Category Archives: UX Design

UX Design and Social Entrepreneurship

“The human-centered focus, and the rigor and creativity required to maintain that focus over the entire course of the work, sets design thinking apart from other methods of problem solving.” ~Sarah A. Soule

Design thinking has been adapted as an effective methodology not only for product design and business models but also for social entrepreneurship. Design thinking for social good, a methodology utilized in product design, involves the designer engaging with social and environmental issues from the perspective of the individual people directly affected by the problems that the designers are trying to address. Solutions are brainstormed directly from the “users” perspective (the users being the affected people), rapid prototyping allows for empirical field testing, and solutions are synthesized. With social entrepreneurship the solution may be a product, but it may also be a new paradigm of behaviors or ways of doing things. User-Experience (UX) Design thinking provides a model for expanding design thinking to broader behavioral and social aspects in order to tackle increasingly complex and interconnected social-political-environmental challenges.

A solar cooker made from easily obtainable recycled trash materials. Appropriate design and technology that addresses a wide range of social and environmental problems.

A solar cooker made from easily obtainable recycled trash materials. Appropriate design and technology that addresses a wide range of social and environmental problems.

An example of this is a project that a non-profit organization I work with engaged in a project of social entrepreneurship in Nepal. They wanted to engage with a number of problems that turned out to be interrelated, including overpopulation, deforestation, access to education particularly for girls, and access to clean water. By traveling to Nepal, talking to local people and community leaders and spending time living amongst normal people, who designers would call their “typical users”. The project they decided on was a design for a solar cooker made from local trash including cardboard boxes, aluminum foil or tin, old glass window panes, etc. They taught women and girls how to make the solar cookers themselves and how to cook with them. The primary use of the solar cookers was for boiling and sterilizing water, thereby removing the need for collecting firewood, which contributes to deforestation. Due to the scarcity of wood, girls would spend hours every day collecting wood. The solar cookers freed up time for the girls to instead attend to their school studies. Girls who receive a basic education tend to have smaller families, be more economically prosperous, and ensure that their children also receive an education.

UX design thinking was critical to tying together all these different threads, in designing not just a product but a new way of doing, teaching and thinking about interconnected social and environmental challenges. Design thinking, often described as utilizing the designer’s creative methodologies to connect the needs of people with what is technologically feasible, becomes a greatly expanded concept when the “UX” is added in front of it. Although UX design historically grew out of the techno-centric field of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), it now extends to all aspects of a person’s interaction within a given system, encompassing interface, graphics, physical interaction, as well as social, political and environmental systems. Engaging effectively with the complex challenges that social entrepreneurship attempts to take on requires UX design thinking.

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Experiential Design in a Shot Glass

A technology entrepeneur named Brett Cramer, founder of the Spice Lab, is obsessed with salts.  He buys them by the container-load (I mean those small house-sized shipping containers) from all over the world–Himalayan salts, Hawaiian salts, smoked salts, spicey salts, etc. etc.–and sells them to foodies and gourmets.  If you think salt is just salt, check out The Spice Lab or just look at this rainbow of salts:

Tubes of salts from all over the world.

But is isn’t just the selection of salts that are unique to what Cramer and The Spice Lab are offering, it’s how in some cases they’re designed.  Some of the salts are sold in glass tubes that slot into holes bored into blocks of wood.  Cramer has designed a mixological interface to cooking with various exotic salts from around the world.

himalayan_salt_glassesBut the most striking design in his collection is the tequila shot glass carved from Himalayan salt.  Yes, the glasses are made from solid Himalayan salt, which has a translucent pink marbled appearance similar to rose quartz, owing to its high natural iron content.  This introduces a different phenomenological experience to drinking tequila.  With each shot, you get a bit of Himalayan salt, that with the presence of more than eighty minerals tastes earthier than standard table salt.  The glasses are soluble.  Each time they come into contact with liquid, a small amount of the salt dissolves.  They won’t last nearly as long as glass, and you can’t wash them or put them in the dishwasher like normal glasses.  Instead you lightly rinse and immediately dry them off.  But the salt is naturally anti-bacterial, so only minimal cleaning is required.

