To say that User Experience (UX) is a critical success factor in the creation of modern applications is easy. Plenty have. Vendors preach this constantly and an increasing number of end user organisations are beginning to see the light when it comes to the importance of UX. What’s hard is to actually implement it. Implementing UX properly requires more than simply tacking an extra step on to the end of an existing development process or adopting a new tool. UX is a multi-step process involving various disciplines that is woven throughout the whole process of creating an application.
It is important to note that UX is not visual design, in fact UX can exist minus any visual design – just consider voice controlled experiences such as Amazon Echo. Fundamental to a creating a great experience is optimising the process or workflow that a user follows in order to complete a specific task. Consider new mobile payment models that do not try to optimise the experience of inputting payment information (such as credit card details) but have almost done away with data entry altogether. They have created a new heavily optimised experience in order to make paying as fast as possible.
Therefore, within a UX process there will be different roles for collecting research, creating and optimising business processes and user workflows, designing visual interfaces, developing prototypes, and measuring outcomes. This will be in addition to all of the usual roles involved in application development such as product owners, developers and other IT, and business representatives. Depending on the scale of the operation many of these roles may be merged with a single role having many skills. Anyone creating tools for this environment cannot easily predict the skills of those using them but need to consider multiple personas.
At the practitioner level this poses a number of challenges, especially if one wants to run UX in an efficient and effective way. At the heart of this challenge is the fact that UX brings together multiple stakeholders from the UX team, through to the software development teams, the business, and of course (most importantly) the users of the application. This is further complicated by the various workflows that crossover non-technical to technical roles and require often different technologies and tools.
The traditional UX workflow is fraught with challenges
Let’s consider a typical UX process from a practitioner perspective. There are a number of steps that will be followed.
- A normal starting point for the UX process begins with a period of research in order to understand the key requirements of a new application or a new iteration of an existing application. These are often presented to key stakeholders such as end users or the application owner through visual designs. Traditionally this would mean flat image files, perhaps in the early stages basic wireframes that provide the features and flows. This work can be done by UX Designers who may be different from UI Designers that typically come from a Graphic Design background. UX Designers are primarily focused on creating the optimum workflows and how app capabilities best fit into those. The obvious challenge with this approach is that applications are inherently interactive and that interactivity is increasingly important. Flat image files are unable to represent this interactivity but at best create a linear presentation of common workflows.
- The next step is often to add “design” which includes images, colours and logos and in general seems to focus more on the User Interface (UI) aspects of the application. Again the output is traditionally flat image files which are presented to stakeholders.
- The following step may involve a prototype which may or may not be built using the same technology as the final application. While such prototypes introduce interactivity there can sometimes be little similarity with the final application. For example, if the prototype is built using web technologies such as HTML then any interactions, such as the way screens transition from one to another, may not replicate exactly how this will work in a final application that may be built using an entirely different technology, such as that of a native mobile app for Apple iOS or Google Android based devices.
- Following the prototype step the application may then move to the development team. In many cases this can require developers to work with image files in image editing applications that they are less familiar with. In other cases the developer might well be able to use their existing tooling platform but runs the risk of not getting a true representation of the prototype solution. Ultimately, the onus (minus skills and understanding) is on them to recreate precisely the experience created in design tools using their development tools and the application technology. Once this has been done and the application deployed the entire process typically repeats itself.
The major challenge then being that the assets created in the different steps are completely unlinked and keeping them in sync can prove incredibly difficult. For example, let’s say that a change was made to the user interface (UI) during the final development step. This needs to be replicated in all of the assets created in the previous steps otherwise the next iteration will begin based on a UI that is not actually the final UI in the application.
Adobe XD promises to smooth the path to a prototype
Various vendors have tried in the past to address these complexities in the UX process through tooling. In many respect addressing this challenge fuelled much of the tools that were released in the mid 2000s when the focus was on how best to support the designer developer workflow so as to deliver Rich Internet Applications (RIA). At the time RIA ushered in recognition of the importance of interactivity and user experience in an increasingly web/mobile engaged world.
