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Think Like a User: The Importance of Audience Awareness and User Experience Design

By Hanna Meyers, Creative Content Producer

During one of my college internships at a design publication, my boss once told me, “Designers don’t read.” Ouch.

He recalled the countless times when his company crafted and published books containing solid editorial by dozens of great writers but still struggled to improve readership and generate revenue. If readers turn to a text-heavy page, he said, oftentimes they will either skim it or skip it because there aren’t enough pictures or other compelling visual elements. After observing his audience in this light and reflecting on that critical detail of the user experience, he ultimately shifted his focus back to what the company does best: feature award-winning design work.

As designers, it’s easy to get caught up in our own heads. Many of us tend to work tirelessly on a project until we selfishly deem it perfect — and only then do we finally show off our proudest accomplishment to a colleague or peer. And yet we wonder why the laundry list of critique notes crushes our confidence almost every time. We poured so much effort and thought into our work, but we failed to think about the most important piece of the puzzle: the user.

When we design, we need to remember our audience — and no, it’s not us. If the purpose of our project was simply for the pleasure of expressing ourselves, that would be considered art, not design. Benek Lisefski wrote in an article that “Design always has a specific purpose. It must achieve a goal, and if it doesn’t, it’s judged to be bad design.” It doesn’t matter how pretty or perfect we think our design solution is if the user for whom we designed it doesn’t understand how to use it. We must think like a user because the design can make or break the user experience.

One of the more widely known examples of user experience (UX) design is the concept of desire lines or the paths that indicate preferred methods of interaction or travel. Let’s think about all those dirt trails that we notice straying away from the paved sidewalks — users found and preferred an easier, more direct route than the one expected of them.

Design is not just about form and physical appearance; it is also about functionality. We want our audiences to react positively to our projects and to enjoy using them. But we must do our homework and allow our UX research — not our personal preferences — to guide our design processes.

Consider eye-tracking, for example, which measures the direction and concentration of a user’s gaze. Many researchers often utilize eye-tracking software to study the effectiveness of the information hierarchy and layout on web and mobile devices, but the software can arguably be used to test additional product experiences, such as newspaper design or even packaging design.

Another research method used in the realm of digital marketing is A/B testing, the process of comparing the performances of two slightly different versions of a webpage. The differences can be subtle or drastic, but normally it involves the strategic positioning of certain textual or visual elements, such as the size of a call-to-action button or an image. From a designer’s perspective, this method can analyze the effectiveness and implications of the user interface (UI) design and how we can improve the look and feel to optimize conversion rates.

We often talk about UX design and UI design in conjunction with one another — “UX/UI design” — because the form and the function must truly work together. Consider the readability of a certain typeface or the emotions certain color combinations might evoke, and then consider the persona and habits of the user most likely to interact with the project. We must read our designs as if we are the intended user. After all, we’re already incredibly detail-oriented people — if we pay closer attention to our target audiences and step into their shoes, we can shift our own way of thinking from “designer-centered design” to user-centered design.

Design is a selfless profession — it relies on creating experiences that help others succeed or feel a certain way. Let’s start prioritizing the user and give them the incredible experiences they deserve, and at the end of the day, we will feel incredible too.

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Oct 01, 2022

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