Jo Reid, Calvium’s managing director, wrote recently that the best part of app design and development is “working with businesses and their teams to transform the way they work, think and grow.”
Our technical director, Ben Clayton, and developer, Matt Votsikas, recently spoke about their passion for the tech side of the business. For this piece, we pinned down our UX designer and project manager, Kieron Gurner, to find out about a third crucial element of app development: user experience (UX). Here we discuss why great UX is such an essential component to creating apps, and how Calvium builds UX into projects from the outset.
Good design is invisible
The designer Frank Chimero once quipped, ‘People ignore design that ignores people.’ UX is the bridge between the technical and the end user. It’s a discipline which requires a passionate attention to detail. “UX design is about finding those invisible lines of communication with the end-user,” explains Kieron.
“There’s definitely a magic to how UX can peel off the layers of people’s thinking. You can see the decisions designers have made, or at least peer into why those decisions might have been made, and get an opportunity to have an impact on them yourself.”
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UX is about harnessing intuition and removing the ‘digital chewing gum’ that ruins immersion in an experience. For Kieron, it’s the small, natural moments of interaction that are exciting. He cites pull-to-refresh touchscreen interaction pioneered by Twitter as a notable example: “It’s just so intuitive. When you’re scrolling through a list of news or comments, with the newest items at the top, the most obvious thing to get more news items is to start scrolling at the top of that list. You don’t even think about that now, partly because every app uses it. That’s an amazingly intuitive and invisible thing to do.”
It’s these micro-moments of interaction that can make or break the functionality of an app – a seamless bond between the end-user and the technology. “It’s not just about the aesthetic; it’s about designing for the decisions people make when using your app.” This user-focus is one of the reasons UX is so integral to app project planning.
UX in the business
“In app development and, actually, beyond that, the whole organisation needs to think about things from a user perspective”, says Kieron. “That way it’s embedded throughout the entire development process.”
Kieron’s dual role as a UX designer and project manager has been critical in this respect. Calvium’s founders come from a research background and so encourage everyone to be user-focused, but one of Kieron’s responsibilities is to ensure that focus remains front and centre for everyone within the business, and from the client side, too: “When we’re designing the overarching experience; our clients, developers and project managers are part of the process. Ideas are shared, refined and shaped from different perspectives as a group. The assumptions you come in with can be turned on their head, and we should embrace that.
“Further down the chain, you have to make decisions about who you’re designing for, otherwise the end-product would be bland or useless. Then, when we’re talking to users, you find even more to refine and update. That’s why I love UX, your preconceptions of how things should work don’t always marry with other people’s.. In that sense, it keeps you humble, to challenge your personal assumptions and keep questioning yourself.”
This collaborative nature is part and parcel of how Calvium approaches projects, but it also demonstrates the importance of bringing multiple people into the user experience design. One person can’t dictate how everyone will approach an app. To this end, Kieron says, “UX isn’t just handing off ideas to developers, it’s about getting everybody on the team to understand the value of a user-focused approach, raise questions and to think about things from a user perspective.”
UX is integral to the design process, and one of the magical things for Kieron is where he works closely with the tech team to produce something beautiful out of an idea – not just what’s available tech-wise, but what would make a great user experience.
“Working with new technology and being supported by people like Ben and Matt on the team allows you to think about a wider set of possibilities. For our project with the iconic Tower Bridge, we wanted to produce a kid-friendly app that encouraged them to use the phone in a more tactile way. The client didn’t want children tapping at screens constantly as they were going around the exhibit.
“One of the things we started talking about was how the phone could be used as a physical object, to reflect physical objects in the real world and start to tie the physical with the digital. That moved on to a chat about the sailboats on the River Thames going underneath Tower Bridge, and someone saying, ‘wouldn’t it be great if you could interact with those boats?’ The client told a story about making folded paper boats as a child and blowing the sails to make them move, and our technical lead, said, ‘Oh, yes. We can do that.’
“If we’d gone about it the other way around, I don’t think we’d have come to the same conclusions about what interactions made sense in place. In that instance, and many more, the design comes from the story rather than forcing a story into what is technically possible. It’s fantastic to work with people who know the technology so well, but also have a sense of curiosity and are open to explore possibilities.
“Even the more practical projects that aren’t quite so playful, our team has a deep interest in the design and getting things to work for people in a practical way. It’s really amazing, and supports everything else we do”.
Of course, the key to great UX is not in the design, but in the usability of the finished app.
The user testing
For our work with Tower Bridge, Calvium conducted intensive user testing and field research to inform the work. This ranged from visiting the landmark and observing people’s behaviour, to more direct testing with prototypes of possible games. “We created prototypes and tested them out with the exhibition guides and families who were visiting the bridge, gathered their feedback and made iterative changes from there,” explains Kieron.
“That’s an important point, too. Getting staff on board is just as crucial as getting the end user excited. Not only do they need to be enthused by the app to sell it to visitors, but they are also perfectly placed to foresee issues from their experience and perspective that we – or even the users couldn’t anticipate.”
And finally, user testing is an imperative for accessibility and inclusion – increasingly a question for all of us interested in user-centric design.
“Usability and inclusivity are becoming more pressing questions to answer, and UX design helps us become more aware of other people, and more able to articulate proactive ways that we can design for more people. We’re more able to understand them, and as you start to understand them and the difficulties, it’s more difficult to ignore that in the app design process.”
“The real joy for me is seeing the product out there in the field, seeing people interacting with the app. Whether that’s a heritage tour showing them a building or a site in a new light, or working through the challenges felt by engineering or manufacturing teams, I’m inspired to keep improving people’s experience of the world through technology.”
If you’d like to know more about how Calvium builds its interactive apps, see our guide to digital placemaking.
Featured image from Wikimedia Commons