Deconstructing UX design

Authors: Monica Granfield
Posted: Wed, October 09, 2013 - 12:39:16

In engineering there is reverse engineering, the process by which you take something apart to see how it was built. This is a great way to learn how something is made, what worked, what’s broken and why, what can be done differently, and how something can be improved. I wonder how this process could translate to UX. 

Deconstructing a user experience, asking why and wondering how the design came to be, is a process from which designers can learn. It's easier in some instances to explain and recall what you don't like about something than what you did like, and we tend to deconstruct something when we consider it inadequate, as a means to improve and create something better. Examining an appealing or successful design is an equally valuable, but not as obvious, exercise.

I seem to find myself deconstructing how something was designed all the time. My husband refers to this as the curse of the designer. From the design of a car’s dashboard to a screen on a website, I continuously find myself imagining what design tradeoffs may have been made to arrive at the current design, and what is working or how a process could be improved upon to create a better experience. While waiting to board a recent flight, my son and I spent a good deal of the time in what felt like an endless line, speculating why the boarding process was operating as such. It was a fun and imaginative exercise, and while passing the time we came up with some good ideas on boarding processes, ourselves. 

I recently went through the exercise of deconstructing the design of the shift stick in my new car. I am very unhappy with the design, as I feel it is awkward and poses a high safety risk. I went so far as to bring the car back, as I thought it was defective. I was told this was not a defect, that you could actually shift gears while driving if you accidentally hit the shift stick. I deconstructed the design with a few passengers, in my car, for additional input and insight. This was a helpful exercise in forming my understanding of what I considered to be a poor design. It did not, however, increase my empathy for the design. In fact it made me even more dissatisfied with the design and any tradeoffs that may have occurred. How could a design tradeoff have been made around such a risky safety issue? Placing the shift stick in the direct path of the drivers reach to dashboard controls like the defroster, heat, and radio presents a good chance for the driver to accidentally hit the shift into another gear while driving. One occurrence of this incident was frightening enough that I had to think twice about keeping the car. Any understanding of this design did not build empathy, just frustration and concern. Deconstructing design is an opportunity for a designer to build empathy with users and improve how to think about design and solutions. Understanding why a designer or manufacturer cut corners will not build empathy with your users. It might just do quite the opposite. A user does not care about tradeoffs or deadlines; they care about accomplishing their tasks with ease. 

As designers we are trained to critique, to question, to explain, to imagine. In real life we encounter tradeoffs, egos, delivery dates, standards, budgets. Understanding how a design evolves based on these factors is an important aspect of deconstructing and understanding a design. Deconstructing a design or an experience can be very informative and act as an opportunity for in-depth learning. By looking at what we don't think works we can create something that does. By looking at what we think works well, we can learn more about creating a good experience. Sometimes the how and why behind a design is obvious, sometimes it is not. Learning to deconstruct designs is interesting, informative, and an important learning experience from which to improve our own designs.

Posted in: on Wed, October 09, 2013 - 12:39:16

Monica Granfield

Monica Granfield is a user experience strategist at Go Design LLC.
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