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Expert Q&A: The Role of UX Design in the Product Lifecycle

Mobile App Development
Technology, Information and Media
UX design perception is in flux–and maybe it always will be because of its fluid nature. It’s visual, but it’s also production. It requires ingenuity, but doesn’t rely on “big brainstorm” concepts as often as traditional, visual design work. It calls for product knowledge and application, but goes far beyond merely taking pre-defined assets and pushing a mouse.

Mutual Mobile UX Design Lead, Orlando Ramirez shares his thoughts on the so-called “death of UX” (or evolution of UX, for the less morbid) and how business objectives change design approaches within the tech industry.

There are several statements of this ilk about the current state of UX–do you tend to agree or disagree:

“It’s about time we accept the fact we are not artists and embrace being part of a business.”

I agree. This is a more mature outlook on the state of UX design. Designers who may not yet have significant business understanding might disagree because, to them, design is still very self-centric. But, for this kind of work, it’s more about openness to business objectives and how to approach the work to achieve a goal/result.

The word art is rooted in emotion. Creating art is more about communicating and expressing “self” and perspective through art. That’s not the goal of UX design. Our space is all about solving problems with solutions that come from data, user research, industry standards, and business goals.

When it comes to UX satisfying both user experience and business expectation fronts, what makes it so difficult to strike that balance?

Historically, user experience was downplayed. UX used to be dictated design, not informed design. The challenge is that user goals and business goals are often not aligned. A business wants to serve up solutions to hit KPIs, but in doing so, they don’t fully consider the importance of a unified user experience that satisfies customers as well as the KPIs.

Is there a particular industry or brand that consistently demonstrates this clash of priorities?

I think the worst, most obvious culprits are publications. Online media is still so ad-driven, and their UI is full of interruption. Media is tough. So many of those brands are always in survival mode and are often saddled with a lot of foundational limitations–where if you change one thing in one place, it has to translate across a million others. As a result, they always seem to be behind in user experience best practices.

There is also a belief that UX design is essentially shifting to Product Design (aka: “UX is dead”). Does your experience in the tech industry support or refute that hypothesis?

For the industry overall, I would say yes. But I don’t agree with this as a big picture view on UX. This view downplays the speciality aspect of it. For startups where companies have to do everything with a few people in order to get things up and running, sure, let’s just call them Product Designers. But for more mature businesses, there is still room, value, and necessity for UX specialists. The term “UX” is an amalgamation of all things User Experience. This can include UX Researchers, UI Designers, Interaction Designers, Visual Designers, Web Designers, etc. There’s a lot of titles and roles that play a part of designing a user experience.

The difference between the two is that a product designer is typically more of a jack-of- all-trades. UX designers are more focused and concentrated on different aspects of user experience.

How have mobile app development platform changes influenced how you and your team approach UX design?

That’s a tricky question because the answer is very specific to a particular business or company. There’s no one-size fits all approach, but recently, I’ve been seeing a significant shift to a lot more web-based solutions. With web-based technologies, sometimes the UX design can have a more generic feel because a lot of native nuances are lost. It’s difficult to stay on top of specific native platforms because there are a lot of heavy cross-platform demands. In a sense, it can feel a bit watered down when you’re trying to make a solution that works for all platforms. But it is faster and more cost-effective for our partners.

What caused this shift in platform preference?

It’s been a gradual shift that was always hampered by technical limitations, but in recent years, has been accelerated with the large support of React Native by the development community. Reaching far and wide as fast as possible is a more common business goal. And the same goes for Progressive Web apps–just a different approach to achieve the same goal.

We first saw this shift from native mobile apps coming with frameworks like PhoneGap (later known as Cordova), which offered a web-based library to build mobile interfaces. JQuery Mobile was another. These solutions were previews to where we are now with React Native and progressive web apps. Some businesses have time and resources to dedicate to native mobile experiences–but a lot of businesses don’t.

Where does most of the steadfast, native work usually come from?

I would say, from what I’ve seen, somewhere around 60-70% of businesses want to do something fast, easy, and inclusive. The big name, premier brands are more willing to dive into a native experience that takes more time and specialization to develope, but with a more rich experience for users

What skills/experiences do UX designers need to have in their tool belts right now to truly contribute to innovative builds?

One of the biggest things that I’ve seen over the past five years is that UX designers have been abandoning traditional digital agency models. When it comes to showing your work, short term campaigns don’t hold the same power as ever-evolving product work. You need to know what it takes for a full product lifecycle and understand the long game of nurturing, iterating, and optimizing.

Product and mobile UX designers were harder to source five years ago. But because more and more companies are building UX extensions of their IT or web teams, the field has opened up a bit, and people are having more success transitioning from role to role and company to company.

In your experience, how have your business integration and partnership workflows changed over time? Has it been gradual, or does it seem to happen “in sprints” so to speak?

The tough thing about UX is how reactionary to the present opportunity it can be. You design for feasibility and reality, but in many cases UX teams don’t get to benefit from participating in the front-end creative process. Partners will come in with a completed design strategy prior to kicking off with innovation companies who are known more for actual delivery. I think that is less beneficial for the partner as well, not having a start-to-finish design and build with one team.

The fully-integrated approach has been a gradual thing–for many companies, I think. Generating assets and throwing things back that get thrown at you isn’t really how it’s done anymore. For the best result, UX design needs more insights into the bigger picture to inform their work–so people started asking for more upfront involvement.

Agile progression and deep collaboration is less of a unicorn now than it used to be, but I feel like I got a head start on that approach here. Many others are just really getting into it. When I hear about a company who still goes by the traditional design process, I am confused by it.

If you had to choose a brand or two that you believe sets a high standard for UX design, what would they be–and what about their approach shows the most promise for the future of UX?

Airbnb, Spotify, and the YouTube app. These are product companies with great R&D budgets, and they get to constantly A/B test with their own product. They perform constant updates, improvements, and get steady feedback.

Optimizing for BOTH user and business sides makes for mutually beneficial, well-informed experiences. This really is the UX promise land because through that kind of iteration, it doesn’t matter what’s out there today–the next test-and-learn is already in the works. Customers get to have a seat at the table to make things better, and businesses hit their goals while creating a satisfying experience–that’s where UX should be and needs to be, every time.

Orlando Ramirez

Orlando Ramirez worked at Mutual Mobile as the Design Manager.

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