What is a “big problem” a product designer can work on?

What are some design problems a young designer can work on to build he design “chops”? Here’s a couple of ideas:

Learning how to read and write. Adult literacy around the world is at an all-time high, but there are still thousands of adults who can’t read or write. Can an self-guided app help solve this problem?

Budgeting. People need to budget their finances, but when you look at the amount of credit card debt in the country you see that many of us live beyond their means. A simple practical/instructional app can help people learn how to budget.

Decluttering. People have a lot of stuff, and in many cases way too much stuff. Can an app help them inventory and then prioritize their possessions, to help them simplify their life?

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What is a “great experience” in design?

A great experience comes when what is designed aligns with the needs and desires of the users. This means that the offering “fits” the user, if not like a glove then… like a nice warm bathrobe. A great experience accommodates all the factors – shape, touch, mental models, emotional drivers, and the user’s expected behaviors and outcomes. Controls should work as anticipated, and respond quickly.

Sounds easy, right? Well, how of you get there? How do you ensure that the great experience takes place? The primary thing to do is know your user. Research, dig deep into what they need and expect and then use that understanding to inform your design. Iterate, taking the candidate solutions back to users to test them, and then refine based on the feedback received.

The process will vary, but the key are the two things noted above: Iteration and user research. You have to do both in order to ensure a great experience.

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When creating web and mobile application UIs, what is better: "Flat Design" or "Skeuomorphic Design"?

It depends.

Yes, I know, that's a cop-out, but not really… There are benefits and drawbacks to both, and what your are designing and who you are designing for is just as important as the design "style" ("Flat" or "skeuomorphic") you choose to use.

"Flat" design is a good approach if you want to focus on and provide clean simple UIs, but "Flat" design can sometimes be harder to understand because the familiar visual cues that users expect or look for aren't applied. This is especially true when you are redesigning something that has a "history" with the user. Exhibit A: The tiled UI in Windows 8 strips away the standard conventions users have "learned" over the years, increasing the potential learning curve and cognitive load for the user.

Skeomporphic design provides real world visual metaphors to the UI that can help the user better understand how the application works, thus reducing the time needed for users to "pick up" how the app works (a good example of this is the Notes app in iOS). The flip side to that being useful is when it is done as simple visual "skinning", which does nothing to add value to the user and can come off as garish and out-of-touch. Exhibit B:  The "reel to reel" player view in Apple's Podcast app. How many users alive today ever even SAW a reel-to-reel player in the real world before? Heck, the only reason I recognized it is because I worked in radio in college. It's a visual treatment that is, at best, "neat" – at worst it's a hipsteresque affection.

You can do good work using both styles, and design trends moving away from Skeuomorphic design doesn't mean it's "bad." Bad design can be done in ANY style or approach… Skeuomorphism is just not the trendy style it once was, but it's no better or worse than "Flat" design.

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What is the next frontier in mobile UX/UI design?

Three things that are going to be a big focus for mobile UX/UI designers in the years to come:

Voice Interaction: Accessing information from your mobile device or the cloud through speech is here now, but we "turn it on" to do so. I expect this to change in the future, and that your mobile phone to always be "on call" and "wake up" when spoken too. I also expect the information and functions that will be accessed through voice commands to become more complex, useful and proactive: think "digital butler." Not a lot of "UI design" here, but a lot of UX design thought needs to go into making these experiences work seamlessly and well.

Smart Devices: See the "digital butler" note above, and think "service design" for end-users… smart devices that learn suggest and help (sending a text to someone if you are running late for a meeting, for example.) Again, more process and AI workflows than UI.

Extending and/or tethering: Think "wearable computers", with devices like the Pebble wristwatch that connects to your mobile phone via low-powered bluetooth, allowing the user to make calls or see messages on his or her wrist. Also think about how mobile devices can engage with devices or locations in your home (opening a grocery list app when you stand next to your pantry for a long while, or "talking" to your smart TV while you are watching a show). Lots of potential UIs that need designing here…

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What user experience means to me, and how I approach the design process

I may sound like Pollyanna, but to me user experience design is a way to make the world a better place.

