trends & perspectives in clinical research

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Designing the Experience

by Steve Winter

Effective user experience (UX) design requires a deep understanding of users, what they need, what they value, and their goals and expectations of an application. We study and evaluate how people get things done, and translate this into an elegant user interface.


We look at the whole picture, since design is more than developing standards around list items; we imagine and create all of the visual and functional elements of an application, including placement of elements and proximity of these elements to others, spacing, fonts, and the means by which information is presented (for example, a drop-down menu, a text field, etc.). Along the way, we consider such things as ease of use, perception of the application’s value, utility, and efficiency in performing tasks.

'User experience' encompasses all aspects of the end-user's interaction with the company, its services, and its products.--Jakob Nielsen

When you see a bad design, you know it; with good design, however, things are working so smoothly that there’s little thought to how you’re getting things done.

Tasks and Techniques of UX Designers

UX designers tackle a large a number of tasks at various points in the design process; however, there are three core steps in creating a successful application:

  • Contextual inquiry (or, observing people as they work): It’s imperative that we observe users as they perform their normal activities and then discuss our findings with the user. In the case of study startup, we visit clinical research organizations to observe site specialists and country managers performing day-to-day tasks. This leads to a deeper understanding of processes, workflows, and challenges faced directly by those “in the trenches” of site activation. Another technique we use to encourage participants to share insights is participatory design sessions. Users sketch out solutions on paper, which helps to surface their perspective on a problem. We don’t necessarily use the sketches in designs, but they allow us to better understand the problem we’re solving.
  • Prototyping: Based on the information gathered during the contextual inquiry, we create an initial design. This can be in the form of a sketch, low-fidelity blueprint (called a wireframe), or functional model (prototype). The goal of this design is to provide a visual reference for members of the product development and engineering teams, who can then better understand the problems being addressed and the solutions we proposed.
  • Usability testing: Testing a functional prototype with users provides invaluable insight into the efficacy of the proposed design solution and sometimes into other problems we weren’t aware of. Conducted either live or remotely, the design solution is presented in the context of a specific scenario. During the session, the user is encouraged to describe their thoughts and reactions as they explore the prototype. The goal of the test is to see if and where the user fails. This way, we can correct the design before the next usability test if needed.

The core principle behind UX design is that by understanding users and their behaviors, and integrating these findings into the application, we’re more likely to meet their needs. The goal is always to design a great product that’s more efficient than what they’re currently using. To get there, designers need to make sure they’re effectively communicating not only with users, but also with their company’s product management and engineering teams.

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