Essential tools in a UX strategy

by KD Singh Arneja

For the past 10 months, I have been engaged in setting up and executing a User Experience strategy with a health care software vendor. The team’s responsibilities revolve around all things UX, although the most fun albeit difficult part is, user research. We oversee 4 products and from a process standpoint, we rely on User Centered Design and Lean UX. We employ design sprints and make it our top priority to stay ahead of development teams to minimize the post-dev churn.

Now, like any place that is trying to climb the UX maturity model, the challenges and opportunities that I have come across here have been substantive as well. But one of the most critical aspects of implementing the strategy has been ‘tooling’. Perhaps more critical than some other newly UX teams realize. It became a critical item for me after I interviewed all the developers and product owners during my first few weeks here. They were and still are my first stakeholders. Their daily needs, the speed of delivery, clarity of requirements and depth of prototypes were just a few criteria that I had to take into account.

And to be clear, by tools I mean actual practical techniques, software and cloud based services. As a disclaimer, I would like to mention that what I have described below is not a rule of thumb or one size fits all approach. Just like a typical UX activity, you should first talk to the internal stakeholders, especially colleagues whose success will depend on your output. Perform a couple of Contextual Enquiries or Task Analysis in order to listening to them and really understand their problems. That is the most important task in enabling a UX strategy; at least for enabling the strategy inside out. ¹

So let’s look at the UX tools ecosystem we have put in place that I think may suit your needs.

A UX room!

Well, yes, first and foremost. The problem here was that, the way is office is laid out, there is meager whiteboard space. So, I took over a meeting room and covered the bare wall with self-adhesive white boarding paper. Now the team has 10ft of space to scribble. This is the room for our design sprints, ad-hoc spitball discussions and random doodling. This “UX central” is a must for every team that just likes to generate ideas. A place where you can go consistently as a team, is key to cadence in the strategy.

Balsamiq

I personally do not use this tool very often now. But initially, I sat down with all the product owners and had workshops with them to help them render their thoughts using this ever useful tool. I gave them a quick run down of tricks and trips and how they can quickly share ideas with me. And, now some of the user stories have Balsamiqs attached and those tell us where these product owners are coming from. That is an idea from a product owner which is not be dismissed.

Sketch

This is where the team spends most of its time when producing hi-fidelity mockups. We work off of Sketch heavily to be consistent. But if Axzure or other tools bakes their cookie, power be to them. As long as developers get a great style guide and clear user flows, any design tools is OK.

iPad

Yes! Best investment I’ve made in recent years! Some of my product owners are remote and so we use Webex. Now while webexing, the iPad Pro with its iPencil is a killer combo for getting things done. While the iPad is connected, if I use the “New Movie Recording” option in Quicktime on my Mac, I can share the iPad screen. Collaboratively we think out loud, I sketch away, spitball ideas and we get a lot done.

The go-to app for me for sketching is Evernote. It’s sketch mode is super cool and productive as the design thoughts get saved in my notebook. Now, while traveling and/or I have the time, I depend on iMockups and AppCooker. Very cool apps indeed.

The following are core to our cloud based tools strategy:

Invision

No UX strategy is complete without prototyping. And IMHO, no team that prototypes and collaborates can live without Invision.

Besides having my team members as collaborators, I’ve made it a point that all developers and product owners can access the service and know their way around navigating the tool. Looking at a few videos, they were able to become productive by sharing their thoughts here and shedding emailing habit for small pesky questions.

Zeplin

If you are still conveying style guides via PDFs, you are a dinosaur!

Zeplin is our one stop shop for all things style guide. Developers can view pixel perfect layouts, download icons and even copy the SASS for a given UI pattern. We can collaborate with developers here as well via comments and show them scenarios for both mobile and desktop views.

The Sketch plugins for Zeplin and Invision Sync drive are crucial toys that just make this ecosystem efficient.

Mural

A bigger part of the UX strategy is ability to follow a UX process and organize thoughts and research efficiently. I have found no better tool than Mural. This is even more important when part of your team or even Product Owners are remote.

This is our virtual collection of whiteboards where we manage our design sprints, Lean UX boards and Empathy Mapping. It makes Mood Boards fun and productive. The product owners have now caught on to it for Agile story mapping.

Pixate

Now as great as Invision is, I just do not find it geared up enough yet to handle all gestures and interactions for a native mobile experience prototype. While I cannot wait to try Invision Motion, Pixate already does that very well.

Not a tool for the faint hearted and learning curve is there, but it makes you very productive once you get a hang of it. We are still not 100% on it, but it keeps us honest by building out our own symbol library in Sketch which is a recommended approach anyway. The coolest thing is that the prototype can be distributed as a link and can be launched on the targeted device for realistic feel equivalent to a native app experience.

Update: As of Oct 4, 2016, Pixate is dead. Read more here. Time to look for another tool.

Noun Project

Lastly, for iconography, usually the choices are to build ones own or take help from the community. The latter saves time and Noun project helps us do that seamlessly. Yes, we have to tweak the icons at times to simplify the SVG outputs, but the amount of time saved in providing icons can be spent on doing usability and A/B tests.

Finally, you may tailor your strategy differently, but I am sure some of these tools will be part of it. Lean time to dev, rapid prototyping and collaboration for a reduced feedback loop account for the modus operandi for any UX team in 2016 and having a great toolset is critical in achieving these goals.

References

  1. Levy, James (2015) UX Strategy. O’Reilly.