Finding the Heart of UX Problems

Ward Andrews
By Ward Andrews
Cover Image for Finding the Heart of UX Problems

It’s 7:55 a.m., and you’re standing at the door of your doctor’s office waiting for them to open. After feeling terrible for the past three days, it’s finally time to get help. At 8:01, the receptionist opens the door, brings you to the front desk to fill out paperwork, and ushers you into the exam room. When the doctor walks in, she checks your vitals and asks what brought you in today.

You: “I’m miserable. I’ve had a fever, nausea, and this weird rash on my arm for the past three days.”

Doctor: “Ok, I’ll write you a prescription. Feel better!”

End scene.

Writing a prescription before even discussing the symptoms or analyzing the root cause? Unless your doctor has gone off the deep end, that will never happen. Aside from violating ethical standards, it’s unlikely that the prescription would solve the problem because she didn’t even diagnose your illness. Chances are, you’ll end up right back in that same office a few days later feeling frustrated and even worse.

This scenario may seem ridiculous in a medical setting, but it happens every day in UI/UX design. Our team at Drawbackwards has “patients” constantly come into our office searching for a cure for their latest ailment.

“We just need to fix these three pages,” they say.

“I need an app,” they explain.

“We need to design this one thing, and it has to be really fast and easy.”

We can’t blame them for asking. Like you, they’re probably getting similar requests from internal stakeholders and trying to be the hero that solves the user experience problem. Instead of immediately writing a prescription, we recommend being a good design doctor who takes a different approach: Get to the heart of the problem before developing a cure. Here’s how…

Look for the Signs

Symptoms often disguise themselves as root causes, so keep an eye out for these signs that a request might not be “the real problem.”

No one mentions the user.

Many executives and business leaders — no matter how savvy they are — practice self-design, where they make design decisions purely based on their own wants and needs. This approach may work well if they’re the primary users, but forgetting to consider real users often results in short-sighted decisions and failure. But if your client’s or colleague’s request is filled with more “I” statements than user research, it’s time to take a step back and begin asking more questions — especially to users of the product you are designing.

There isn’t a good reason.

“Because I said so” may work as a parental response to children, but it shouldn’t work for UI/UX designers and their stakeholders. Unless the person has a good reason that is directly aligned with user needs, business goals, and overall strategy, their request may end up being a distraction instead of a smart design decision.

They’re chasing shiny objects.

Speaking of distractions, many businesses fall into a vicious cycle of chasing the latest trends instead of sticking to a thoughtful plan. If the request is filled with the hottest buzzwords or comparisons to what so-and-so is doing at their company, the idea may actually do more harm than good.

Get to the Heart of the Problem

Once you notice the signs, it’s time to get out your stethoscope and diagnose what’s truly causing their symptoms. As a product owner or UX design professional, your design philosophy is your stethoscope.

Here are some simple questions to ask to begin developing your design philosophy and reveal the information you need to make even smarter decisions.

1. “Why?” (also known as “The Five Whys”)

This technique was originally used in the manufacturing world to explore the real causes of an underlying problem. It has the same benefits in UI/UX design.

When someone comes to you with a new feature request or design idea, ask “Why?” five times to get to the root of the issue. For example:

“We need to redesign this one page.”

Why? (#1) – “It’s not producing the results we want.”

Why? (#2) – “We aren’t getting enough traffic to the page.”

Why? (#3) – “Well, it’s kind of tough to find.”

Why? (#4) – “It isn’t in the navigation.”

Why? (#5) – “Because there are too many other pages and not enough room to fit this one in the nav.”

By digging deeper and deeper in this scenario, you discovered that the page design may not need to be changed at all. The real UX issue is the navigation and site organization.

2. What’s the one most important thing your users need to know about you? What’s your “big idea”?

This “big idea” summarizes the place you want to own in your users’ minds. It’s even more powerful when that one thing differentiates your business from your competitors. If the latest request aligns with and reinforces that one thing, great! If it doesn’t, you may be headed down the wrong path.

For example, Disney’s “big idea” is creating magical experiences, and they bake that idea into every design decision. So when they came up with a new idea for the MagicBand, they used “magical experiences” as a compass to determine whether they were headed in the right direction.

As a smart wristband that can be used for everything from unlocking the door to your Disney hotel room, to entering the theme park, to making purchases and more, the MagicBand adds magic at every turn and ties directly back to their “one thing.”

On the other hand, some brands that used to dominate now seem to have lost sight of their big idea. Apple used to have a small product line completely focused on thinking differently and creating beautiful, seamless experiences. Now, they’re becoming just like all the rest. They have tons of different products for tons of different market segments, without much that ties them together or makes people pick them instead of their competition.

Whatever your “big idea” is, incorporate it into your design philosophy and use it as your North Star for all decisions — from your high-level product strategy to the tiniest bit of microcopy.

3. When your company is honored for a prestigious award 30 years from now, what will you be recognized for?

It’s easy to get caught up in the details and debate over short-term decisions. But what’s the long-term goal? What’s the legacy you want to leave? What would people say about you in 30 years? This exercise helps you create the future by clarifying the vision that drives your design philosophy and product design.

4. If your company were a person, what would your voice and personality be like?

Voice and tone is an often-overlooked, but critical piece of a design philosophy. Once you know your big idea or main features and benefits, how are you going to communicate them? What kind of tone do you want to convey, and how do you want users to feel after interacting with your product?

It may seem like a small detail, but it makes a big difference in keeping your product focused and differentiating your brand from the sea of competition.

Take Southwest Airlines. They have developed a unique voice and consistently apply it at every touchpoint, from billboards to bags of peanuts. Southwest’s personality is fun and friendly, so whenever there is a new design request, they compare that idea to their overall voice and style to quickly determine if it’s a good fit or not.

Be the Design Doctor

Although these questions seem simple, you’ll quickly realize that — like a doctor asking a patient to describe what’s wrong — the answers are often more complex and revealing than they seem. It may take some tough conversations to develop your design philosophy, but once it’s in place, you’ll discover that it’s easier than ever to get to the heart of the real UX problem and find the right cure.