’t have any apps or websites unless it’s for the use of people, so we can’t really design great stuff in here unless we know what’s happening with people out there.”
Hryhorsky invites designers to look up from their screens to investigate the physical world and to see how users behave and find their way in the physical space. In doing so, an empathetic, seamless and enjoyable experience can be replicated in the digital world.