Golden Nuggets & Secret Sauce: A Recipe for Good User Experiences
By: Francesca ‘Frankie’ Socolick - Senior UX Engineer
Ever ask anyone what came first, the chicken or the egg? Undoubtedly you will hear a compelling argument for either side. One might say the chicken came first since it’s needed to produce said egg. Others say it was the egg that hatched said chicken, as the chicken wouldn’t exist in the first place to make the egg.
Regardless of what came first, both the chicken and the egg need to exist to support the entire poultry ecosystem. Does it matter which came first? Why do we have such a preoccupation with the sequence of egg to chicken to begin with?
I believe that a similar preoccupation exists in the design world. The ever fuzzy debate of UX (user experience) versus UI (user interface). UI vs UX. The debate centers on which one is more important, or if they are even unique at all.
It’s a common misconception in digital product development to think these two terms are synonyms. Sometimes when I’m working on a project I will hear ‘Yes! We have a UI team in place already’ or ‘No, we need this product in three weeks and cannot do any research.’ I’ve also seen that UI tends to be the ‘bright and shiny thing’ people grab onto because it is something tangible, and therefore think UI is the only thing that matters (story of my life).
I’d argue that the conversation needs to move away from a debate on which is more important, or picking just to do one because resources are limited. Rather, I’d like to offer you a perspective just like the chicken and the egg, UX and UI are two distinct, separate but equally important entities that come together beautifully to create a delightful digital ecosystem.
Here’s how I like to explain it.
There are two crucial elements: golden nuggets and secret sauce.
Golden nuggets will be playing the role of User Experience (UX). The secret sauce will be playing the role of User Interface (UI).
Dipping these golden nuggets into a bomb-ass sweet sauce will get you in for the win and have folks shouting from the rooftop 'Winner, winner chicken dinner!' All in all, I want to help people understand that you just can’t have one without the other. Otherwise, in the end, you’re just going to be hangry from consuming a half-assed meal. Who wants to deal with hangry users? ...not me.
Step 1: Source those nuggets
Design Phase: Discovery & Research
We all know that organic produce is the best for us. It's the most naturally produced, cultivated and available food option we have access to. It’s no secret that you pay for its higher quality. Securing organic food means more monetary commitment from consumers because of the care and effort it took to create it. However, you’re all the better off for it.
The same is true when it comes to the first step in UX design: sourcing your nuggets. Your nuggets need to be fresh, local and from the source.
Like a number of things that are good for us, we tend to overlook and undervalue the need for them. It’s not uncommon for people to look for cheaper options, such as supplements, enhanced beverages or pre-packed food. These products claim to be just as good as the real thing... but are they really? You can say you’re ingesting a days worth of vegetables in that smoothie, but we both know you’re only fooling yourself. Between having organic vegetables and a smoothie, only one is going to bring you real sustenance.
All of this also applies to skimping out on proper user research. You’re only going to pay for it later.
How do you find these beautiful, organic and locally sourced user nuggets?
Get out there and meet your users, talk, research, ask why and test your assumptions! The best way to source your nuggets? Cultivating your own empathy with the user to establish a relationship, then dig deep to find those nuggets.
Harvest your nuggets
To harvest your own nuggets, going ‘organic’ means going to the source, which means going directly to the user. The user is the end-customer that will be engaging with your digital product. This can be the user that will be reviewing your products, ordering from you, or browsing through your offerings either in a current or future state.
You’ll know you found a nugget when you get that warm tingly feeling... one of those ‘a-ha!’ moments, or something that you will circle and star a million times in your notebook. Just a handful of golden nuggets are worth their weight in gold. Quality is much more important than quantity in this scenario.
In step one, it's important to not obtain your nuggets from your client or customer… or essentially whoever is paying you to do the work. Here’s why: the user and client are not the same thing.
What you will end up with if you obtain your nuggets from your client is some processed second-hand smoothie filled with sugar and other junk. This smoothie is super easy to get but is filled with modified chemicals that give you no real benefit.
You don't want this.
This point here is that it is critical to take the extra time and effort to source your nuggets from your actual users themselves. If you are being commissioned to create a product (probably the majority of your projects) you need to be very mindful. It’s important to balance all the feedback from your client (aka the person paying you) with the feedback from the actual end-user. While it’s crucial to make your client feel heard, important, and like they’re the smartest person in the world, it’s also your responsibility and duty to let the user drive the experience.
Hence the field is known as ‘user experience’ and not ‘bossy client experience.’
Otherwise, you’ll end up with this.
Step 2: Prepare golden nuggets
Design Phase: Analysis & Design
You’ve diligently cultivated and collected the best of the best golden nuggets… now it's figuring out how to best use them. Should they be fried, steamed, or grilled? What will create the best flavor? What will produce the most satisfying and delightful outcome?
Before you can jump into cooking, there is always a prep period. Within UX, this is often a period where your analysis and designs will come into play. For example: What are all of the creative and delightful ways you can apply your findings to the problem the user is facing? How many different ways can you apply a nugget to a design or concept? A personal favorite heuristic framework I like to use during my prep period comes from Abby The IA’s piece ‘Does It Have Legs’, and it’s where my over-use of the word ‘delightful’ comes from it being ..well ..just so damn ..delightful.
