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Designing websites is an art form as much as it is a science. That’s why here at the UXBooth, we like to occasionally take a break from sharing our opinions and highlight the experiences of others. This month, we’ve asked Travis Schmeisser of nGen Works to share insights from his company’s trade. nGen Works is a design and interface development establishment based in Jacksonville, Florida.
- Travis, what is your “discovery” process like when you take on a client? How do you relate to them?
Our first team meeting for the project is a looooong conversation with the client. We cover their current site status, their audience and desired perceptions. From these talks we start going into what is or isn’t working deeper (sometimes even outside the website and just within their company), goals for the site redesign and even the audience they want if different than their current user base.
We also cover the current site map or a content list that we require clients bring to the first meeting. This can be a stack of post-its with page names, notes in a text file or a site map if they have it. Having this shows us what’s important to the client and we help translate it into what users really need. We talk through each page to understand the content and goals it accomplishes.
After this meeting we look into who the audience is, now that we have an understanding of what they need and the company provides for them. We do a competitor analysis and think through how this company is different than others. We usually use very loose personas and speak more broadly about what the different types of customers would be looking for rather than strict names and roles as they aren’t real either way. Depending on the client and project, we may have access to actual users and customers, which of course is always the best.
We kick it around internally very informally and talk through how we can set them apart. It’s different for every company because we’re building from different bases, but as discovery moves on we turn our research and conversations into a content brief and site map. We’ve seen what the competition has, we know what users need and what our client has that no one else does.
- How does Information Architecture work at nGenWorks? Do you have a prototyping process?
We take the content clients want to give their users or actions they need from them and architect the experience around that. Sometimes the starting point is a current site and notes from what isn’t working, other times it’s loose notes about content buckets. Once we know what competitors are doing and the company’s background and goals we can create a site hierarchy. We do wireframes if needed, depending on the project’s complexity. In the past we’ve even done full HTML wireframes a client can click through, allowing them to “use” the site a bit. That process is featured in Wireframes Magazine.
If it’s an interface element or particular screen that needs clarification before design, we’ll wireframe that part or screen in Illustrator, even if it’s for internal purposes. Varick and I decide together what will get us the best results without blowing project budget on extensive documentation that may change during production or client meetings anyway—as it usually does, otherwise it would just be too easy.
- Do you do any user research or usability testing on your sites?
We do as much research as we can and rely on the client to help define the users who will eventually be using the site. They often know their customer the best, but we can lend another side they haven’t considered most of the time through our experience. The research changes with every site as the audience is always different. The first meeting really sets the tone and goals for what we’ll be looking into and who we’re dealing with.
We do informal usability testing for everything we build and more extensive testing depending on the budget and needs of the project. We’ve worked with clients that only want testing and interface recommendations based on our findings.
- How does the “user” play in to the design of a site? How does the client play into the design of the site?
The user plays the most into the design of the site because they’ll be using it. They’re the target audience and who is the most important in the project. Of course the client is a huge part and they have goals as well, but we try to minimize their involvement in the design process to letting us know if we’re breaking branding guidelines or something just isn’t them in spirit or visuals. Otherwise, we point back to the users as a way to sell the client on the look and feel. We prepare the design to match the users needs and trigger a certain emotion in them. Clients don’t like hearing it sometimes, but our most successful projects are the ones that run that way and keep them in mind.
- In your opinion, what fields are related to what you do?
Oh, man. So many and everyone calls each position by a different name. It’s really a broad field to be part of and can be hard to narrow down. I think the longer you do it the more you see how different aspects play into the experience.
Can I sum it up quickly and say communication? Everything from the interface to the copywriting and the clicking to the workflow really comes down to making sure you’re relaying a message or getting something you need from the user.
- What advice would you give to people interested in designing more usable websites?
When you find something is easy to use, try to figure out why. How was the form laid out? What did the copy say that relayed a point to you? How did the visual hierarchy tell you where to go next? Just keep your eyes open at the details of how things work. Try to use those conventions and sit people down to see if you’re getting there. Watching someone click around your work will trump everything else.
Also, stay up to speed with current work and innovative interfaces. You have to keep learning and stay up to date, but at the same time you’ll never be a master of everything, so learn the aspects of the process you enjoy and try to focus on them.
- Do you have any books/resources to which you commonly refer?
I don’t always refer back to them these days, but for general books that I feel have changed how I work I’d say:
Designing with Web Standards (2nd Edition)
Bulletproof Web Design: Improving flexibility and protecting against … worst-case scenarios with XHTML and CSS
Bit Literacy: Productivity in the Age of Information and E-mail Overload
Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability
- Mike Hoenselaar asks: What conversion elements do you pay attention to when building a web site? Like buttons, for example. How do you determine their size, position, content?
The elements we focus on change per the site goal. As far as designing their priority and size that depends on how important they are within the visual hierarchy and what is around them. It’s always a juggling game between the many elements that make up a site. Just changing the color of a button can give it the visual weight needed sometimes.
The goal is always different because each client cares about something separate, but we’re huge Google Analytics fans. Quite often we find getting people to a certain page or completing a certain task is our client’s goal, so GA gives us great tracking tools of how they get there or where they bail from. Even simple things like tracking the confirmation page of a form lets us know how many people got to the form vs how many actually filled it out.
That’s all folks! Who’s next?
That’s all the questions we prepared for this interview. Thanks again, Travis, for taking the time to share your insight with our community. Each of these interviews is an opportunity for our community to see how exciting and multifaceted the design and development of websites can be.
If you’re reading this and know someone in the usability/user experience field who you would like to see interviewed, let us know in the comments!