Adobe, a vendor that essentially owns the designer tools market, has been a frequent player in this space. The company’s most recent entry to the designer developer portfolio of tools is a new product called Adobe XD (Experience Design) that is currently in preview release. The aim of Adobe XD is to make the design and prototyping phases as easy and seamless as possible. The potential and promise of such a solution is great but will depend on Adobe’s delivery.
Adobe XD on trial
CIC spoke with a mobile app development company that has been trialling Adobe XD. The tool was used by people familiar with Adobe’s other products but were not designers. This type of person could be typical of those involved in the early phases of the UX process, for example UX Designers. They found Adobe XD easy to use and in their first experience were able to prototype a relatively complex mobile app in less than an hour. While appreciating that the tool is currently in preview they intend to continue to use it for future projects and are positive about its capabilities.
A ringing endorsement no less, but there are some caveats.
The company’s UX designers expressed some of the shortcomings that have been documented by other trial users. First among those being the lack of interactivity within the prototypes created (a reoccurring challenge from old). While a user of the prototype can click (or touch) on elements such as buttons and menus to move between screens, there is none of the more advanced but common interactivity found in modern applications (and which is important to the experience). For example, many mobile apps have hamburger menus (the small icon showing a stack of lines) that opens up a list of menu option. These menus will often slide into view but in Adobe XD the transition is a far more jarring move to an entire new screen showing the open menu list.
The current feature set of Adobe XD is considered basic and so currently suits non-designers better than designers, as the mobile app vendor trialling Adobe XD found. This is not necessarily a bad thing if it is to be a tool for UX Designers more focused on conveying features and workflows. The integration between the design tools that designers typically use such as Adobe Illustrator or Adobe Photoshop was minimal. The product is in preview and therefore limitations are expected but there is a concern among some that at this stage and given other products in the market, Adobe XD is significantly behind. Adobe needs to begin developing at a far more rapid cadence in order to catch and pass competitors. Even then it is unlikely that Adobe XD will be the single tooling answer to many UX teams. Although at no point does Adobe claim otherwise.
UX will require many tools, not just one
The key for any organisation implementing a UX process will be how different tools integrate together in order to serve different stakeholders. Another tool, InVision, which has rapidly grown in popularity helps to facilitate the interactions between different stakeholder groups. For example, an ISV that CIC spoke to uses InVision as the hub through which designs can be shared with business stakeholders, developers and users and through which feedback from these different constituents can be gathered. This also helps the different practitioner teams to keep their different assets synchronised. For example, for a new iteration of an application the UX team can mark on designs where changes have been made so that they are obvious for development teams. Conversely development teams can mark where they have had to make changes that design teams can then reflect in their assets.
This is still a largely manual process but InVision provides capabilities that greatly facilitate it. If Adobe are to be successful with Adobe XD then it either needs to replicate such capabilities or (perhaps more sensibly) integrate well with a tool such as InVision in addition to richer integration with other Adobe design tools. Adobe has indicated closer integration coming with its marketing toolset – Adobe Experience Manager. In fact, through integrations with both designer and developer tools such as Sketch, JIRA and Slack, InVision has become the glue in many UX processes.
Of course, the holy Grail of any UX process is to remove as much friction as possible between the different disciplines and rather than deal with different assets at different steps of the process to enable assets to be shared across those steps. The use of design patterns, common component libraries and more recently the concept of a design language are ways of addressing this. The challenge for organisations wanting to move to these more efficient and effective processes is that they need the skills required and (perhaps more challenging) the culture.
Great potential but work to be done
All UX teams will require tools and more likely a toolchain of products that work well together in order to best support the different phases, disciplines and technologies involved. Adobe XD certainly has the potential to be one of those tools and organisations that are serious about UX (and practitioners) should keep an eye on how this product evolves over the coming months.
Hopefully Adobe will deliver the necessary features that are required of the different disciplines that will interact with the tool, and will do this in a timely fashion. Ideally Adobe will also view Adobe XD as one in a chain of tools and deliver the ability to integrate Adobe XD into other popular UX and potentially developer tools rather than try and be all things to all men. As we found there are customers across different UX disciplines who are excited at the promise of Adobe XD but it is up to Adobe to now deliver that promise.