I recently wrote an article summarizing some common failures in creating great user experience (UX) in real estate search, why these failures happen, and what can be done about them. That left some readers wondering, “So, how exactly does a UX Designer engage in user-centric design, focusing on efficiency, effectiveness and subjective satisfaction?” Now, no two UX designers work exactly the same way, use the same methods (certainly not on every project), or use all of the same tools, but following is a starting point for understanding some of the methods and tools used by UX designers.
The first step of UX design is research – to gather information about who your users are and what they want to achieve using the software. This involves finding out who your users actually are and making contact with them. They are probably not the executives who commissioned the application, and who have had the “big idea” that’s greenlighted it. They are probably not the marketing people whose job it is to define what they think customers want and to convince those customers that they can deliver. They are the people who actually use the software.
The initial research, whether in the form of interviews, surveys, or observations can take visible form as personas, narrative descriptions of who your user actually is, storyboards, which envision how your user will make use of the software in the course of his or her day, and other visual collections of ideas as to who your user is and whom you are writing software for.
The second step of UX design is creating wireframes. Wireframes are mockups of the look and flow of a website or application. They outline features and content but don’t contain final graphics. There are tools such as Balsamiq and Axure RP that make it very easy to make very impressive-looking sketch-ups of potential applications. The wireframes can then be put in front of stakeholders as a part of ensuring that application development is on the right track before the next step, and certainly before developers begin to code.
Wireframe Tool: Balsamiq
The third step of UX design is getting the prototypes created via wireframing into the hands of the users. Now is the time to see whether the users are working with the software the way you intend them to, or whether they are fumbling and getting lost. Often, there are controls that make sense to a programmer but not to a layperson, parts of the user interface that you don’t see unless you look for them, or controls that have unexpected effects. For example, a real estate search application may be built with a way to select a price range using “sliders.” During testing, you may see that it takes users an excessive amount of time to move the sliders to exactly the right positions that describe the price range. As a result, the users get frustrated with the interface and do not complete the task.
A slider causing frustration as the user attempts to
search for listings costing between $220,000 and $230,000
To answer questions like this, you need software that will test users’ responses. One of the most common scenarios is an A/B test, where you set up two different versions of the software, each with a variation on one feature. The A/B test will tell you which version was used correctly and most quickly by the most users. A multivariate test lets you test changes to more than one aspect of an interface at the same time, by testing all the different combinations of changes. The most effective combination of changes will rise to the top. The major real estate listing portals have likely conducted A/B tests and multivariate tests on every aspect of their user interface.
Visual Website Optimizer – Testing Tools for Web Apps
As you get further towards a finished product, you may want to start tracking where the user clicks (or touches, or swipes) on the screens you have designed and set up. For this you need a “click tracker” or “heat map.” The heat map will show you where your users are moving their mouse, clicking most, and if they are following the workflows you expect or desire. There are also packages that will track users’ eye movements as they look at the screen and its elements, to see whether they are “reading” them as you expect. You may have to go back to the drawing board – preferably, a whiteboard – and then back to the wireframe stage, to either reflect what your users are actually doing or to figure out a new workflow which will appeal to them more.
Inspectlet – Captures user actions in app, including clicks.
Throughout this entire process, with the aid of your tools, you are returning to the users again and again. You are not limited by what they want, because their conceptions may be limited by what they’ve used already. But you can figure out in what directions they will and won’t go. Now, the tools and techniques exist to do much better – to make people use a product naturally, in the way that best exposes its functionality.
Optimizely – Automated A/B testing of websites/apps.
UX work does not end after the software has shipped. There are iterative improvements that can always be made. The cycle from the users to the product and back again should continue throughout the lifecycle of the software. Some testing can be done using mockups or screenshots, more interactive testing can be done on “staging” versions of an application, and finally, as described above, more testing can continue to happen on the live application on an ongoing basis.
The above represents some, but not all, parts of the UX process; we’ve called out some tools, but there are many others. Of course, downloading the tools does not make anyone a UX expert any more than buying a hammer at the hardware store makes one a carpenter or contractor. Although the process of gathering data and refining your product is constant, it is optimal to build it in from the beginning, when you are defining your product and gathering requirements. At the same time most entrants in the real estate marketplace are not starting from zero, and will be refining existing products incrementally and iteratively over time. No matter where you are in the software development process, you can improve what you do have.
There is a strong business case for investing in competent UX designers and letting them contribute to – in some cases, help drive — the software development process. As mentioned, the biggest players in our industry would not think of putting out a website or app without attention to UX; the alternative is tossing a pack of “best guesses” at the market and seeing what sticks, or doing what many do now – which is pay little attention to UX at all. Good UX makes it easier for real estate professionals to do their jobs, and makes the real estate experience compelling to buyers, sellers, and prospective consumers. That in itself should be reason enough to take advantage of UX design.
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