UX work

How UX can help you keep your job as a developer

Coman Hamilton
UX image via Shutterstock

You mightn’t think it’s always critical. But a product’s success or failure can often depend on one developer’s UX sensitivity. Firefox lead designer Philipp Sackl talks to us about what exactly developers need to know about UX.

JAXenter: In your experience – do developers usually care about UX?

Philipp Sackl: It depends. So in the past I’ve worked with a variety of developers in different places and some of them care a lot about UX to the point they are challenging the UX people – are you sure this is a good idea? – And it’s not always because it’s hard to implement, but because they actually care about the user experience. So those were actually the most fun working environments so far.

There are definitely a lot of developers out there that care a great deal about UX – I think particularly when you look at startup culture. When you look at people like Loren Brichter (the guy who invented ‘pull to refresh’), he’s a developer. Other people like Marco Arment of Instapaper fame – he’s a developer, just caring about the user side of things and polishing the application. So having both the UX person and the developer caring about the user experience is a dream team combination.

But the second kind of developer is the one that tries to get out of the way, that doesn’t care but also doesn’t obstruct. And then I’ve also encountered people in my life that just want to float, that just want to get things done the easiest possible way, rather than the right way for the user. And I think that’s just bad development. They probably have a reason for doing that, but I don’t think that’s a good space to be in.

So how can companies motivate developers to care about UX? If there’s a UX expert in the company, does that not promote the “someone else will take care of it” attitude?

It has something to do with ownership. So in a given product, everyone from the marketing person, the developer, the UX person, the project manager – every person feels some kind of ownership about the product. And I think this naturally leads to conversations about how this is going to effect users, what the response will be like. So I think that’s the best reason to care about UX.

“Caring about UX is job security.”

There’s also other issues. When it really is about the company bottom line, then most of the time user success and user satisfaction correlates with the bottom line. So, caring about UX is job security. You’re helping your product be successful and the successful product will keep you employed. That’s an extreme case, but it still matters.

Speed is obviously always a huge factor for developers. But at a recent Webinale talk you showed that it can sometimes pay to slow a product down to highlight its security and thereby build trust. How does this work?

There are two things in play here. One is trust in general, and the other is security in particular. And they’re very much interrelated. About trust in general – I think a lot of it depends really on what you usually call the ‘look and feel’ of an application. Are there any rough edges? Are there any sudden jumps in the interface? Is there any yank? Is there anything that looks unfinished?

So let’s compare your website, product or application to a car. Are all the parts in the right place? Does it have any scratches on the surface? If you go to a car dealership and you have a giant scratch on the hood, that’s not going to be a great value proposition. And this is essentially what happens when you see an application and it doesn’t react to a click, for example.

SEE ALSO: How to improve UX with service design tools

About the issue of security and speed in general – there’s kind of a trade-off. Security is perceived by many people as something that needs to be done actively. So, they’re asking the application ‘what are you doing to make me secure?’ And the thing is, on a technical level, all that crypto and the SSL handshake stuff, that usually never takes long. SSL handshakes take milliseconds. But to the user that’s completely invisible. It’s something that they never see. And if they’re not hugely technical then they’re just not going to know that the application is doing anything to keep them secure.

So in some cases it might make sense to have a deliberate tradeoff to actually show some messaging or reinforcement of this application being secure, instead of making it simply as fast as possible. Now this is not a general rule that you can always apply. You shouldn’t make every tap display ‘securely managing your tap’ – that would probably drive people crazy. But in those crucial moments when it really is about information being safe, when you’re filling in a huge tax form, for example, when you’re entering all your personal information and information about your income, then it probably makes sense to do something to reinforce the security principle at that point.

What advice would you offer developers that want everyday work results in good UX?

I think probably the single best thing that you can do is watch people using the product you’re building, if this at all possible. If you’re building an app, go to a coffee shop, buy someone a coffee and ask them to just use the app while you look over their shoulder. Ask family members, just anyone you can grab, ask them not just for feedback, but just for the opportunity to watch them do stuff. Because they’re probably going to do it differently.

“Most of us in the tech industry are living in a bubble”

And the reason I think this is so important is because most of us in the tech industry (and that includes designers like me) are living in a bubble. We have all these very elaborate concepts about how the world works, how technology works, that just aren’t the way most people are living it. So exposing yourself to that reality is the single most important thing you can do to become more sensitive to these issues.

Then of course the next step would be to find out how you can change that with whatever I’m doing. And if you can’t (because maybe you’re a back-end engineer and can’t do much in the front-end) then at least you can bring it up with your team. Ideally you’ll also have a culture at your company where the general staff is receptive to this kind of feedback, that obviously makes it easier. Otherwise it becomes a question of lobbying and making people aware and getting people to care.

Firefox saw a massive usage growth after it introduced major UX improvements in the recent Australis design update. And some users even thought the browser felt faster. How did you manage this?

So the extent of it was not something we expected. I think the really interesting thing there is these halo effects that are happening with products that are perceived to have higher quality, like I talked about earlier. If you have a high-quality product that also feels high quality then all these other positive attributes start grouping around it.

If a product feels high-quality and dependable, then it also feels more secure and, in our case, even faster to a lot of users. We didn’t design for it to feel faster in terms of pageload (well, we’re always designing for that, but we didn’t do it for that release). So we were a little surprised when that happened. But once you see these kinds of connections, then you can start using them deliberately. And that’s what we’re trying to do more of in the future.

Coman Hamilton
Coman was Editor of at S&S Media Group. He has a master's degree in cultural studies and has written and edited content for numerous news, tech and culture websites and magazines, as well as several ad agencies.

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