Using research to end visual design debates

Imagine the following scenario: You're involved in a new product design project and are presenting several visual design options to the team. Everyone in the meeting is leaning toward one direction when in the back of the room an executive's hand shoots up. "I don't like orange," he says, and suddenly the meeting spirals out of control, degrading into a discussion about whether or not the square elements of the interface look too blocky, and "Could we use circles instead?"

If you've ever had to present visual design to a group, you probably have your own collection of similar horror stories. But why is it that a group of otherwise level-headed adults can't seem to have a productive meeting about visual design? The short answer is that in the absence of clear context about what they are evaluating, most people don't know how to objectively evaluate visual design, so they rely instead on subjective intuition.

Why is there subjectivity in this process? Visual communication, perhaps even more so than verbal communication, is a nuanced language. Rich gradations of tone and style exist in even the most straightforward of applications. As the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, and this is just where the trouble begins. A thousand words—especially when they're the wrong words—can do a lot of damage. The visual design process is essentially composed of a series of decisions that establish a strategy, then define a visual system in increasing degrees of detail and clarity to optimally satisfy that strategy. Relying on subjective feedback to make these design decisions can be disastrous and will result in a design that may be acceptable to your team but has no appeal to users.

Strengthening the visual design process with research and personas

With the right visual design process, you can minimize the influence of subjectivity and guesswork. The first step to replacing subjectivity with sanity begins with research. It's common for interaction designers to conduct research to understand business and user goals from a behavioral perspective, but visual designers may not be invited to participate in stakeholder conversations and user-research studies. Appropriate participation in these activities, however, will equip you with the knowledge to be successful.

Visual designers need to be involved early in the research process in order to define a sound, defensible visual strategy.

Meeting stakeholders

As the visual designer, your mandate during stakeholder meetings is to understand the company's communication objectives, brand strategy, and positioning in the competitive marketplace. It's also necessary to understand how key stakeholders envision the product from an aesthetic point of view. Finally, you'll want to determine which members of the team will participate in visual design meetings.

Understanding the company's objectives and brand strategy begins with learning the history and current internal perceptions from marketing or brand-communication stakeholders. You also need to discover the organization's future goals and its desired position within the market, which will provide you with a direction for designing the visual system. It's helpful to review brand guidelines, style guides and recent marketing communication materials to establish a more comprehensive view of the marketing goals and the company's positioning. (Remember to ask how recent and relevant these guidelines are because it's common to receive documentation that is outdated or not aligned with current applications.)

Meet with stakeholders, such as product or marketing managers, to understand their vision and to get insight into success factors that help frame your understanding of the project. Another priority is to understand the key visual concepts—articulated here at Cooper as experience keywords (more on this later in the article)—the interface should present to users. During stakeholder research, your goal is to gather keyword examples from different stakeholders so that you can identify patterns.

The following is a list of appropriate questions to ask:

  • If the interface were a person, what would he or she be like?
  • How would you expect users to react when they first view your product?
  • How is your product different from competitive products?
  • What celebrity (or car, movie, etc.) is the product most like? Least like? Why?

These questions will jump-start the conversation and encourage the interviewee to share her views on the product from an emotional perspective. Remember to consider your audience before diving into such questions, as many stakeholders may lack the interest or vocabulary to respond meaningfully. For example, don't waste valuable interview time asking the lead architect what he thinks the interface should look like if he's really only interested in the database system and technical structure of the product.

Recently, we designed a medical device to help elderly patients manage their healthcare in their homes. We learned from stakeholders that users were more likely to accept the product if it had a similar personality to that of a visiting nurse. This knowledge helped us shape a visual appearance that presented itself as caring, conscientious and trustworthy in tone and style.

Your last task for stakeholder research is to determine which members of the team will participate in visual design review sessions. Ask the team lead about who should be involved in these meetings; too many participants can be hard to manage (we recommend six or fewer). It's usually best to include the key team members, like the project manager and product manager, as well as a member of the marketing or brand group. You may also want to include a representative who has close communication with your users, such as a salesperson or trainer. You should invite a representative from the development team to assess the technical viability of the design. Keep the rest of the stakeholder team informed by regularly sharing progress.

Researching users

User interviews provide you with an opportunity to validate stakeholder hypotheses and to learn more about users' emotional connections with a company and its products. In addition, interviews give you a chance to visit the users' environment and to view firsthand any challenges they may experience while using your product. This is a valuable exercise that can't be substituted with photos or secondhand descriptions. Seeing is believing.

It's important to recognize that interaction designers and visual designers search for different patterns during user research. For example, interaction designers may look for workflow, mental models, frequency and priority of tasks, frustrations, and so forth, while visual designers look for things like:

  • User characteristics (for example, physical impairments, especially related to vision)
  • Environmental factors (lighting, distance of the user from the interface, protective coverings over the display)
  • Aspects of brands that resonate with users
  • How users want to feel about their experience

Two of the most common user characteristics that might affect your design are visual impairments and physical impairments. For example, we've seen diabetic patients (who commonly suffer from poor eyesight) struggle with glucose meters because of small text and poor icon clarity. It's easy to omit 7-pixel silkscreen from a design once you've seen an elderly user struggle to read 12-pixel Verdana on a Web page. Poor motor movement, an example of physical impairment, can indicate the need for well-separated, large buttons.