The experience is inherently different than the standard rock salt on the rim of the margerita glass.  The taste is different, the texture is different, the way the salt and drink are mixed is different.  These shot glasses invent a new way to consume tequila and salt (and lime).  Cramer has combined materials with consumables with interface in invent a new tequila UX.

UX design is the New Design standard.  Graphic designers, user interface designers, product designers, interior designers, architects, etc. can all take their work to a different level by understanding principles of UX design.  Some of these principles are to make things simple and intuitive.  The Himalayan salt shot glasses are an intuitive and simple way to consume tequila and lime with Himalayan salt,  far simpler than mixing a margerita and grinding the exotic salt, etc. Another principle is to reduce latency; these shot glasses make it faster and easier to have a truly sophisticated and different phenomenological and mixological experience with tequila.  And a third principle is that less is more, meaning everything about the design has a purpose.  The shot glasses hold the drink, deliver the salt to the drink in sufficient amounts to be palatable, and are aesthetically pleasing.

UX Design is Impossible. So How Do You Do It?

“Nightlife design is a set design for a play that hasn’t been written.” -Serge Becker, Experience Designer

It’s sometimes said that UX design is impossible because you can’t design the user.  People are slippery and individualistic and won’t behave the way they’re supposed to.  The UX designer profiles user personas, writes narratives, defines parameters and design conditions.  But you can’t design the user, or as a creative director once told me when I was a young designer, “Never underestimate the stupidity of the user!”

The ways in which experience design is approached in the design of night clubs is extremely informative for the UX designer of other media.  Night club designers cannot design what people will do in the club, they cannot design the user.  But what they can do is design parameters and conditions, a “set design for a play that hasn’t been written.” Night clubs are most effective at creating a first impression and a conceptual environment different from your everyday life, taking you somewhere else the moment you step into the club.  And clubs are ephemeral, they don’t last, they’re only about what’s now and what’s next.  Digital media like websites and mobile apps are the same.

The moment you click onto a website or open an app on your smartphone, there is the potential to be transported into a different user experience than the other websites and apps you’ve used in the past.  In the case of apps, the loading screen is critical for this first impression. It’s not just a spinning wheel to reassure you that something is happening while the app loads into your device’s memory, it’s a prelude to the user experience within.

app_load_screensLet’s look for example at the load screen for the Netflix app.  It’s all red, with the netflix logo in the center and a small spinning wheel below it indicating that the app is loading.  The adherence to brand identity is excellent, for it’s readily recognizable as the Netflix brand.  But what of the user experience?  The color red is an emotionally intense color.  It can denote a warning sign (stop! danger!) as well as fire, blood, war, love and passion.  But what Netflix says they want their brand to be associated with, they identify “convenience, service, speed and cost.”  They want their customers to have the easiest, fastest, and most pleasant experience getting movies as possible.  Filling the entire screen of the smart phone with scarlet red is at odds with their branding objectives.  It’s setting users up to be anxious and on edge.  Then, even if a very small annoyance occurs during the customer’s experience, they may be primed to react passionately, and not in a good way.  Netflix has set up the UX experience to be on knife’s edge from the very start.

By contrast, the load screen to Temple Run features the entrance to an ancient stone temple, preceding a menu screen that mimics the same layout.  The aesthetics call to mind ancient ruins in a tropical environment, reminiscent of the stone temples found in the rain forests of Southeast Asia and Central America.  The typefaces, colors, and textures suggest an Indiana Jones-style adventure, and the arched entrance to the temple that is shrouded in darkness suggests the the user is entering this realm, embarking on a thrilling and exotic adventure.  The design creates a first impression that is critical for the user experience throughout.  The edginess and sense of danger are similar to the loading screen on the Netflix app, but in this case it’s appropriate to the UX.

There is much more to UX design than can be covered in one short article. But setting the tone with the user’s first impression, the concept of building a stage upon which the actors will invent the play, are critical foundational concepts.