Analyzing your golden nuggets through this lens will weed out any fool’s gold. This will leave you with only the purest ideas and concepts about your user. This is also where your work as a User Experience designer/researcher begins to end and the User Interface Design’s work begins to start. And it starts with the sauce.
Step 3: Sauce and nugget pairing
Design Phase: Prototyping
Visit any fast food restaurant and you will be bamboozled by the options for sauces. Take McDonald's for example, they have eight sauces you can choose from. Who knew that you could dip your nugget into eight completely different sauces and have a different experience!
Let’s reframe this: the user picks the sauce, not the restaurant. Why?
Well, the sauce is a very personal choice. It can make or break the meal for the individual. Too spicy? Too sweet? Not enough umami? Do I need to put the sauce on the side or right on top? Someone might completely abandon the dish altogether and opt for something else if the sauce is wrong. Interestingly enough, the sauce isn’t required to consume the meal, it's just… a little something extra. The sauce is what gives it that hint of delightful-ness, making it feel personal and customized.
User Interface Designers have the very important task of taking all of those golden nuggets (organically sourced by the User Experience Designer/Researcher) and applying those insights to make the digital product feel personal and customized. The UI designer makes the sauce from scratch. The UXer is there to validate ideas and concepts and represent the user’s perspective and tell if the sauce is too sweet, too spicy or just right.
This is one reason why personas (something you can make with all of your golden nuggets) are so important. The sauce for one group may or may not be the preferred sauce for another group.
Why secret sauce? Do you really think you will ever find out what’s in your friend’s great grandma’s sauce that you can still close your eyes and remember from 15 years ago? No! The same amount of sanctity that goes into guarding generational-family recipes is the same energy and reverence your UI development team should have around their golden-nugget inspired designs. You guard that like a beast and never let anyone know what makes it so good.
Step 4: Plating
Design Phase: Development
They say we eat with our eyes first. The same is true for consuming digital products.
The entire packaging, or plating, is just as important as all of the goodness waiting inside. If it's not inviting or doesn’t contain a clear point of entry, you’re already looking at a loss. User frustration created upon entry alone is the biggest barrier to overcome. If you’ve ever watched a cooking competition like Chopped, a show which gives chefs all of the same ingredients and they must create memorable dishes in a limited period, many times the final judgment comes down to presentation. Let me reiterate, all of the ingredients can be the same, it's just a matter of what they did with them.
Research shows it can take just three seconds to form an impression. Once that first impression is created, that’s it. You simply never get a first chance again. Plating or presentation is just as important as all of the research and preparation it took you to get to this point.
This is where the UI Designers and Developers comes into play.
How should the products’ industry determine the design? Will users be consuming this mostly on desktop or mobile? Is this an activity or goal the user can achieve in a few hours or minutes? Is it a high stake or low stake action? Finding just the right plate and presentation to accommodate all of this will take some work but it makes all the difference in the experience.
Understanding how form and function intersect with the user’s tasks and goals is at the forefront of this phase. As Marshall McLuhan said, "The medium is the message." This could not be truer than the work and resources which go into sound UI design and development.
Step 5: Enjoying golden nuggets in secret sauce.
Design Phase: Deployment & Observation
Come and get it! Your digital delight is now ready for your user! All of the work, love, and revisions you’ve crafted into your experience can now be enjoyed.
Just as it can take hours to cook a holiday meal only to see it devoured in minutes, the same is true for watching a user experience your product for the first time. As painful as that may be, it's better the more the users and clients breeze through. Don’t expect comments on how fantastic the button placement is, or how your research drastically reduced their cognitive load when making a selection from multiple items on the screen, or how they were able to seamlessly navigate between multiple levels without hitting the help button once. You’ll never hear feedback like that. So don’t hold your breath for it.
Any good technology solution should feel invisible to the user, effortless to use and brings about positive results. Good, sound digital products should be a vehicle for users to complete tasks while never feeling like work; to enhance their life in a way they needed and may never have been aware of before. As stated in Jeff Bezo's 2016 Amazon letter to stakeholders:
“Even when they [customers] don’t yet know it, customers want something better, and your desire to delight customers will drive you to invent on their behalf. No customer ever asked Amazon to create the Prime membership program, but it sure turns out they wanted it...”
Most times what your users need they will never tell you outright, and the best feedback can be not getting any immediate feedback at all.
Digital products should be in a constant state of ‘just good enough for now’ in order to ship out the door...otherwise, you’ll end up with an endless backlog screaming ‘analysis paralysis’ at you at 3am in the morning. Just be real with yourself: perfection is impossible, the back-log will never be empty, and failing fast is better than not doing anything at all. Sometimes striving for ‘good enough’ is the best you can do, and that’s OK because your work will continue on. With any craft, whether it’s fine dining or digital product design, the design process never ends. We lather, rinse, and repeat... going back to our users to begin the cycle again.
In conclusion, to deliver a full delightful digital experience it's not just about the nuggets or the sauce... and to be honest most users will probably ignore the plate too. It’s about all of it...together. When it's finally all there and working in perfect synchronicity, (that is hopefully ignored), hearing a passing comment of ‘yeah, that was pretty nice’ is when you know you did your job well.
As the Senior UX Engineer for ElToro, Francesca ‘Frankie’ Socolick is focused on delivering the delight to digital and non-digital products and services. When she’s not behind a computer, you can find her writing and performing with her sketch comedy group, Sketchy Stuff.