Exploring the environment is also a consideration when designing user interfaces. The lighting in an environment or the product's placement relative to the user can have a dramatic effect on interface design decisions, especially related to size and contrast. In a surgical operating room, we've observed displays that are as far as six feet away from the user and covered in plastic sheeting. This observation made it clear that we needed to design an interface with large text and very high contrast. Alternatively, some interfaces, like cell phones, need to be accessible both inside and outdoors, which requires a flexible design that is usable in diverse lighting environments.

Experiencing unique user and environmental factors will allow you to design a more appropriate product with the help of anthropometric (measurement of humans) references like The Measure of Man and Woman: Human Factors in Design by Alvin R. Tilley, Henry Dreyfuss Associates.

In the case of the in-home medical device mentioned previously, we interviewed users in their residences and discovered that most people were elderly and had a living room setup that included a comfy chair and side table on which they kept their devices. Users were physically fragile and had poor eyesight and hearing. They typically placed the device about one arm's length away. Our proposed design solution accounted for these environmental factors by creating a visual style with large, high-contrast text and optional audio output.

In addition to understanding the user and environmental factors, it's important to spend some time discussing issues of brand and personality. You should ask users about their experience interacting with your company (if you're able to share that information) or with competitive brands so that you can evaluate this information against your stakeholders' hypotheses. Ask questions such as:

  • What makes company x different from other companies in their market?
  • What makes the product or company special to you?
  • What do you wish was different about company x?

You should also spend time understanding the interface's desired personality. In The Media Equation, Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass wrote a compelling argument for how people actually treat computers like real people, so consider questions that elicit answers with human characteristics. Ask similar questions to those in stakeholder interviews, such as:

  • If the interface were a person, what would it be like?
  • How would you describe this product to a friend?
  • How is this product different from competitive products?

Once again, these questions alone will not provide you with all the answers, but they will enable you to have more concrete visual design discussions with users. Don't simply ask, "So what would make the visual design better?" because users are even less likely than stakeholders to have the visual vocabulary to respond effectively. Rather, provide examples as guidance, such as, "If my phone were a person I'd expect it to be respectful, smart and friendly." Having direct conversations with users about visual design and brand can be challenging, but it will make visual design presentations more successful because you'll be relying less on subject-matter expertise and more on relevant stories about users.

For the in-home health monitor, we asked patients about qualities that define a good nurse and gathered a pattern of traits such as: a sense of humor, attentiveness, willingness to listen, conversational nature, familiarity, capability, confidence, dependability, punctuality, and the ability to impart a sense of hope. We used these collective keywords to establish our strategy later in the visual design process

Forming the visual strategy

Once you complete your research, it's time to analyze your findings and identify patterns. By this point, you will have collected information about users and their environment, potential experience keywords, and branding requirements.

The first task is to identify any emotional or behavioral patterns from research that you can apply to your personas. Interaction designers focus on specifying a persona's goals, background, and attitudes, while visual designers emphasize the emotional dimension as well as user and environmental factors.

In a recent project for a rich-messaging application, we created a persona, based on user research, who was afraid to receive emails from people she didn't know because she'd heard so much about computer viruses in the media. This emotional dimension contributed directly to the visual design of the interface, which needed to appear immediately professional and trustworthy in order to satisfy the persona's goal of feeling safe.

Experience keywords

Once the personas have been created, list and group any descriptive words or concepts that recurred during stakeholder and user interviews. These groupings form the foundation for a set of experience keywords that will define and govern the visual strategy. Our initial groupings tend to look something like the illustration below.

These groupings of words gathered during research helped us determine a core set of experience keywords we could use to drive the overall visual strategy.

We typically consolidate the word list into three to five solid concept groupings that we then develop into a final set of experience keywords.

Experience keywords represent the "initial five-second" emotional reaction that personas should feel when viewing the interface. Thinking in terms of this initial response has two major benefits. First, it can enhance the company's brand by providing a positive first impression and an ongoing emotional experience. Second, it can have great significance in users' adoption of the product and their forgiveness of any shortcomings. Research shows that aesthetic designs are perceived to be more usable than less aesthetic designs (this is called the aesthetic-usability effect) and interfaces become more usable when people enjoy using them (see Donald Norman's account in Attractive Things Work Better; or better yet, listen to the excitement about the new iPhone).<

Be sure to test the appropriateness of the keywords with your team and a few key stakeholders. Believable and visually descriptive keywords will help facilitate visual strategy discussions. Choose experience keywords that you would use to describe a person; these will be easier to design for and your audience will better relate to them. Your final set of experience keywords should look something like the ones in the diagram below.

In the above example, there are four experience keywords: caring, humble, conscientious and guiding. Additional words support each keyword to clarify its meaning. Supporting keywords with photos or other forms of imagery can also be effective.

Once agreed upon, experience keywords will suggest strong directions for the visual design. "Caring" might reflect an interface direction with soft colors and shapes, whereas "guiding" might represent an interface with more contrast and decisive lines.

Armed with the more objective criteria of personas, experience keywords, and branding requirements, you'll have a solid foundation for visual design decisions. You can create more thoughtful presentations about visual design, which will result in more appropriate feedback. Now when the product manager complains about the color orange, you'll be able to steer him away from his subjective comments by reminding him that the goal is to design for particular personas and to best represent the experience keywords that were agreed upon earlier. In addition, having the context of those user interviews and stakeholder interviews will help you target initial visual design concepts that are more focused and more appropriate for the people who will use your products.

Books mentioned: William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, Jill Butler Universal Principles of Design

Jennifer Tidwell Designing Interfaces

Donald Norman Emotion and Design / Attractive Things Work Better

Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass The Media Equation