OK, so it's not like we UX folk are curing cancer, or finding new sources of energy, or stopping world hunger… but what we do makes a real difference in people's lives. If you can make an application or design a system that makes people's day-to-day existence just a little better, reducing stress and/or saving them time and money… that's making things better, one small interaction at a time.

One of my most successful design projects was redesigning the way people signed up for electronic bills through their banks, letting them "go paperless". By simplifying the process and better explaining the value to customers, we increased adoption by a significant amount. This lead to costs savings and increased profitability for my company and it's clients, but also reduced clutter in people's lives and saved thousands of acres of trees that would have been turned into billing statements otherwise. A big win all around.

How I design starts and ends with the same thing: data. Sherlock Holmes famously said "I can not make bricks without clay!" referring to his inability to solve a case without facts, and I have a similar need. Who are the users? What is the core task they are trying to accomplish? What are the business goals of the group I am designing for? Where do they use the app/function I am designing? And so on. I can't start without knowing some key things like the above.

When it comes to how I approach design, I use a "rigidly flexible" process. The general process is consistent – research, sketch, test, refine, document – but the tactics change depending on the project and timeline. I've written a lot about these tactics here and on my blog josephdickerson.com, and instead of repeating myself recommend you check my writing out for some specific details.

And finally, when it comes to design tools, it's not the specific tools that make you a good designer… it's how you use them (and making sure the tools "fit" you). An amazingly talented designer who uses a tool that is difficult to use or doesn't "suit" him or her can produce bad design, because the tool "gets in the way." Try out as many tools as you can to find the ones that work for you.

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What are the different design approaches/UX considerations between designing an iPad app and an iPhone app?

First, and most obviously, you need to consider the constraints of both platforms. The primary constraint when you are designing an iPhone app is screen size. You have a smaller "canvas" to work with, and that constraint means that you can't overload the UI with an abundancy of controls and information. Not to say that you can "go nuts" when you are designing for the iPad, but you do have some more area to work with… you shouldn't overdo it there, either.

(Another general piece of advice is to get a good understanding of the UI conventions and controls for both devices by studying the iOS Design Guidelines from Apple… so that when you decide to "break" any of these conventions you will at least be able to do so in an informed intelligent way).

Second, if you are building an iPad version of an iPad app, you may want to "reverse engineer" the experience of the iPhone app, to identify what works and what doesn't. What are the core tasks that the app lets the user do? What can be done to enhance or improve these tasks when designing them for the iPad? Test the existing app with users, even if it's just casual "guerrilla testing." You may find that tasks and user needs that work perfectly fine in the mobile context on an iPhone make no sense on the iPad.

Case in point: I design banking and financial service apps, and one of the big new features that all the newer apps are providing is called "Remote Deposit Capture." What is that, you may ask? It's basically the ability to take a photo of a check and deposit it using a mobile banking app. It's universally well regarded by customers and a "delighter"… but it's hardly used on the iPad versions of different mobile banking apps. Why? My theory is it's just easier to take a picture with an iPhone than with an iPad, and the "awkwardness" is reducing usage and perceived value. You may find many features that "make sense" on the iPhone that don't on the iPad.

The opposite is also true, of course… there are going to be some features that don't work in an iPhone app but would work great on an iPad. Any feature that involved "drag-and-drop" as an interaction model, for example.

And for goodness sake, don't use the added screen real estate to add more features and information just because you can! Approach the design of the iPad application with the same discipline you would use when designing a small-screened mobile app. On second thought, use MORE discipline because the temptation will be greater.

Finally, a thought on behavior and context: Many of the best apps on the iPhone are designed to support "quick" behavior – you go in, you do something, you get out. This is because the iPhone is a mobile phone and when people use it they are often… well, mobile. The iPad is a different creature altogether. Though I HAVE seen people walking around city streets using an iPad to do something as they traverse crowds, it's a rare occasion – people do that with iPhones all the time. iPads are used a lot more for "browsing" and so the best apps on that platform provide a simple interface to consumer and interact with content.

Obviously, everyone and every app is different… but you should really look at what people want to do and where they do it first and foremost… no matter what platform you are designing for.

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