In our profession, we have User Centered Design methodologies to help us know how to implement web interfaces that are usable and intuitive.
There are countless articles and books written about these UX best practices, discussing the importance of sketching, personas, wireframing, design patterns, etc...
which are all well and good.
But in my studies and personal practice of User Centered Design in many web development projects...
I've often felt something quite lacking in the UX field at large.
It recently occurred to me that what's missing is so core to designing great user experiences...
that I think this particular aptitude is what differentiates a UX practitioner vs.
That missing core ingredient is in understanding the "why" questions: "why" does a site exist and "why" will someone use it.
Sounds simple, yet more often than not, UX methodologies, tools, and discussions only revolve around the "how"...
as in "how" sites function and "how" users get from point A to point B.
Without the context of "why"...
providing the "how" just isn't as effective.
I suppose it's arguable that the "why" questions are more for stakeholders, the marketing team, or some other folks in the development team...
not so much for UX developers.
Perhaps I do agree to some extent that ultimately, our job as UX professionals is to deliver on the "how" side of things.
But, I think a holistic understanding of the "why" questions directly affect how user experiences are delivered.
To best illustrate, we're gonna plan out an essay! Long ago, in my college days as an English Lit major at Berkeley, essay writing was a daily ritual.
I can't really say I enjoy writing essays these days, but I think some of its disciplines are relevant.
When starting an essay, as with building a website, we always begin with a blank page.
To illustrate a truly irresponsible way to plan an essay, we'll attempt to cluster (or mind map) without a clear idea of the essay topic or idea.
The result is pretty obvious...
any ideas generated would be totally random and disconnected without something as simple as a topic to tie ideas together in a comprehensible manner.
Of course no one would do this, and the web development equivalent would be randomly putting a bunch of web elements and features together on a webpage in hopes that something useful would arise out of it.
Can you imagine that?...
search dialogue, pagination, nav bar, map mashup...
all strewn about haphazardly on a webpage.
By themselves, there's nothing wrong with any of those web elements.
But without a context, those common web elements serve no purpose.
So what if there was a central topic? For example, if the essay topic was "ecommerce", then at least we can begin structuring our idea clusters around this centralized idea.
This would give our ideas a context in which the discussion would revolve around, and help us produce content that is much more meaningful.
In the analogy of web development, this is typically the context in which UX development is implemented.
For example, if the site being developed gets identified as an "ecommerce" type site, the UX professional then begins to design all the website functionality with all the ecommerce design patterns, conventions, and best practices.
By taking a look at "how" ecommerce sites conventionally work and "how" users typically & optimally interface with ecommerce sites, a UX developer would have enough context to start charting the UX development roadmap.
But ideally, essays aren't structured around topics...
they're structured around a thesis.
A thesis answers the question of "why" this essay was written and "why" a reader would want to spend any time reading it at all.
It goes beyond a topic by providing a viewpoint and a more clearcut direction for the essay.
In our essay clustering example on the right, the topic went from a very general idea of "ecommerce", to a very specific type of ecommerce.
By focusing in on a more "opinionated" point of view, we can then organize our content much better AND see the context of our information on a deeper more meaningful level.
In relation to UX development, there is a similar benefit of understanding "why" the site exists and "why" users would be compelled to use it.
By structuring our UX development around "why" we think this site is so compelling, we can developer User Experiences that have a specific context and are much more meaningful.
For example, if we were developing a site with the mission: "a social marketplace for stock photography".
Some of the typical paradigms of general ecommerce would only have mediocre relevance.
Sure, it would technically work to implement a "shopping cart" on the site for users to store favorite photos, but that solution wouldn't be ideal.
Now let's say we take a closer look at the uniqueness of "why" this site exists, and we describe further "a social marketplace for stock photography: for high volume print publishers".
This gives us MUCH more clarity on how we would develop the UX.
By simply looking deeper into why this site exists, instead of implementing a meager shopping cart, we would likely implement project folders where users can create projects and save relevant photos and artwork into specific project folders.
Every UX design pattern or convention would be developed in a deeper context of not only how features should be used, but why they should be used.
I like to think that as a UX professional, we are not mere order takers...
we are creators.
We help define and create, how a website will exist and function, and to do that thoroughly, we must first examine why.