The Force of UX Design

I’ve had design on my mind for a couple of weeks now, mainly because thinking about how Prism is going to look is so much more pleasant to me than writing code (may Annie and Alex be praised for taking the lead on that). It’s been easy for me to point to websites and say “I like this,” or “I don’t like that,” but Jeremy wisely outlawed the phrase “I like” from our design meetings, forcing us to exercise the same critical muscles we exercise in graduate study; I would get pelted with rotten vegetables and shunned from academia for life if I turned in a paper that said (or even said in a discussion), “I like Virginia Woolf because her books are good.” Now we’re all thinking critically about why certain sites appeal to us and why other sites make us shudder. Right on cue, the Scholars’ Lab hosted a presentation last Thursday by Joe Gilbert on the Elements of User Experience design, in which I frantically jotted down every word he said because it directly addressed the design questions we’re learning to ask in Praxis. Joe established four elements that comprise UX design: user requirements, design and architecture, usability, and content strategy. We’ve already established our requirements for Prism, on both the user and organizational levels, and after many weeks I think we all finally agree on what we want it to do for us and the user. Now to design it.

After last week’s design meeting, we all agreed that we would have some sketches of the main pages of Prism to share, but once I turned to a fresh sheet on paper in my notebook, I couldn’t sketch more than a monitor-shaped rectangle with the word “Prism” in the top left corner. So I flipped to my notes from Joe’s presentation and remembered a phrase he used when he was stressing the importance of visual hierarchy on the page in presenting the user with “obvious calls-to-action.” Jeremy made a similar point in last week’s meeting when he said that a site should follow a path in its interaction with the user: “Entice –> Inform –> Invoke.” It’s all about narrative: get the users’ attention, tell them how to use it, then (and I keep coming back to Bethany’s phrase) “aeshetically provoke” them.

We had a really productive conversation in the grad lounge today in which we proposed and discarded some ideas (much like Annie and Alex, I am learning how to kill my [design] darlings), and we made great headway because we kept reminding ourselves  that we need to narrate Prism to the user in order to meet our requirements. We spent the majority of time talking about the first part of the Prism narrative, how to entice our user in the home page and inform them how to use it. Do we put the sandbox and/or demo video on the home page, emphasizing Prism’s interactivity by placing the user right in the midst of it? Or should we have a simple home page with large links to the sandbox, text editor, and visualizations pages? What about our navigation bar (the chapter titles of our narrative, to keep it literary) –  how do we organize a nav bar to offer “obvious calls-to-action”? We raised more questions than we resolved, as usual, but that’s certainly better than settling on design we “like” without asking how and why it contributes to user experience.  In any event, we’re getting somewhere, and I have to thank design Jedis Joe Gilbert and Jeremy Boggs for teaching us how to use the UX force.

Brooke is a 2011-12 Praxis Fellow and MA candidate in the Department of English. She is currently working on a thesis which investigates Virginia Woolf's moment of being as a biographical, historical, and narrative phenomenon in Woolf's fiction and essays. Brooke is also a graduate research assistant in IATH, working on Alison Booth's Collective Biographies…

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